Review of Eberhard Bethge, Friendship and Resistance

Review of Eberhard Bethge, Friendship and Resistance: Essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eerdmans, (1995). ISBN: 0802841236.

In this collection of short essays Eberhard Bethge, former student, colleague and friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers an interesting and largely personal reflection on their years of friendship. Without Bethge’s efforts in popularising Bonhoeffer’s contributions (most notably through publishing his Letters and Papers) it is highly likely that Bonhoeffer would be a name relegated to the footnotes of academic monographs. Fortunately, this is just speculation and the reason for Bethge’s passion shines through.

The article begins with an interview with Bethge that was conducted by Clemens Vollnhalsin 1989. In it Bethge gives a fascinating account of the experience of training for the ministry within the context of the Confessing Church and the illegal seminaries they created. Whilst this is the only interview in this collection this personal feel is a consistent one throughout the remainder of the text. There are two essays in particular that I would like to briefly highlight, they are also the undoubted highlights of the book.

“Between Confession and Resistance” recounts the often tense relationship between confessing Christ and political resistance. In first person narrative Bethge offers a history of the confessing church movement from his perspective. In the process of which Bethge gives an account of how a group of seminary students had tried to persuade the seminary directors to place the seminary under the control of the newly established Confessing Church without avail. So it was that Bethge was among those who were given the following warning from the Brudderat: “We do not want to hide from you the fact that we cannot give any assurance that you will be employed, receive a salary or be recognized by any office. You may well face a difficult future …” (p. 16).

Bethge makes clear that in the ensuing months a difficult time was had in the Confessing Church’s rejection ( as demonstrated in the Barmen Theses) against a Nazified Pulpit, Nazified Christian Life, Nazified ecclesiology and nazified clergy. However, Bethge states that they naively did not perceive this approach to be political:

We did not interpret our decision as a choice between Christ and Hitler, between the cross and the swastika, and certainly not a decision between democracy and a totalitarian regime. Rather, we understood the issue as one between a biblical Christ and a Teutonic-heroic Christ, between the cross of the gospels and one formed by the the swastika (p. 19).

Barmen was perceived to be about “letting the church be the church”, not about politics. Confession, not resistance. However, this dividing line was soon seen to be arbitrary: it also became clear to us … that while our confessing synods had developed an excellent language to speak against Nazification, they had no language to speak for its victims” (p. 24). Hence Bethge recounts his experience of the difficult line to be drawn between confession and resistance. To speak for the victim is to resist those who victimised them. Bethge goes on to delineate his own thoughts on this difficult tension between confession and resistance.

The second notable essay, “How the Prison Letters Survived” is a narration of the means by which the letters that were to become Letters and Papers from Prison were smuggled. Like many people it was this book, which Bethge collated from Bonhoeffer’s prison correspondence, that was my first introduction to Bonhoeffer. Much like a behind the scenes DVD extra Bethge goes behind the text to present not only a view of the deep friendship that existed between these two men but also the trials that smuggling these letters posed. Perhaps most poignant of all is Bethge’s recollection of how he discovered that he was to be arrested and how he burnt some recent letters from Bonhoeffer there and then only to discover that these could have been hidden in time.

Friendship and Resistance is a theological book, but one told through the means of biography. This type of theological reminiscing is not something I have encountered before and is, I suspect, quite unique. As such this makes for a fascinating and challenging little book that has deepened my appreciation for Bonhoeffer as he was experienced by those around him .

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