Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Bonhoeffer's Letters to London

Review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters to London: Bonhoeffer's previously unpublished correspondence with Ernst Cromwell, 1935-6.  Edited by Stephen J. Plant and Toni Burrowes-Cromwell (SPCK: 2013).

This collection of a dozen letters between Bonhoeffer and a young German man living in London may seem at first glance to be slight.  But do not be fooled.  Whilst this volume will never attain the status of Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, and does not have the sustained theologizing of his Life Together or Discipleship, it is worth more than a cursory read.  It is, unashamedly, peripheral - not a major work, nor letters of great substance.  Rather, this is Bonhoeffer in the middle of things, writing to a teenage boy who he has prepared for confirmation.  Against the background of Hitler's Germany, these letters bear witness to hope, friendship, joy and love.

The correspondence starts at the end of Bonhoeffer's time as a pastor in London.  From the start, the background is clear.  The first letter tells Ernst that Bonhoeffer has to return to Germany soon, "my heart stands still sometimes when I think of what awaits us" (pp. 50-51).  There is a powerful and deep sense of vocation to Bonhoeffer at this time, ("the needs of the Church are so urgent that there is no other way" p. 51).  But above all, this is a letter to organise a walking trip in Scotland.  A marvellous photograph of Bonhoeffer on Ben Nevis, wearing his hat and suit immaculately whilst his feet sink into the snow, is included and adorns the cover.  A fitting image for "disrespectful" letters which speak of an "even less respectful presence" (p. 53).  Humour is an important element of life, even here.

Later we see Bonhoeffer writing from the illegal Confessing Church seminary, and telling Ernst about preaching on the 'Jewish question', being banned from teaching at the University and (obliquely) about receiving visits from the Gestapo.  There is a letter returning some money given to Bonhoeffer by Ernst's family, but arranging a code so that more money can be paid in future.  At every point the reality of the resistance to Hitler is present.  But through it all we see the value of pastoral care for the individual (Ernst), not caught up in the daily struggles of the Confessing Church, but nevertheless part of the Body of Christ.  Bonhoeffer's care goes beyond the immediate needs of the politics and struggles of the day.  It is a pointer in hope to a future beyond the concerns that occupied Bonhoeffer immediately.

Above all, it is friendship that is the overarching theme of the whole correspondence.  Bonhoeffer's care and respect for the young man who he has prepared for confirmation and now considers a friend permeate the letters.  That is why Bonhoeffer can speak in passing of what he faces.  It is also why he can, indeed must, joke, make practical arrangements and ask deep questions about Ernst's future.  Bonhoeffer's remarks about an evangelistic group that Ernst encounters in Oxford both affirm Ernst and offer theological guidance (pp. 65-66).  Taking time out from being "extremely busy" with a "great deal of struggle" (p. 66) to offer that support and guidance shows friendship at work.

The letters are accompanied by a range of useful material.  Stephen Plant sets the correspondence in context, and there is an interview with Ernst (now Ernest) Cromwell himself.  Ernest's daughter-in-law, Toni Burrowes-Cromwell, contributes an afterword that raises many questions about how the Church today treats young people in the light of Bonhoeffer's care, respect and friendship for Ernst.  But the most valuable material presented here is, of course, the letters themselves.  The final letter speaks of the value of truth and love in the midst of falsehood and hate, and urges Ernst "don't forget the few things in life that are really important and that make life worth living" (p. 75).  The voice of a martyr and leader of resistance to tyranny, yes.  But also the voice of a pastor and a friend.

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