Bonhoeffer's "After Ten Years" essay in 'Letters and Papers from Prison' is Relevant Still Today

On a recent visit to the University of Illinois' library, I saw this special display, "Crossing the Skyline: Architecture, Literature, and Incarceration." The focus of the display includes banned books, such as W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk, and books authored from the confines of prison, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer's posthumous collection of meditations from Tegel prison, Letters and Papers from Prison (the blue book in the middle there; compiled and edited by Bonhoeffer's dear friend, Eberhard Bethge).

Letters and Papers opens with Bonhoeffer's famous meditation, "After Ten Years" (1943), in which he reflects on life in German society ten years after the infamous "Aryan Paragraph" which codified and legitimized hegemonic persecution of non-Aryans by the Nazi regime.

Ten years later, from a prison cell, Bonhoeffer looks back down the corridors of a horrific decade during which the Confessing Church formed and acted in resistance to the capitulation of the German Christian Church and its compromise with Adolph Hitler. (Bonhoeffer, for what its worth, was an even more minor voice within the minority Confessing Church; he felt the Confessing Church was not radical enough in its resistance of Nazism and responsible action toward suffering neighbors.)

I can't recommend this essay enough, let alone the entire corpus of Bonhoeffer's works (of which I have certainly not read the majority).

Some of his words hold stinging insight for our situation in 2020 America amid the regrettable state of our nation's leadership and the surrounding partisan, identity politics and ideology, and the unfortunate capitulation of American conservative evangelical leaders and churches to a President.

"Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good and evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defence. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved - indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous...

If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or relgious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted or destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and - more or less unconsciously - give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves...

The Bible's words that 'the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom' (Ps. 111:10) tell us that a person's inward liberation to live a responsible life before God is the only real cure for folly." (pp.8-9)

"Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God - the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?" (p.5)

"...and some Christians think it impious for anyone to hope and prepare for a better earthly future. They think that the meaning of present events is chaos, disorder, and catastrophe; and in resignation or pious escapism they surrender all responsibility for reconstruction and for future generations. It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; in that case, we shall gladly stop working for a better future. But not before." (pp. 15-16)

"There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled - in short, from the perspective of those who suffer." (p. 17)

So, the questions in response for us:
What is the narrow way of sacrificial, responsible action in faith for us today?
How do we live with hope, anticipating God's eternal future with our faith and action?
Are we sympathetic and compassionate toward the suffering of those "from below" and how ought that perspective to shape our responsibility in society?
How is the Christian, and the church, in America to act in relationship to Washington? Our allegiance is to Christ and his kingdom, but the church is not apolitical - anyone who wishes to "stay out of politics" speaks from a place of privilege it seems.


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