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Bonhoeffer on “The View from Below”

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

With clear recognition that the following is, for me, in the “aspiration” column rather than the “accomplishment” column, I set out for you this classic, challenging, hopeful, terrifying passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. I will alter the typography to aid reflection, including adding italics in a key line:


There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below,

from the perspective of the outcast,

the suspects,

the maltreated,

the powerless,

the oppressed,

the reviled

—in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.

The important thing is that neither bitterness nor envy should have gnawed at the heart during this time,

that we should have come to look with new eyes at matters great and small, sorrow and joy, strength and weakness,

that our perception of generosity, humanity, justice and mercy should have become clearer, freer, less corruptible.

We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.

This perspective from below must not become the partisan possession of those who are eternally dissatisfied [!]; rather, we must do justice to life in all its dimensions from a higher satisfaction, whose foundation is beyond any talk of “from below” or “from above.” This is the way in which we may affirm it.


I almost never, ever, thank God for setbacks, disappointments, frustrations, and injustices in my life that would let me, for once, see things the way so many people see them all the time. I almost never, ever, reflect on what I have learned from those experiences…except how to do all I can to control the world (!) such that they cannot recur.

I have, that is, learned nothing from the Desert Fathers, nothing from Benedict or Francis or the Jesus Prayer mystic, nothing from the Mennonites, nothing from the missionaries or activists or front-line relief & development workers. But Bonhoeffer—like me, a well-educated and successful scion of a physician’s home in a prosperous modern Western society—warns me about, and welcomes me into, a new vantage point from which so much (more) can be learned. Alas, Providence likely will have to teach me the way it taught him: the hard way.

So may I pay proper attention, in the right Spirit, to the smaller, easier trials of my life, in hopes that my sanctification may not be any more purgatorial than it must be! him and


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