O that tellest good tidings to Zion, lift up they voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid. Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.— Isaiah, 40:9, 60:1
An angel of the Lord stood over the shepherds and the glory of the Lord shone round them. The angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you news of great joy. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born; he is Christ the Lord.”— Luke, 2:9-11
Freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing. Faint not, nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action. . . . Freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Stations on the Road to Freedom”
When the prophecy foretold by Isaiah came to pass in Bethlehem, a light illuminated the world. Some men, however, preferred the darkness — including Herod, the Roman-backed King of Judea. Sensing a potential threat, he ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, the execution of all infant boys aged two and younger. Alerted by an angel during his sleep, Joseph led the Holy Family to safety in Egypt.
Thus the first part of a pattern was established. For two millennia, tyrants have suppressed word of the birth of Christ or religious commemorations of it. Herod feared for his throne. In the modern era, dictators have realized that the potential for human freedom inherent in this divine event threatens to undermine their authoritarian rule. Liberty, not servitude, is the logical outcome of a process whereby men and women channel their allegiance not simply to a secular leader but ultimately to a heavenly being, and, at the same time, governments accept the principle that temporal power must take account of a higher moral law. In the recent past, and today, despots in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Nazi Germany, China, Cuba, North Korea, and elsewhere have sought to suppress man’s relationship with God. (And now, America - Tiger)
Their attacks on Christ and news of his birth have formed part of a broader onslaught against religious freedom, which is an integral component of human freedom. As such, their actions are assaults on liberty itself.
But the light will not be extinguished. Christians in unfree lands — including places where religious extremists restrict their rights, such as Saudi Arabia — have enacted the second part of this historical pattern: they have resisted oppression by celebrating Christmas, often in secret, sometimes in open defiance, frequently without fear. This year will be no different, as they commemorate Christ’s birth and so defend religious freedom, not only for their coreligionists, but for men and women of all faiths, for Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists alike.
CHRISTIAN RESISTANCE IN GERMANY
Throughout the 20th century, which unleashed a furious ideological campaign against organized religion by both communism and Nazism, Christians frequently marked the passing of the Christmas season as political prisoners. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn writes about Baptists in the Soviet Union who received 25-year sentences in the gulag but would not forsake their faith. In Nazi Germany some Christians stood up to evil and thus ended up in concentration camps. One man who understood the true nature of Adolf Hitler from the beginning was Dietrich Bonhoeffer — and so he resisted.
A gifted writer, Lutheran minister, and one of the most significant theologians of the 20th century, Bonhoeffer joined with Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth to establish the Confessing Church, which broke away from the official German Evangelical Church after it sided with the Nazi Party in 1933. He emerged as a leading figure in the nascent German resistance that coalesced in the 1930s, writing a series of books and essays that were critical of Nazi policies. His most famous volume from this period is The Cost of Discipleship. He met often with fellow Christians throughout Europe and North America to inform them of the dangers that Hitler posed. In the summer of 1939, he traveled to the United States on a lecture tour and could have remained there as war clouds gathered on the horizon, but returned home to continue his work with the Confessing Church. In 1940, he was banned from speaking in public; in 1941, he was forbidden to publish his works.
His activities were not without controversy, however. He went to Sweden during the war to discuss a draft peace treaty that included a request for the Allies to drop their demand for unconditional surrender. While fervently opposed to Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies, and known to have financed the escape of Jewish families to Switzerland — all at the risk of his own life — some theologians question whether he ever abandoned the doctrine that salvation for non-Christians, including Jews, depended upon conversion. Still, he was an implacable foe of the Nazis. Refusing to moderate his stance, he was arrested by the Gestapo in April 1943 and incarcerated in the Tegel military prison in Berlin, where he managed to maintain his secret contacts with the resistance.
ADVENT AND RETRIBUTION
Bonhoeffer also continued his voluminous writings while in jail. Much of it is reprinted in the collection, Letters and Papers from Prison. In late 1943 he reflected on the pending arrival of Christmas in several missives to his friends and family. His note on November 21 to a close colleague in the Confessing Chuch, Eberhard Bethge, expressed a glimmer of optimism leavened by a dose of reality. Next week “comes Advent, with all of its happy memories,” he remarked. “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other — things that are really of no consequence — the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside. . . . ” He developed some coping mechanisms, but promised, with a touch of humor, not to take them too seriously. “I have found that following Luther’s instruction to ‘make the sign of the cross’ at our morning and evening prayers is in itself helpful. There is something objective about it and that is what is particularly badly needed here. Don’t be alarmed; I shall not come out of here a homo religiosus! On the contrary, my fear and distrust of ‘religiosity’ have become greater than ever here. The fact that the Israelites never uttered the name of God always makes me think, and I can understand it better as I go on.”
A few of Bonhoeffer’s epistles to Bethge depart from the topic of Christmas to recount Allied air raids on Berlin and even the prison compound itself, which was a military target. On November 23, he wrote that the previous night’s attack “was not exactly pleasant. . . . At such times prison life is no joke.” The next day he was somber: “[a]fter yesterday’s raid I think it only right that I should tell you briefly what arrangements I have made in case of my death.” Three days later he properly saw in the Allied bombings a measure of divine retribution for Germany’s transgressions and drew appropriate lessons for his countrymen to be applied once the conflict ended. The “fact that the horrors of war are now coming home to us with such force will no doubt, if we survive, provide us with the necessary basis for making it possible to reconstruct the life of the nation, both spiritually and materially, on Christian principles. So we must try to keep these experiences in our minds, use them in our work, make them bear fruit, and not just shake them off. Never have we been so conscious of the wrath of God, and that is a sign of his grace. . . . The tasks that confront us are immense, but we must prepare ourselves for them now and be ready when they come.”
On November 28, Bonhoeffer returned to the theme of Christmas, discussing some of the rituals he had been able to observe behind bars. “The first Sunday in Advent — it began with a peaceful night. Early this morning I held my Sunday service, hung up the Advent wreath on a nail, and fastened [Filippo] Lippi’s picture of the Nativity in the middle of it.” He recalled the hymns sung at the Confessing Church’s clandestine seminaries in Pomerania.
On December 18, he shifted his tone slightly, suggesting that a measure of simplicity was in order. “At midday on Christmas Eve a dear old man is coming here on his own suggestion to play some Christmas carols on a cornet . . . [in the circumstances, a] sentimental reminder of Christmas is out of place. A good, personal message, a sermon, would be better.”
“CHRISTMAS IN A PRISON CELL”
Bonhoeffer’s communications to his parents, Karla and Paula, are especially poignant. His first reference to the holidays was on November 28. “Although I don’t know how letters are getting through at present, I want to write to you on the afternoon of the first Sunday in Advent. [Albrecht] Altdorfer’s painting, ‘Nativity,’ is very topical this year, showing the Holy Family and the crib among the ruins of a tumbledown house. How ever did he come to paint like that, against all tradition, four hundred years ago? Perhaps he meant that Christmas could and should be kept even in such conditions; in any case, that is his message for us.”
On December 17, he sent another letter that has since become well known. He opened on a positive, almost defiant, note. “Above all, you must not think that I am going to let myself be depressed by this lonely Christmas; it will always take its own special place among the other unusual Christmases that I have kept in Spain, America, and England, and I want in later years to think back on the time here, not with shame, but with a certain pride. That is the only thing that no one can take from me.”
He then recalled family memories, while linking them to the wellsprings of Christian tradition. “I need not tell you how I long to be released and to see you all again. But for years you have given us such perfectly beautiful Christmases that our grateful recollection of them is strong enough to put a darker one into the background. It is not until such times as these that we realize what it means to possess a past and spiritual inheritance independent of changes of time and circumstance. The consciousness of being borne up by a spiritual tradition that goes back for centuries gives one a feeling of confidence and security in the face of all passing pains and stresses.”
Bonhoeffer’s next passage encapsulates for him the true meaning of the holiday; in it he eschews all hints of self-pity. “From the Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell. For many people in this building it will probably be a more sincere and genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God from what they mean in the judgment of man, that God will approach where men will turn away, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn — these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people; for him they really are glad tidings, and that faith gives him a part in the communion of saints, a Christian fellowship breaking the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here to insignificance.”
“I AM IN GOD’S HANDS”
In several of his dispatches, Bonhoeffer discussed the possibility that he might be released before Christmas. On December 22, he reported to Bethge that this would not be the case, but he remained unbowed. “They seem to have made up their minds that I am not to be with you for Christmas, though no one ventures to tell me so. I wonder why; do they think I am so easily upset?” No, was his answer. “I am not so much concerned about the rather artless question whether I shall be home for Christmas or not.” He even reassured his friend that all would be well should the situation deteriorate. “Don’t worry about me if something worse happens. Others of the brethren have already been through that [i.e., sent to concentration camps]. But faithless vacillation, endless deliberation without action, refusal to take any risks — that is a real danger. I must be able to know for certain that I am in God’s hands, not in men’s. Then everything becomes easy, even the severest deprivation.”
Bonhoeffer then addressed his decision to return to Germany on the eve of the war, which the two had discussed previously, exhibiting no remorse whatsoever. “Now I want to assure you that I have not for a moment regretted coming back in 1939 — nor any of the consequences, either. I knew quite well what I was doing and I acted with a clear conscience. I have no wish to cross out of my life anything that has happened since, either to me personally or as regards events in general. And I regard my being kept here (do you remember what I prophesied to you last March about what the year would bring?) as being involved in the part that I had resolved to play in Germany’s fate.”
Finally, on the night of December 25 he sent a brief note to his parents, ending his seasonal correspondence with references to kith and kin. “Christmas is over. It brought me a few quiet, peaceful hours, and revived a good many past memories. . . . I lit the candles that you and Maria [his fiancée] sent me, read the Christmas story and a few carols that I hummed to myself, and in doing so I thought of you all.”
“WHO STANDS FIRM?”
Bonhoeffer was incarcerated at Tegel well into 1944. Alas, following the failure of the plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944, the Gestapo zeroed in on the suspected conspirators and their network of sympathizers, including Bonhoeffer. At the end of the year he was transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp, and, later, to Flossenburg, where the S.S. executed him and other members of the resistance on April 9, 1945, a month before the end of the war. He was a martyr for his faith. Before he died he passed along a message to his British friend, Bishop George Bell of Chichester: “This is the end, but for me the beginning of life.”
At Christmas time in 1942 Bonhoeffer had circulated a long letter to his closest colleagues assessing a decade of resistance, later reprinted as the essay “After Ten Years.” In it he asks the question, “Who stands firm?” Today, there are Christians who quietly stand up to tyranny. On the morning of December 25, they will acknowledge the day’s significance. In Beijing, a husband will wish his wife “Merry Christmas.” In Havana, a family will exchange gifts. A minister in Riyadh will read the Gospel. A priest in Pyongyang will silently say Mass. These men and women, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, resist without fear. They grasp a fundamental fact about the intersection of freedom and faith, as true for Christians as it is for men and women of all religions. They understand that to be human is to know God; to be human and free is to know God fully.