Martin Marty’s Saint for Moderns: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Martin Marty (35 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Historian and theologian Martin Marty

Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be a saint by now if Protestants (Lutherans, in his case) sanctified their best. The historian Martin Marty brings him to life in conversation and gets quickly to the essential point of Bonhoeffer’s wide relevance today in a world where church life withers here and abounds elsewhere. Strictly orthodox at the same time he was blithely, instinctively informal, Bonhoeffer preached both the death of religion and Christian renewal. In his writing and his life Bonhoeffer seems to have anticipated the sense that religion is played out, almost disreputable; and still that the spark of the divine in man drives the visible and invisible life of the world.

The case for Bonhoeffer’s sainthood is easy on the grounds of his activism. He was a sweet-spirited martyr who’d returned to Germany from America in the summer of 1939, on the last free trans-Atlantic oceanliner before the War, knowing full well that he was sailing to his death, but having decided that the choice was between bringing down the Third Reich or bringing down Christian civilization. He said at the time: “I know which of those alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.” For his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Buchenwald, then Flossenburg, and hung on April 9, 1945, three weeks before Hitler killed himself. Bonhoeffer’s last words were “This is the end — for me the beginning of life.”

There’s another sort of immortality in Bonhoeffer’s writing. Martin Marty is decoding the ideas in some of his most famous phrases: “the cost of discipleship,” for example, and “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer’s most resonant line was to the effect that “when Jesus Christ calls a man, he calls him to die.” He knew the price that Christians of conviction were paying in Nazi Germany, and he listed them: “Gefallen… gefallen… gefallen.” He knew as well that the institutional weight of the churches would not save them: conventional worship had cheapened grace, and when the real thing showed up they would not recognize it. Philosophically and scientifically, Bonhoeffer wrote, the world had “come of age,” and the ritual and superstition of its adolescence were expendable. But the “arcane discipline” of Christianity seemed to Bonhoeffer as essentially lively as ever: the shared meal of bread and wine, “the language, the concern, the agenda, the action of the people with whom you’re bonded. These meanings of God are active.” It was a vitality that captured Bonhoeffer in African America — in the Abyssinian Baptist Church and other black churches of Harlem, when Bonhoeffer was studying at the Union Theological Seminary uptown in New York. I am reminded of the Czech composer Anton Dvorak, in New York a half-century earlier, hearing the future of serious music in the songs and spirituals, the “Songs of Zion” that came out of black slavery in America:

MM: They were looking for, and discerning, and finding, and making something of, to use a word that needs some defining, soul. One definition of soul, it comes from Aristotle via a lot of other people, is that soul is not a ghost in the machine, it’s not a pilot on a ship, it’s not Caspar the ghost. One scholar calls it the integrated, vital power of any organic body. That’s what these people heard — the Jewish white composers like Gershwin. How did they catch on so fast? They were looking for precisely this kind of thing, and we still call it soul music. He learned to find that in preaching. But he also never turned against high culture. When you read his books, they draw upon worship and music from all the ages… He once said you have no right to engage in a Gregorian chant unless you have spoken up for the Jews. He was looking for soul.

CL: Can you picture him as one man?

MM: Yes I can, because I think he had that integrative power of soul. Trying to discern the secret of people like this is always the hardest thing we do. One thing a leader does, he takes steps at high risk. At the theological schools they used to call it the hermeneutics of testimony. If you have something at stake, you’re going to be paid attention to in a different way. I knew Martin Luther King somewhat. I don’t know why it was, but I think everyone I knew pictured that he isn’t going to live a full life. Someday somebody is going to get him … Therefore what he said had to be measured. Gandhi was the same thing. Certainly Mandela: twenty-seven years in that prison, he could read out of a phonebook and I’d want to be there. And I think that’s what happened with Bonhoeffer.

Martin Marty in Chicago, with Chris Lydon in Providence, April 27, 2011.

Zesty, prolific Martin Marty was seized as a seminarian more than 50 years ago by the scattered writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which he helped to gather and publish. His new book is a “biography” (in the Princeton series) of Bonhoeffer’s last miscellany, Letters and Papers from Prison.

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    I. Father Jean Bernard
    Father Jean Bernard (13 August 1907 – 1 September 1994) was a Catholic priest from Luxembourg who was imprisoned from May 1941 to August 1942 in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. He was released for nine days in February 1942 and allowed to return to Luxembourg, an episode which he later wrote about in his memoirs of the camp and which was turned into a film.
    Born in 1907, the sixth of ten children into the family of a Luxembourg businessman, he studied at the university of Louvain in Belgium and theology and philosophy at the Catholic seminary in Luxembourg. He was awarded a doctorate in philosophy in 1933. From 1934 he headed the international Catholic film bureau in Brussels until it was closed down by the Gestapo in June 1940. He then became involved in helping Luxembourg families who had fled to France ahead of the German forces to return to their home country.
    On 6 January 1941 he was arrested by the German occupation forces as a symbol of Luxembourg Catholic resistance to German occupation and that May sent to Dachau. Apparently intervention by his brother with senior Nazi officials in Paris secured his release in August 1942.
    After the war, Bernard served as the editor of the Luxemburger Wort, held senior positions in the Catholic Church in Luxembourg, and received many awards. He died on 1 September 1994.
    Father Bernard wrote the book “Pfarrerblock 25487” (ISBN 2-87963-286-2) about his experiences in Dachau. “Pfarrerblock 25487” was recently translated into English by Deborah Lucas Schneider. The English-language translation is entitled “Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau” (ISBN 978-0972598170) and was released in 2007.
    The movie The Ninth Day directed by Volker Schlöndorff is based on a portion of Bernard’s diary detailing his nine-day release.
    II. “The Last of The Just” is a searing holocaust novel from 1959 that is based on the Legend of the Just.
    As an avatar or exemplum of the “last of the just,” Bonhoeffer would realize that the Palestinians are today’s “Jews” and he would act accordingly.
    Lamedvavniks and Tzadikim Nistarim
    According to Jewish tradition, 36 “just men” are born in every generation to take the burden of the world’s suffering upon themselves.
    It is said that at all times there are 36 special people in the world, and that were it not for them, all of them, if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end.
    Since the 36 are each exemplars of anavah, (“humility”), having such a virtue would preclude against one’s self-proclamation of being among the special righteous. The 36 are simply too humble to believe that they are one of the 36.
    There are in the world 36 `just men’ that take on the suffering of the world, that are the reasons God allows the world to continue. There are among these men, some number of `unknown just’ who see the world differently from most of us.
    The Tzadikim Nistarim (hidden righteous ones) or Lamed Vav Tzadikim (36 righteous ones), often abbreviated to Lamed Vav(niks), refers to 36 Righteous people, a notion rooted within the more mystical dimensions of Judaism. The singular form is Tzadik Nistar.
    Mystical Hasidic Judaism as well as other segments of Judaism believe that there is the Jewish tradition of 36 righteous people whose role in life is to justify the purpose of humankind in the eyes of God. Tradition holds that their identities are unknown to each other and that, if one of them comes to a realization of their true purpose then they may die and their role is immediately assumed by another person.
    This most unusual Jewish concept is based on a Talmudic statement to the effect that in every generation 36 righteous “greet the Shechinah,” the Divine Presence (Tractate Sanhedrin 97b; Tractate Sukkah 45b).
    “The Last of The Just” novel
    Product Details:
    • Paperback: 374 pages
    • Publisher: Overlook TP; First Edition
    • January 31, 2000
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 9781585670161
    • ISBN-13: 978-1585670161
    • ASIN: 1585670162
    The source is the Talmud itself, explained as follows:
    As a mystical concept, the number 36 is even more intriguing The two Hebrew letters for 36 are the lamed, which is 30, and the vav, which is 6. Therefore, these 36 are referred to as the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim.
    Their purpose:
    The Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim are also called the Nistarim (“concealed ones”). In our folk tales, they emerge from their self-imposed concealment and, by the mystic powers, which they possess, they succeed in averting the threatened disasters of a people persecuted by the enemies that surround them. They return to their anonymity as soon as their task is accomplished, ‘concealing’ themselves once again in a Jewish community wherein they are relatively unknown. The lamed-vavniks, scattered as they are throughout the Diaspora, have no acquaintance with one another. On very rare occasions, one of them is ‘discovered’ by accident, in which case the secret of their identity must not be disclosed. The lamed-vavniks do not themselves know that they are one of the 36. In fact, tradition has it that should a person claim to be one of the 36, that is proof positive that they are certainly not one.
    Lamedvavnik is the Yiddish term for one of the 36 humble righteous ones or Tzadikim mentioned in kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. For the sake of these 36 hidden saints, God preserves the world even if the rest of humanity has degenerated to the level of total barbarism. The term lamedvavnik is derived from the Hebrew letters Lamed (L) and Vav (V), whose numerical value adds up to 36. The “nik” at the end is a Russian or Yiddish suffix indicating “a person who…” (As in “Beatnik“; in English, this would be something like calling them “The Thirty-Sixers”.) The number 36 is twice 18.
    The Last of the Just
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    The last line is:
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    Since a Bonhoeffer always tries to help the “Jews” of this world, he would support the Palestinians who are today’s “Jews.”.

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