In a very strange way, we are indebted to the Nazi Gestapo for Dietrich Bonhoeffer's remarkable book, Life Together. When the Confessing Church pledged their allegiance to Jesus Christ above Adolf Hitler, they removed themselves from the so-called German Christians and formed a new denomination. They started an underground seminary and Dietrich Bonhoeffer was universally chosen to lead and teach that seminary.
The seminary was forced to move several times in order to stay ahead of the Gestapo, who would have closed them down. Eventually, the seminary relocated to Finkenwalde. That would be the final site of the illegal seminary. It was there that the Gestapo finally closed them down. The seminarians were scattered and Bonhoeffer realized that the studies and daily life of the seminary must be recorded for history but also to show the worldwide church what was needed in order to promote a life of community.
So, with this sense of urgency, Bonhoeffer and his best friend Eberhard Bethge took themselves to the empty home of Dietrich's twin sister Sabine and began to work on this book. Sabine and her husband Gerhard Leibholz were forced to flee Germany when Gerhard had been dismissed from his professorship at Göttingen due to his Jewish lineage, even though Gerhard was a baptized Christian. Dietrich and Eberhard had helped the family flee into Switzerland. Later the family would immigrate to Oxford, England.
Eberhard recalled that Dietrich worked on the manuscript almost nonstop. This was in 1938. It was during this time that Hitler seized and occupied the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. War seemed imminent until September 30th when Britain and France signed the Munich agreement, handing over the Sudetenland to the Nazis.
Also during that time, Dietrich and Eberhard became more and more concerned at the weakness that was growing in the Confessing Church. It seemed that they were constantly caving into Nazi threats. In the summer of 1938, a majority of the Confessing Church pastors had taken the personal oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler.
By this time, Dietrich and Eberhard were already aware of the conspiracy against Hitler. In fact, it was Dietrich's own brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi who was a key player in the conspiracy.
It should not be surprising to us that Dietrich spent a good deal of time addressing the issue of what it means for a Christian to live in the middle of his/her enemies. Indeed, Dietrich was experiencing that very thing. After the crisis of 1938, Dietrich felt it was even more important for him to tell others about his experience in community and how he felt that the life together in the Finkenwalde seminary could contribute to the ever-widening questions of Christian faith, Christian community, and the nature of the church itself in a world where destructive forces were bearing down on them.
In Dietrich's own preface to the book, he wrote: The subject matter I am presenting here is such that any further development can take place only through a common effort. We are not dealing with the concern of some private circles but with a mission entrusted to the church. Because of this, we are not searching for more or less haphazard individual solutions to a problem. This is, rather, a responsibility to be undertaken by the church as a whole. There is a hesitation evident in the way this task has been handled. Only recently has it been understood at all. But this hesitation must give way to the willingness of the church to assist in the work. The variety of new church forms of community makes it necessary to enlist the vigilant cooperation of every responsible party. The following remarks are intended to provide only one individual contribution toward answering the extensive questions that have been raised. As much as possible, may these comments help to clarify this experience and put it into practice.
What follows in the pages of Life Together is one of the most extraordinary examples in the whole history of Christianity on what it means to live in community. It is fitting that this book has become so important for us during the isolation of the pandemic.
[Next week: Chapter One – Community]
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