Monday, 4 February 2008

Through Lent with Bonhoeffer ... and Max Josef Metzger

A guest blogger writes:

Today (4 February) is the 102 anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The anniversary of his death is on 9 April. Lent often falls between these two dates, and the recently published, "A Year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Daily Meditations from His Letters, Writings, and Sermons", offers one way to use Bonhoeffer's words to move through Lent. Since his death, many hundreds of books, dissertations, and articles have been published on this German theologian whose life and death for many people reflect the "cost of discipleship" about which he wrote.

Much less well known in the English-speaking world, however, is the Catholic priest Max Josef Metzger, whose life and death at the hands of the National Socialists has many parallels with Bonhoeffer. Metzger was born on 3 February (the day before Bonhoeffer, albeit 19 years earlier, in 1887). He was executed on 17 April 1944, just under a year before Bonhoeffer was executed. As a result, as for Bonhoeffer, Lent often falls between the dates marking Metzger's birth and his death.

Max Josef Metzger worked as a military chaplain during the First World War, where he became convinced that “future wars have lost their meaning, since they no longer give anybody the prospect of winning more than he loses”. After the war, he established the Peace League of German Catholics and sought links to the international pacifist movement, and began to work with Protestant Christians, particularly in his peace work. He was especially involved in the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. He attended the first World Conference on Faith and Order in 1927 as an unofficial observer. In 1938, he founded the "Una Sancta Brotherhood," a group devoted to Christian unity. He was arrested several times by the Gestapo. In 1943, Metzger wrote a memorandum on the reorganization of the German state and its integration into a future system of world peace. He tried to have this memorandum delivered to the Swedish Archbishop of Uppsala, Erling Eidem, but was denounced by the courier, a Gestapo agent, and arrested on 29 June 1943 (Bonhoeffer had been arrested two and a half months earlier). He was executed the following year.

Bonhoeffer, saw in the nascent ecumenical movement an "ecumenical council [Konzil] of evangelical Christendom" called to "bear witness to the truth and the unity of the church of Christ with authority" and to "speak a word of judgment about war, race hatred and social exploitation". Metzger, for his part, while in prison in 1939 wrote to the Pope urging him to convene an ecumenical council to which Protestants would be invited. He thought an ecumenical council would not be possible without extensive preparation, but that on the other hand it ought not be postponed. Twelve outstanding theologians drawn from countries where divisions exist most strongly could be commissioned to contact a similar number of outstanding persons in the other Christian churches to arrange a series of confidential conversations. A report would then be submitted to a pontifical commission to be studied with a view to preparing for a general council.

Like Bonhoeffer, only in the mid-1990s was Metzger officially exonerated posthumously by the Berlin high court.

It is said that while in prison, Metzger used every scrap of paper he could lay his hands on to write poems and meditations. In 1952, a small book of Metzger's letters and poems from prison was published in English. One of the poems is called, "In the Condemned Cell":

Already in the dusk I see Death with his scythe,
Reaping his harvest of bloody, human sheaves.
My heart, craving for life, cries out but not alone;
A million hearts protest with me but in vain,
For Death mows ruthlessly and still the war is raging ....
Lord God Almighty, doth thou see our cruel fate?