Almost since the beginning of the church, some Christians have chosen a life of voluntary solitude in order to escape the distractions of ordinary life in the world. But many more have been forced into isolation due to imprisonment. From St Paul right up until our day, Christians around the world have been punished for their beliefs or for the actions to which their beliefs led them.
One of the most famous examples from the last century is the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who was involved in the resistance against the Nazi regime. He was arrested in April 1943 and imprisoned in Tegel, Berlin. A collection of his writings from this time, which had been gradually smuggled out of prison, were published after the war; in their English translation they are known as Letters and Papers from Prison. Despite being an unfinished work, it has been hugely influential, inspiring and dividing theologians to this day.
Bonhoeffer was in some ways a solitary character – but also one who was tremendously interested in the idea of community. From 1935 to 1939 he had lived in relative isolation with a community of trainee pastors in rural Pomerania. It was to one of these former students of his, Eberhard Bethge, that many of his letters are addressed. Deprived of company, he sought to bring their theological discussions alive using pen and paper.
He spent much of his time in prison reading, praying, and writing, but the condition of his countrymen was ever more present in his thoughts. He took every opportunity to converse with guards and fellow prisoners. He famously came to the conclusion that conventional religion had failed the ‘religionless’ masses. This called for Christians to live in solidarity with the religionless, or as he put it most provocatively, to live ‘as if there were no God’.
Cryptic statements like this have been interpreted in many different ways. However, the heart of Bonhoeffer’s message from his prison cell seems to me to be the call for Christians to follow Christ even in his suffering, his seeming abandonment by God on the cross. Often religion has instead offered easy solutions that evade the real issues of suffering and uncertainty that people face.
The church could no longer treat people like children who are afraid of the dark. In another famous and contested phrase Bonhoeffer asserted that the world has ‘come of age’. In the face of the modern world, the church is no longer privileged but weak. But God works his power in weakness. Bonhoeffer believed that a new kind of church – a ‘religionless Christianity’ – would arise out of this weakness.
In a speech written for the baptism of Bethge’s son, also named Dietrich – which Bonhoeffer was of course prevented from attending – he wrote that the only things Christians could do as they waited for the church to be raised up from the ashes were ‘prayer and righteous action’. And yet in this humble waiting position he found a profound hope in God.
The hope of resurrection and eternal life enabled Bonhoeffer to face isolation with the assurance that freedom would have the final word. On 9 April 1945, only weeks before the German surrender, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the SS. His last words, recorded by a fellow inmate, were: ‘This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.’