The Force That Can Blow This Idiocy Sky-high

On January 14, 1935 Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a fascinating letter to his older brother Karl-Friedrich. At the time of the letter Bonhoeffer was in the middle of the Confessing Church struggle, working against the Nazi takeover of the German churches. As Nazi influence in the German churches increased Bonhoeffer's efforts grew more extreme, so much so that in his letter to his eldest brother Bonhoeffer is at pains to give an accounting of his actions.

That Karl-Friedrich would have viewed Dietrich's actions in the church struggle as fanatical stem partly from the fact that Karl-Friedrich was a scientist and a skeptic. Karl-Friedrich was a world class physicist who had done work on atomic physics with the likes of Einstein and Planck. That Karl-Friedrich didn't share Dietrich's religious convictions contributed to the incomprehension between the brothers, one a scientist and the other a theologian.

I find this letter to Karl-Friedrich fascinating for a couple of different reasons. First, I find the personal aspect of the letter poignant. Here was the young theologian rising up to face the specter of Nazism well before many of his contemporaries. The year 1935 was before the war, before the concentration camps and the Final Solution. But young Dietrich saw something on the horizon and was trying desperately to raise the alarm.

And yet, Dietrich feared that his actions in the church struggle were making him seem "fanatical and mad" in the eyes of his older brother who wished him to be more "reasonable." With the advantage of hindsight we now know that Dietrich was not fanatical, mad or unreasonable. It was the world, and not Dietrich, that was growing increasingly insane.

How did Dietrich find and maintain his sanity? That's the second thing that intrigues me about the letter.

Dietrich describes how he had grounded his conscience in the Sermon on the Mount. Dietrich states that he had been able to "achieve true inner clarity and honesty by really starting to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously." In the face of Nazism Dietrich states "here alone [in Sermon on the Mount] lies the force that can can blow all of this idiocy sky-high--like fireworks...". 

From Dietrich's letter to his brother:
Perhaps I seem to you rather fanatical and mad about a number of things. I myself am sometimes afraid of that. But I know that the day I became more “reasonable,” to be honest, I should have to chuck my entire theology. When I first started in theology, my idea of it was quite different—rather more academic, probably. Now it has turned into something else altogether. But I do believe that at last I am on the right track, for the first time in my life. I often feel quite happy about it. I only worry about being so afraid of what other people will think as to get bogged down instead of going forward. I think I am right in saying that I would only achieve true inner clarity and honesty by really starting to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. Here alone lies the force that can blow all of this idiocy sky-high—like fireworks, leaving only a few burnt-out shells behind. The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together and do this.

Forgive me for these rather personal ramblings, but they just came to me as I thought about our time together recently. And after all, we do have an interest in each other. I still have a hard time thinking that you really find all these ideas of mine completely mad. Things do exist that are worth standing up for without compromise. To me it seems that peace and social justice are such things, as is Christ himself.

I recently came across the fairy tale of 'The Emperor's New Clothes,' which really is relevant for our time. All we are lacking today is the child who speaks up in the end. We ought to put it on as a play.

I hope to hear from you soon--in any case, my birthday is coming soon.

Warm greetings to you all.

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