by Dr. Tim Moore
Recently, I’ve been reading “prison letters.” I find the experience of reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison depressing. It has been a very different experience than reading MLK’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Elie Wiesel’s Night, or Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. Each of them was a survivor. Bonhoeffer never walked free again. During the first year of his imprisonment, he wrote to his fiancé and to his parents of hope that he would have a trial date and would be released on the trumped up charges the Nazis had created. It is clear by the second year that he is aware that he will probably never be released and his only earthly hope of getting out alive is a quick end of the war.
It is however in the second year of his imprisonment that his writing takes on a much deeper level. In the first year of his imprisonment his writing is focused on his assimilation to prison life, concern for his fiancé and family, hope for a trial date, frustration when trail dates are postponed and, most obviously, a hope for being released from prison. By the second year of his imprisonment such “hope” is gone. It frees him to write philosophically and theologically in a more unattached way. It is almost as if he is already an outside observer to our human existence. In one sense he is already dead. The life he knew before he was arrested, before the plot to assassinate Hitler, before the foundation of the Confessing Church as a protest to the Lutheran Church, which supported Hitler, this life was gone. He was buried alive in prison. He could write to family and friends from the grave, even have short, supervised visits with a few of them once or twice a month. But they were visiting the living dead. Bonhoeffer admits in one letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge that he purposely focuses his attention to thinking and writing to avoid his own personal desires, which would be “simply self-torture.” In this way he lived beyond his life.
Christian mystics describe something like Bonhoeffer’s experience. That in the hours, or days, of meditation and solitude they transcend their own lives – forgetting their desires, detaching from their lives – which opens them to God in new and profound ways. But then, of course, their period of meditation ends, and they return to their lives, return from the dead. It is however different for Bonhoeffer, who knows he is under a death sentence. In that sense his writings are sacred, words shared from one whose life is gone but whose heart still beats. It’s also why reading “prison letters” are unlike any other reading.
Tim Moore is the Pastor of Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte. http://www.sardisbaptistcharlotte.org/home. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, Signposts.