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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Who am I? They often tell me I would step from my prison cell poised, cheerful and sturdy, like a nobleman from his country estate.

Who am I? They often tell me I would speak with my guards freely, pleasantly and firmly, as if I had it to command them.

Who am I? I have also been told that I suffer the days of misfortune with serenity, smiles and pride, as someone accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say about me?

Or am I only what I know of myself?

Restless, yearning and sick, like a bird in its cage, struggling for the breath of life, as though someone were choking my throat; hungering for colors, for flowers, for the songs of birds, thirsting for kind words and human closeness, shaking with anger at capricious tyranny and the pettiest slurs, bedeviled by anxiety, awaiting great events that might never occur, fearfully powerless and worried for friends far away, weary and empty in prayer, in thinking, in doing, weak, and ready to take leave of it all.

Who am I? This man or that other? Am I then this man today and tomorrow another?

Am I both all at once? An imposter to others, but to me little more than a whining, despicable weakling?

Does what is in me compare to a vanquished army, that flees in disorder before a battle already won?

Who am I?

They mock me these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, you know me, O God.

You know I am yours.

__________

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letter “Wer Bin Ich?” (Who Am I?). You can see it along with other essential reflections in Letters and Papers from Prison.

These words get me every time. Even now, as I read them in a sterile, comfortable office cubicle, and think about my friend M. who is displaying such fortitude in weathering his own days of misfortune.

On March 4th, 1945, Bonhoeffer asked Who Am I? from Tegel military prison, where he was awaiting trial for subverting the Reich’s final solution, or Shoah, against the Jews. Twenty-seven days after writing these words, Bonhoeffer was sentenced to the gallows, and on the morning of April 9th, 1945 — twenty-three days before the Nazi surrender — Bonhoeffer was hanged in Flossenbürg concentration camp. As he was led away from his prison cell, Bonhoeffer asked British prisoner Payne Best to remember him to George Bell, the then-Bishop of Chichester, if he were ever to make it home. Bonhoeffer then uttered his final recorded words: “This is the end — for me the beginning of life.”

The camp doctor at Flossenbürg reflected years later on witnessing Bonhoeffer’s execution. “I saw Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor whispering fervently. I was most deeply moved by the way this man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of Providence.”

I’m not exactly sure between which pages lay the ribbon in Bonhoeffer’s Bible, but if I had to venture a guess, it’d be Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Chapter 4, in the New King James:

Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord.

12 And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; 13 being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.

Watch a very powerful reading of Who Am I? below.