Lesson 4: Letters and Papers from Prison: Observations

Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from PrisonMy primary goal when I started rereading the Letters was to examine what Bonhoeffer means about the need for a religionless Christianity in our world come of age. He repeatedly claims that this demands brutal honesty in reading the scriptures and analyzing our society. It’s obvious he thought his two years in prison forced him to confront this truth at a deeper level and that his experiences reflect what is happening in the Nazi society outside. His faith is constantly being tested, much like that of everyone else in Germany. He occasionally maintains the new world visible during the terrible world war tests the faith of all living persons. And as I have reported previously, the reread also pushed me to be honest about our present state of affairs.

I think it is helpful to remember Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment prevented him from finishing what he thought was to be his life’s major work. Most of his short letters about religionless Christianity were written in the early months of his imprisonment and can be read as a continuation of his thought in the Ethics. There he described the world come of age as a new religion based on hostility towards God and the denial of reality. In other words, it is dishonest; it rests on a lie.

His first observation is that no one laughs in prison. Later, he says they also do not express fear. People who scream in fright during a bombing raid very quickly return to the normal day as if nothing happened. Bonhoeffer suggests the explanation lies in the danger of exhibiting or experiencing any exaggerated sentimentality in the tyranny of prison. I suggest this applies as well to the tyranny of the Nazi society.

This kind of emotional self-preservation is also evident when prisoners show no interest in anyone except themselves. Concerned only with the practicality of survival, they refuse to ponder deeper matters. They might worry about the act of dying but not death itself. They could care less about sin, their own or for that matter, others’. This is so pronounced that Bonhoeffer was careful to soft pedal confession when he offered prayers while leading worship.

The isolation of the individual is a big factor in tyranny. Bonhoeffer writes that the greatest pain of his imprisonment is being separated from loved ones, family and friends. He especially misses the table fellowship that is denied in all its forms in prison. He reports he has come to appreciate in a new way how much we all receive more than we give. This certainly contributes to his understanding that a religionless Christianity is a life given for others.

Throughout these letters you hear a 35-year-old man question the future. When he writes about the depression Luther experienced in his later years, he seems to wonder about his own work. When he speaks of Luther’s disappointment that his reformation did not lead to the freedom he expected, but rather to apathy and barbarism, you discern him worrying about his own projects.

On the other hand, he reports his faith helps him endure prison by not allowing fear and anxiety to magnify his situation. And he indicates the church year helps him keep time in a meaningful manner. Not only does it mark the days but also provokes thoughts about the profound themes that go with them.

It is worth noting as we prepare to examine religionless Christianity next week that he always accompanies these observations with a vehement claim that they have nothing to do with what he describes as the horror of religiosity. He is very careful about even mentioning God in prison conversations, comparing this to the refusal of Jews to utter the divine name.

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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. John Myers says:

    Bonhoeffer speaks to me in ways few others have. Letters and Papers from Prison is a book that does not receive enough study, in my opinion. Here we have an allegory for our earthly life – our earthly prison of sin. We deny reality, we embrace the lie, we must repent. We deny the reality of this prison. Bonhoeffer explains prison life in a comparison to life under constant bombing threat. Momentary fear and then life goes on as if nothing happened, never pondering or dwelling to support emotional self-preservation. I see this reflected in our earthly life and submit we must embrace repentance, prayer, and faith for freedom.

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      Thanks, John. It is interesting that a lot of people are sending personal emails expressing how much they appreciate Bonhoeffer. Yet we have next to no online comments and even the emails do not go into detail. I wonder if this is because the martyr challenges us so much our responses for a while have to be silent thought. So thanks for your thoughts.

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