Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Discipleship in Berlin

Germany is definitely the place to be in Advent. The Tannenbäume and festive decorations glisten in the cold, freshening air. And they look even better when it snows. The Weihnachtsmärkte liven up the broad streets with happy shoppers, brass bands and the scents of Bratwurst and Gluhwein. Reader, be in no doubt: the Germans do the biggest and best Christmas celebrations in Europe. So, with this in mind, I took off last Friday for a weekend in Berlin.

 The place was indeed roughly as outlined above. But although it is now a city of bonhomie and party fun, Berlin was in rather a different mood in December of 1944. Germany’s armies were being fought back by British and Americans in the West, and the Russians in the east. And in Berlin the Nazi government was growing ever more reliant on violent suppression to maintain its hold.

With my raging appetite for Gluhwein momentarily sated I took a stroll down Wilhelmstraβe, once the very epicentre of the Nazi regime. The street contained the central offices of the chief organs of Nazi administration. Most of the original buildings are long gone, but their former locations are clearly marked. The German army once held parades down this road in devotion to the Fűhrer. I soon came to Niederkirchnerstraβe, once known as Prinz-Albrecht-Straβe, where the Gestapo had its headquarters.  There is a museum on there now, Topography of Terror, which details the history of the SA, SS, the Gestapo and the SD and their brutal crimes.

Yet the heart of Nazi terror is also a monument to startling Christian discipleship. Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned here during the winter of 1944. That Christmas he was allowed to write a letter to his fiancé, Maria von Wedemeyer. He speaks of his joy at being able to write to her - with an enthusiasm not dissimilar to Paul’s letters from jail - and sends her these verses which he called a Christmas greeting. They later became a popular hymn.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,

And confidently waiting come what may,

we know that God is with us night and morning,

and never fails to greet us each new day.


And when this cup You give is filled to brimming

With bitter suffering, hard to understand,

We take it thankfully and without trembling,

Out of so good and so beloved a hand.


“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” as Bonhoeffer wrote elsewhere. I have sung the hymn in church a thousand times or more, but I had never quite seen the sheer devotion to God and the absolute and unquestioning surrender to his designs, until I had understood the context and location in which they were written.

Bonhoeffer was not one who by instinct campaigned against the powers that be. Rather, he was a man of books and learning. But he found that the Nazi regime left him no option. In 1939, already a man marked by the Nazi government, he left the safe haven of America to return to Germany. Most were travelling the other way. He was an avowed pacifist, but he joined a resistance group and got involved in the July bomb plot to kill Hitler. This is true discipleship in the face power. Bonhoeffer sacrificed his safety, his instincts, and his plans for the sake of a higher purpose.      

Discipleship - a word so easily used in church straplines and Bible focus groups – is a serious, sometimes life-threatening business. Its high cost, much more than the festive cheer, is surely a thing to remember in Advent. And few have understood it as well as Bonhoeffer, locked up in Prinz-Albrecht-Straβe that Christmas of 1944.