A message for Easter and Passover from our Chair, the Rt Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave OBE:
Jews have been celebrating Passover this year, and Christians Easter, in the most unusual and testing of circumstances. It would have been easy in all this to miss one anniversary that fell in the middle of these festivals. On Thursday 9 April, I was pleased to receive an invitation to participate that night in an international Zoom memorial seminar to mark the 75th anniversary of the execution in Flossenburg concentration camp of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on 9 April 1945.
Bonhoeffer is widely revered for his courageous witness against the evils of National Socialism, and cited as a modern Christian martyr. The question of his attitude to Jewish people is more ambiguous. On the one hand, he was certainly shaped by the anti-Judaic theology of his church tradition, and when in the 1930s he was involved in building the Confessing Church movement, his primary concern was for the integrity of the church’s life, and to safeguard within that the place of Christians of Jewish heritage. His 1933 essay On the Jewish Question, while clear about the need to defend Jewish people, was still set in a mind-set of Christian superiority and the need for conversion. On the other hand, he was unquestionably revolted by Nazi antisemitism and resolutely committed to combatting it; he saw its campaign against Jewish people as a sign of its godlessness. The events of Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, were pivotal in deepening his understanding: in the margin of his Bible, he wrote the date November 10, 1938 next to the words of Psalm 74, verse 8: “They said in their hearts, let us plunder their goods! They burn all the houses of God in the land . . . O God, how long is the foe to scoff? How long will the enemy revile your name?” From the late 1930s onwards, he saw the need to be in solidarity not just with Jewish Christians but with Jewish people more widely, as the primary targets in his time of discrimination, vilification and ultimately genocide.
About the need to combat injustice Bonhoeffer was very clear, and it was this that led him ultimately to take such a forthright political stance. He wrote that the church needed to fight on three levels: first, to question state injustice; second, to help the victims of injustice, whether church members or not; but third, the church might find itself called ‘not only to help the victims who have fallen under the wheel, but to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself’ in order to halt the machinery of injustice. This is a powerful message, which I believe speaks to both our religious communities and all our religious organisations. It is also a timely message. In our Zoom meeting, we talked about the way in which a crisis like that we are currently experiencing can create global insecurity, and that can lead to growing suspicion of one another, increasing divisiveness, and the exploitation of ancient hatreds. Bonhoeffer’s witness to a higher loyalty, a wider belonging, and a deeper sense of solidarity with people different from us may be needed more than ever in the months to come.
In a further echo of our times, Bonhoeffer’s last and most influential writings were born out of isolation, from his prison cell; there he was, as many are today, particularly aware of his mortality. From that solitude, though, knowing himself to be ‘sheltered in God’, he was able to face the complexities of his life and his world with a remarkable directness and an adamantine integrity. In the collection Letters and Papers from Prison, the poem ‘Stations on the Road to Freedom’, written in Tegel military prison in July 1944, includes these lines on ‘Action’:
Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you,
valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting –
freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing.
Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action,
trusting in God whose commandment you faithfully follow;
freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.