A Faith that Looks Forward

In his Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer has much to say about what those who follow Jesus are called to be and to do. His exposition of the Sermon on the Mount and what discipleship means has much to tell us about how we must live our lives today, recognising the worth of every human being – and indeed of all creation.

At a time of violence, upheaval and insecurity not unlike our own, Bonhoeffer dedicated himself to serving those in greatest need and facing the direst threats. His response involved enormous risks and difficult choices – but he is surely an example to all of us of what is involved in building a world of justice and peace, health and harmony. He never gave up on that vision and commitment despite imprisonment and execution. His was a faith that always looked forward

For Bonhoeffer, to follow Jesus means caring for others and for all creation, working with all who might share some of his vision of a better world, a human society caring for all and an environment providing for the needs of everyone.

Our calling today is surely to live out our faith – looking forward – as he did.

Bonhoeffer as Poet

photo of various books by Bonhoeffer or about himDietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing takes many forms – from theological statements to personal letters – prose and poetry, much of which was written towards the end of his life from a prison-cell. His poems provide a valuable and dynamic insight for all of us into Bonhoeffer the man – his ideas, his faith and his discipleship.

Since his death, poems such as the one below have also provided inspiration for artists and musicians. This English translation by JB Leishman of one of Bonhoeffer’s most well-known poems appeared in Letter and Papers from Prison [SCM Press 1953].

Who am I?

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I need to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equably, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.


Am I really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath as though hands were compressing my throat,

Yearning for colours, for flowers for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?


Who am I?  This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?


Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine,

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!


This is a synopsis of the keynote address given by Professor Esther Reed [University of Exeter] at our “Faith and Frontiers” Conference on 05 November 2016.

It is important to recall, as Bonhoeffer undoubtedly did, that Jesus and his family crossed borders to seek refuge in Egypt from Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Since the time of the Roman Empire, the establishment of ‘nation-states’ has made border-crossing a much more complex and sensitive issue for all who seek refuge from persecution in our own day. On the one hand, there was the case for the authority of the state to govern – and on the other, the right of every human being to justice, peace and freedom to seek refuge abroad when faced with persecution and peril in the land of their birth.

 interwoven images of Europe refugees and a celtic crossFrom Augustine in the fifth century onwards, christians have struggled to reconcile the authority of the state with the rights of those fleeing persecution to seek and obtain sanctuary. That debate was there for Bonhoeffer when the Confessing Church faced the Jewish Question in Germany in the 1930s. However Bonhoeffer concluded that the church’s freedom in such matters could not be absolute.  As he put it, writing on The Jewish Question:

‘The church cannot primarily take direct political action, since it does not presume to know how things should go historically. Even on the Jewish question today, the church cannot contradict the state directly and demand that it take any particular course of action’

So what should be our approach to the vexed question of frontiers today?

If some, like the philosopher Agamben, advocate a radically anarchical ‘no borders’ approach, yet others opt for the ‘difficult middle way’ between completely free movement and handing absolute freedom to governments to keep order and control. Such a middle way was adopted in the UN’s International Convention on Human Rights, signed in 1951, after a decade or more when millions trudged across Europe seeking asylum, so as to keep borders open to allow refugees to flee war and violence on the grounds that they are suffering human beings. Despite many questions for today of how such an agreement is to be monitored and managed – and underlying them, who should now be seen as refugees, it remains about as strong a working agreement as can be negotiated and broadly supported.

It was here that Bonhoeffer argued that the church must be responsible for holding the state to account where such basic human rights issues were concerned – and he strove to exercise that responsibility in Germany before and during WW2. However today an approach is needed that is local, international and transnational. In our modern world the church must be ready to carry out its responsibility on a global as well as local scale. Its  message and mission must transcend religious and cultural differences, speaking out fearlessly for justice and peace, welcoming the persecuted strangers who seek food and shelter from conflict and famine – and sharing with them what it can to meet their needs.

In so doing, Christians proclaim the Lordship of Christ, He who was once Himself a refugee