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Sabbath Day – Germany I: Tegel Prison

March 3, 2016

My Sabbath Day today will largely be spent in NYC, marching with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, urging Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program (for reasons described in the mid-week email of the congregation I serve). My wife and I are taking our son out of school early so that he can participate in, and promote, radical democracy.

As I start my thirteenth month of reading multi-national literature I have found myself fascinated with prison literature. This is, no doubt, because I am studying mass incarceration with the congregation I serve, but also because I have noted many times, over the last twelve months, how much of our world’s literature has been shaped by trauma, national upheaval, imprisonment or exile.

I will postpone reading the more obvious Letters and Papers from Prison in favor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Fiction from the Tegel Prison from the Volume 7 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. This volume contains a play in three acts, a short novel, and a short story. In each work Bonhoeffer was mixing autobiography with characters and situations that represent Nazi types and attitudes as a form of social criticism. Mostly, he was working out the existential threat of death which hung over him with an articulation of a theology of resistance. I started the volume by chance one evening after preaching about the interplay of life and death, freedom and fear,] that characterize Christian existence. This was at the funeral of a church member. Mixing my own grief with my knowledge of Bonhoeffer’s life made the fiction, and the play in particular, quite moving.


My son is quite aware of my love of all things Bonhoeffer, and has recently commented on Bonhoeffer’s resistance to fascism and our current opposition to Donald Trump. (We struggle to elevate his nine-year old’s opposition to Trump above the level set by the Republican Debates, which are little more than kindergarten squabbles and elementary school bullying). [The caption with the photo below was something like “You’re the one who thought letting them watch the Republican Debates would be an educational experience.“]


With my son’s observations in mind, I share the following monologue from Bonhoeffer’s short novel, written in prison:

As long as we are children, we may indulge in such dreams of our little ego’s world dominion. In our naïveté we may even delight in finding that we have followers when others believe in our dreams. But what a following! Weaklings, flatterers, and, at best, dreamers themselves! The sooner we learned that by such dreams we sin against life itself, the better. But adults who still haven’t learned this are disastrous for the people who live with them – and in the end for themselves too. Smashing in another’s skull, literally or figuratively, just because they are different, has very little to do with character. Indeed, it takes much more character to understand one another and to get along without losing oneself in the process. Getting along with others without smashing in one another’s skulls is life’s real task. How naïve is the person who regards this as weakness and cowardly surrender. No, precisely here is where people really struggle and wrestle, often for a long time, tenaciously, with infinite effort, before taking one step forward.

Bonhoeffer’s fiction perfectly captured the ironies of personal and communal grief mixed with existential political threat. It also contains the faithful resistance and political price paid to remain Christian within structures of accepted oppression. Will return to his prison writings in weeks to come.


I found Bonhoeffer ready-at-hand this week since I recently read Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and An Ethic of Resistance (2014), which argues for the formative and defining experience of worship and teaching at Abyssinian Baptist Church on Bonhoeffer’s later theology, and his reading of the Christian literature of Harlem on Bonhoeffer’s developing view of suffering and responsibility. It is a very convincing read, which has me imagining Bonhoeffer pouring over a copy of Darkwater by W.E.B. DuBois, listening to Countee Cullen’s “The Black Christ,” or meditating on a sermon by Adam Clayton Powell Sr. These all informed Bonhoeffer’s reflections on Apartheid South Africa in his Prison Literature.


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