Tag Archives: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Liberation of Auchwitz

“Only the person who cries out for the Jews
may sing Gregorian chant.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Seventy years ago today the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated.

An era ended – an era of mass extermination of Jews, the handicapped, homosexuals, and others.

The failure of many, including the Church, to stand up against Hitler struck me deeply in the early sixties, when I was in high school.

I continue to look at those who did speak up and who paid the price, especially people like the Austrian peasant Franz Jägerstätter as well as Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose.

The stories of people who hid Jews and others touches me deeply, especially the story of André and Magda Trocmé and the village of Le Chambon in France.

The failure to speak out awakened me to the need to be a witness against all injustice.

The witness of those who did stand up for the Jews inspires me to do just that.

From where we stand

Today is the anniversary of the execution in 1945 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, who opposed Hitler.

He had the chance to stay in New York City and avoid returning to Nazi Germany. This would have saved his life, but he decided that he needed to be in Germany, especially if he hoped to be part of the rebuilding of Germany after the war.

Where we stand is important. Where we walk and the people we encounter influence the way we look at the world, the way we live our faith.

I believe that that means being with the suffering, the poor, the marginalized – in some way or another. Then I think we will begin to understand the world, history, and ourselves.

As Bonhoeffer once wrote:

We have for once learnt to see the events of history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.

A few days ago, I encountered this quote from Robert McAfee Brown, a US theologian, who was very sympathetic to Latin American liberation theology.

Stand up and speak on behalf of the poor
and those who need your voice in this world.
Remember that:
Where you stand will determine what you see;
Whom you stand with will determine what you hear;
What you see and hear will determine what you say and how you act.

For some, this might seem to be a secular, merely sociological reflection on the human way of understanding things.

But I think it is essential a Christ-centered approach. Jesus is God who became flesh and situated Himself in the midst of the pain, the suffering, the oppression, and the poverty of first century Galilee and Judea.

He thus provides His followers with a key to understand life, to understand history, to help make sense of our world – in the midst of the suffering.

And so meditating on the Passion of Christ should open ourselves to the suffering world. As Thomas Merton wrote in A Vow of Conversation:

 We have to see history as a book that is sealed and opened only by the Passion of Christ. But we prefer to read it from the viewpoint of the Beast. We look at history in terms of hubris and power — in terms of the beast and his values. Christ continues to suffer his passion in the poor, the defenseless, and his Passion destroys the Beast. Those who love power are destroyed together with what they love. Meanwhile, Christ is in agony until the end of time.

This is I think what has happened to so many who commit themselves to the poor. It is certainly what happened to Cardinal Raúl Silva who, as archbishop of Santiago, Chile, defended the poor and the oppressed during the dictatorship of Pinochet. He died fifteen years ago today, on April 9, 1999. In his Spiritual Testament he wrote:

My word is a word of love for the poor. Since I was a child I have loved and admired them. The sorrow and the misery in which so many of my brothers and sisters live in this land have moved me enormously. That misery is neither human nor Christian. I humbly ask that all efforts, possible and impossible, be made to eradicate extreme poverty in Chile. We can do it is a current of solidarity and generosity is promoted in all the inhabitants of this country. The poor have honored me with their loving affection. Only God knows how grateful I am for the affection they have shown me and their adherence to the Church.


Gregorian chant and the Holocaust

“Only the person who cries out for the Jews
may sing Gregorian chant.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Today is the anniversary of the liberation in 1945 of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration- and death-camp where millions of Jews and others were killed.

Almost ten years ago, before going to visit to the Holy Land I watched a video on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who resisted the Nazis and was executed for his involvement on a scheme to assassinate Hitler.

In the video I encountered the words that begin this post: “Only the person who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

These words struck me deeply.

How can we sing to the Lord, with the contemplative melodies of Gregorian chant, if we do not speak up for those who are oppressed?

Since learning about the Holocaust in the early 1960s, I found myself troubled by the lack of open resistance by leaders of the Catholic Church. There were some who spoke out. Others did help Jews escape the Nazis. But my impression, then and now, is that the Catholic Church was too careful, perhaps fearing persecution and losing political power.

How often do we fail to do what is right out of fear? How often do we fail to take risks because we don’t want to lose power or influence? How often do we speak “prudently” so as not to offend?

My visit to the Holy Land includes a visit to the church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem – the reputed site of the birth of Mary.

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

The twelfth century church has an incredible resonance. I noted that as I spoke quietly to my friend who had shown me the church and the nearby ruins of the Pool of Bethesda.

Almost without thinking I quietly and slowly sang the Regina Coeli, the Easter hymn in honor of Mary. My words resounded from the walls.

I later reflected that I had sung Gregorian Chant. But am I willing to speak out for the oppressed – Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land, as well as the people I now serve in Latin America?

Remembering the Holocaust moves me to recommit myself to stand firm and speak out for the oppressed – not matter now quietly.

Even our quiet songs can resound throughout the world – as my voice did in Saint Anne’s Church in Jerusalem.

What is important is that we speak.

Seeing from below

On April 9, 1945, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was hanged for his participation in a plot to overthrow Hitler.

Bonhoeffer became, for many, an example of resistance to evil. His writings, especially those from prison, moved many to see that faith is not something that we only go to in times of trouble and that the Church must not turn in on herself.

He also saw that we must begin to understand the world in a different way, from below, an insight related to the preferential option for the poor that arose in Latin America in the late 1960s.

We stated what might be called “the preferential hermeneutic of the poor.” We can understand what is happening better if we look at it from the perspective of the poor.

We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer…. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.

Bonhoeffer lived this out. In 1939 he found himself in New York City, protected from the Nazis who were closing in on him for his work with the Confessing Church. But he decided to return to Germany, even though it would be dangerous.

For Bonhoeffer, following Christ means taking up the Cross, being willing to suffer – not from masochism or denial of the good of the world God has created. Following Christ means, as Bonhoeffer noted, being willing to suffer and die, to give oneself for others.

I think he was able to do this because he let himself be touched by the suffering around him and saw Christ Jesus, our Lord, as one who suffered and helps us see the world from the perspective of the suffering.

That’s not easy – but I think it’s essential and, when done with love, can bring deep joy.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Gregorian chant

On April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor and theologian was put to death by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler.

His story and his theology are an inspiration to many. His notion of costly grace is a great antidote to the cheap grace being sold to much of Christianity.

His was a theology that saw the need to be BOTH transcendent and imminent – looking beyond this world, but also totally submerged in the reality of the world we live in. As he wrote from prison to his betrothed, “I am afraid that Christians who dare to stand with only one leg on earth, stand with only one leg in heaven.”

But a quote of his from about 1938 has affected me deeply:

“Only he who cries [out] for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

That makes sense to me. The failure of much of the churches to speak clearly and openly against the persecution of Jews is a blot on the church. I know some religious  leaders did speak up. Others quietly rescued Jews. But there was much “prudential” silence.

Enlarging the context of the quote I think we might say today that only the person who cries [out] for the persecuted and suffering may sing Gregorian chant.

I love chant.

I remember the occasion in 2004 when I sang a chant, the Regina Coeli, the Easter hymn to Mary, in the church of St. Ann in Jerusalem. The church has the most incredible reverberation and I decided to sing. I was inspired to sing that beautiful chant.

As I reflected later I realized that I needed to cry not only for the Jews, but also for the Palestinians.

Today, I’d also say we need to cry out for the Iraqis, Afghanis, Hondurans, and many others. Then we can sing Gregorian chant.