Rowan Williams: Bonhoeffer, Lent, and Freedom

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Anglican Archbishop of Cantebury, Rowan Williams, preached at King’s School Canterbury on the first Sunday of Lent this year. He took his text from Confessing Church theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the nature of true freedom and what it means that “the truth shall set you free.” Quiet contemplation and learning to release the “fictions” of our lives are part of the Lenten practice.

You can read Williams’ entire sermon or listen to it here. Below is the opening section:

In 1939, the young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was in New York, exploring whether he should stay there as pastor to the German emigrants in the city and considering a string of invitations to lecture in the United States.  He had made himself deeply unpopular with the German regime, making broadcasts critical of Hitler and running a secret training institution for pastors in Germany who could not accept the way that the Nazi state was trying to control the Church.

But, after a draining inner struggle, he decided to sail back to Germany.  In July 1939, after just over a month in New York, he left – knowing that he was returning to a situation of extreme danger.  Six years later, he was dead, executed for treason in a concentration camp, leaving behind him one of the greatest treasure of modern Christianity in the shape of the letters he wrote to family and close friends from prison.  He had left behind the chance of freedom as most of us would understand it and plunged into a complex and risky world, getting involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, living as a double agent, daily facing the prospect of arrest, torture and death.

But freedom was one of the things he most often wrote about.  In a famous poem he wrote in July 1944, he sketched out what he thought was involved in real freedom – discipline, action, suffering and death.  Not quite what we associate with the word – but with these reflections, he takes us into the heart of what it is for someone to be lastingly free.

The freedom he is interested in is the freedom to do what you know you have to do.  The society you live in will give you all sorts of messages about what you should be doing, and, far more difficult, your own longings and preferences will push you in various directions.  You have to watch your own passions and feelings and test them carefully, and then you have to have the courage to act.  When you act, you take risks.  You seemingly become less free.  But what is really happening is that you are handing over your freedom to God and saying, ‘I’ve done what I had to; now it’s over to you.’  Freedom, he says, is ‘perfected in glory’ when it’s handed over to God.  And this finds its climax in the moment of death, when we step forward to discover what has been hidden all along – the eternal freedom of God, underlying everything we have thought and done. … —Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Cantebury

Read Rowan Williams’ complete sermon.

Nonviolence: What About Hitler?

12whiteroseIn any in-depth conversation about the effectiveness of nonviolence as a strategy, this question always comes up: Would these nonviolent strategies have worked against the Nazis? What about Hitler?

Even the great Mohandas Gandhi – progenitor of modern nonviolence – knew that nonviolence against Hitler would cost many lives.

“The doctrine of Satyagraha works on the principle that you make the so called enemy see and realize the injustice he is engaged in. It can work only when you believe in God and the goodness of the people to see that they are wrong. As a satyagrahi, I  do believe that non-violence is a potent weapon against all evils. I warn you however, that the victory will not come easy- just like it will not come easy with violent methods such as fighting with weaponry.”

(Also read Gandhi’s 1939 letter Is Non-Violence Ineffective? on the actions of Martin Niemoeller and the Confessing Church.)

Jørgen Johansen, a lecturer in conflict studies, has led nonviolence trainings in Israel, Mozambique, India, and Chechnya. He recently posted an essay called Hitler and the Challenge of Non-Violence that briefly takes on this issue.

“What effect could nonviolence have had against Hitler?” says Johansen. “This is one of the most frequent questions I get when I lecture on nonviolence. And it is a good one. To answer we need to look at different phases of the conflict and recognise the complexity of a world war.”

Below is an excerpt:

The German army was well prepared to meet armed resistance, but less able to cope with strikes, civil disobedience, boycotts and other forms of nonviolent action. A famous example is when the Norwegian teachers were told to join the Nazi party and teach Nazism in schools or face the consequences. When 12,000 teachers signed a declaration against the new law, 1000 were arrested and sent to prison camps. But the strike continued and after some months the order was cancelled and they were allowed to continue their work. In a speech, Quisling summarised: “You teachers have destroyed everything for me!”  We can just imagine what would have been the consequences if many professions had followed in the footsteps of these teachers. Or if they had prepared such actions well in advance and even had exercises prior to the invasion.

Independent news is crucial for any opposition movement. That is why censorship is enforced when a regime wants to control the masses. Despite threats of brutal punishment, illegal newspapers were published by many clandestine groups in occupied territories during WWII. In France the first leaflet was published as early as September 1940. In Munich, the “White Rose” students initiated a leaflet campaign from June 1942 to February the following year calling for active opposition to Hitler’s regime. The original group was arrested and executed but later their manifesto was distributed in Scandinavia and the UK and even dropped over Germany from Allied planes. What would have been the result of such actions if they had been well planned and executed in most cities suffering under German atrocities?

Despite massive propaganda and brutal punishment for those who refused to take part, many opposed this genocide. In Denmark almost all Jews survived because they were helped by the resistance movement to escape to Sweden and avoid the gas chambers.

In Bulgaria most of the country’s 48,000 Jews were saved when leaders of the Orthodox Church and farmers in the northern stretches of the country threatened to lie across railroad tracks to prevent Jews from being deported. This pressure encouraged the Bulgarian parliament to resist the Nazis, who eventually rescinded the deportation order, saving almost all of the country’s 48,000 Jews.

Even in Germany itself people opposed the arrests. In one famous example 6000 “Aryan” German women took part in a nonviolent protest in February and March 1943, outside the prison in Rosenstrasse in Berlin, to get their Jewish husbands and friends released. Thanks to these brave women 1700 prisoners were indeed released. These examples illustrate that some groups have more impact than others. It was difficult for the Nazis to attack German women.

Read Johansen’s whole article here.