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Dietrich Bonhoeffer Memorial, Poland - Archbishop's Speech

Saturday 4th February 2006

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, was imprisoned and executed for his opposition to the Nazi regime. This speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the Bonhoeffer Memorial in Wroclaw, Poland, examines the enduring legacy of Bonhoeffer in the centenary year of his birth.

In the course of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent significant time in many very different European contexts - notably in Spain, Britain, Italy and Scandinavia - as well as in the USA. He could reasonably have thought of himself as a citizen of Europe, or indeed of the world. Yet he chose unambiguously to identify with the fate of his own people, and resisted any temptations to settle elsewhere and to take refuge in a safe place that would have spared him the harsh decisions posed by the past and present of his own country.

So those who today are trying to find what Christian identity might be in the Europe that is coming to be cannot take from his life or work any idea that somehow the struggles and sufferings of one nation coming to terms with its own cultural and political legacy are less important than some larger and more abstract picture of international harmony. We serve Europe and indeed the whole of humanity not by denying our local setting, with all its complexities and tragedies, but by the service of specific needs in a specific place. To be committed to Europe is to be committed to the healing and transformation in Christ of this particular country and people, wherever and whichever it might be.

But Bonhoeffer consistently sought to remind other European countries and their churches of their mutual responsibility. Germany, in his eyes, could not be left to solve its problems alone. And Germany's problems were never, in any case, Germany's problems only. This was not always a welcome message in the Europe of the thirties; non-intervention was the preferred option of both states and churches in the face of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer reminded his European friends and neighbours that Germany's crisis was Europe's crisis; and that no claim to be part of the Body of Christ could be sustained in any church that did not take sides in the conflict between church and anti-church in Germany.

In other words, Bonhoeffer's legacy to the European ideal is not some theory of supranational administration and cultural homogeneity. It is rather the application to national and international affairs of the Christian principle of mutual accountability. A healthy international network is one in which we take responsibility for each other, and recognise the crisis, the suffering or the collapse of one national or local community as an issue for all. Within Europe at present, this is not likely to be a matter of collapsing or criminal states, thanks to a half-century of stabilisation. But as the European Union looks to expand its frontiers to Turkey and the Balkans, it certainly involves the willingness to put the resources of more prosperous nations at the service of those that are finding their way towards fuller democracy and recognition of minority rights. And the application of this principle of accountability and shared political vision within Europe ought in due course to point towards a European future in which Europe more fully realises and acts upon its responsibility for unstable and vulnerable nations elsewhere - not through intervention and manipulation, but - as Bonhoeffer himself would have wanted - through the identifying and strengthening of internal elements making for justice and development.

In the 30's, Germany's problems were not Germany's alone, and those who behaved as if they were paid a heavy price and carry a heavy load of responsibility. Today, we can say that the problems of any nation struggling with a democratic deficit or with poverty or social collapse or pandemic disease are not that nation's alone. Bonhoeffer was convinced that he had to 'share the troubles of this time with his people', as he put it. He calls us, within and beyond Europe, to just such a sharing of trouble so that we may together share what God purposes to give us."

© Rowan Williams 2006

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