So much strength to resist ! Read Bonhoeffer in critical times (2) Sunday, 5 April 2020

Christians stand by God in God’s own pain

1. People go to God when they’re in need,   

plead for help, pray for blessing and bread,

for rescue from their sickness, guilt, and death.

So do they all, all of them, Christians and heathens.

2. People go to God when God’s in need,    

find God poor, reviled, without shelter or bread,

see God devoured by sin, weakness, and death.

Christians stand by God in God’s own pain.

3. God goes to all people in their need,

fills body and soul with God’s own bread,

goes for Christians and heathens to Calvary’s death

and forgives them both..

TEXT:   Poem “Christians and Heathens”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8, Letters and Papers from Prison, Prologue, 46, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2009.


“To resist” starts with “to stand”. In these days in Passion time my inner ear hears  J.S.Bach’s Choral setting in St. Matthew Passion of Paul Gerhardts words: 

“I shall stand here beside you. But do not despise me!”

It strikes me as remarkable Dietrich Bonhoeffer does not put into words in any of the ten poems he wrote in prison the relationship to Jesus Christ which is the center of his theology. That’s not true! In “Christians and Heathens” we meet God in Jesus Christ.

In his detention cell, where he cannot walk five steps, Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of people walking as in a procession of the laborious and laden through the centuries     (1st stanza) and of the reversal: of God’s going to people with his bread. What happens in the 2nd stanza?

In his letter of July 18, 1944, he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge:

The poem “Christians and Heathens” includes a thought that you will recognize here.   “Christians stand by God in god’s own pain” – that distinguishes Christians from heathens. “Could you not stay awake with me one hour?” Jesus asks in Gethsemane. That is the opposite of everything a religious person expects from God. The human being is called upon to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world … It is not a religious act that makes someone a Christian, but rather sharing in God’s suffering in the worldly life. That is “Metanoia”, not thinking first of one’s own needs, questions, sins, and fears but allowing oneself to be pulled into walking the path that Jesus walks, into the messianic event, in which Isaiah 53 is now fulfilled! [“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases”]

Between the God to whom people go hoping for his omnipotence (“Allmacht”) and God who, by overcoming death, forgives everyone – Christians and Heathens – we encounter God in his helplessness (“Ohnmacht”), “devoured by sin, weakness, and death”.

The contradiction between omnipotence and powerlessness that goes beyond our minds is cancelled in the empathy of God. It’s the dialectic of empathy to unite helplessness and help: God resists death – the greatest contradiction to life – by taking it upon himself.

The empathy of God makes the walking of the Christian a stand. “Christians stand by God in God’s own pain.” In their empathy, they allow themselves to be drawn into His suffering in others. It is – following Jesus – “this life of participating in God’s powerlessness in the world.”


To Eberhard Bethge, August 21.1944, a birthday letter on August 28, 1944

with reference to the Daily Text for August 28 from 2 Cor. 1:20:

“For in him every one of God’s promises is a Yes.”

A week from today is your birthday. I looked at the Daily Texts again and meditated for a while on them. I think everything depends on the words “in Him”. Everything we may with some good reason expect or beg of God is to be found in Jesus Christ. What we imagine a God could and should do – the God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with all that. We must immerse ourselves again and again, for a long time and quite calmly, in Jesus’ life, his sayings, actions, suffering, and dying in order to recognize what God promises and fulfills. What is certain is that we may always live aware that God is near and present with us and that this life is an utterly new life for us; that there is nothing that is impossible for us anymore because there is nothing that is impossible for God; that no earthly power can touch us without God’s will, and that danger nd urgent need can only drive us closer to God. What is certain is that we have no claim, on anything but may ask for everything; what is certain is that in suffering lies hidden the source of our joy, in dying the source of our life; what is certain is that in all this we stand within a community that carries us. To all this, God has said Yes and Amen in Jesus. This Yes and Amen is the solid ground upon which we stand.

TEXT: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8, Letters and Papers from Prison, 514 f., Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2009.

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