An epigraph reads: “(In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenbürg, April 9, 1945).”
God told us we were free to choose, but because we had the minds of children we thought that he would only use force against us as a last resort, for those who would not repent. This force came to pass.
Does God emphasize justice or mercy? It seems irrelevant when so much power to punish is assumed by humans; “He lets the Adam whom He made / Perform the acts of God.” Even when this judge is not a dictator but “Universal Man,” when we take a good look we see nothing special. Man can use tools to achieve various ends, even conflicting ones, but the Mind of Universal Man does not understand its own power.
Furthermore, to the speaker, our ideas of justice and of God are based on analogies rather than direct facts, and God (whether he exists or not) has not even acknowledged our theological reasoning. As for direct facts, did Jesus “really break the seal / And rise again” from the dead?
Nevertheless, even “conscious unbelievers” perceive a kind of Judgment Day in the world. Something important happened “on the cross,” but to the speaker it might be either gain or loss. We are free to interpret it for ourselves. While Jesus suffered in public, Bonhoeffer died relatively privately at a concentration camp like a slave.
This late, twelve-stanza poem was composed in 1958 and dedicated to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and Nazi resistance fighter who was executed by hanging for his participation in a plot of the German Military Intelligence Office to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was active in the resistance from the war’s outset, warning Germany by radio after Hitler became Chancellor that she should not indulge in an idolatrous cult of the Führer, but his words were cut off mid-sentence.
Critic Monroe E. Spears writes that the poem is “a kind of post-existentialist piece, reflecting on how dreadfully complete man’s freedom is, with none of the excitement and extravagance Auden used to display, but in a tone of chastened puzzlement and shock, tempered by colloquial diction and sardonic wit.” The poem opens and closes with the argument that we are free: first we are free to choose to believe in God and repent, or not; later we are free to interpret the Crucifixion of Jesus with our best guess.
The title of the poem comes from the Friday of Good Friday, the day on which Christ was crucified. A primary theme is Christian vs. human judgment. Too many in the time of Hitler trusted that God’s judgment and mercy would rule, but in reality it was human choices to mete ungodly injustice that led Bonhoeffer to resist and ultimately be killed by the state. Perhaps this was God’s judgment on insufficiently faithful people, but the evidence suggests “it seems idle to discuss” God’s role when humans have been made so free to hurt one another.
To the speaker, human freedom seems like an odd choice to build into Creation. Our temporal justice seems all the worse when we apply reason and observation to what humans are like; we cannot gin up much appreciation for “Universal Man” (perhaps referring to the United Nations as well as general theories or hopes about man’s goodness). Our tools are equally good at making “wish and counterwish” come to pass, and most of us are not very observant most of the time, so there are many unintended consequences and thoughtless actions.
Even worse, we cannot even definitively prove the existence of God from theologizing alone. Auden turns to “negative theology” for a moment: if God is outside of time and space and utterly unlike what we learn from our senses, all of our analogies about God’s qualities come up short. “We have no means of learning what / Is really going on” if our senses are insufficient and our theologizing receives not even divine acknowledgment. Like mail sent across the border that is misaddressed, our ideas are “returned / Unopened to the sender.”
Christians say, however, that God did enter human perception most clearly in the form of Jesus, and it is often said with the Apostle Paul that the critical fact is whether or not Jesus rose from the dead (see 1 Corinthians 15 in the New Testament). The speaker seems to agree that this is critical, but here he does not “dare” to make a decision. Instead, he suggests that he is one of the “conscious unbelievers” who, regardless of these questions, knows that in the reality of the world there are human judgments and that the Second World War was a kind of human Judgment Day.
The speaker will not even dare to interpret the fact on which everyone agrees: that Jesus died on the cross. Was it “gain or loss”? To him, the jury is still out. And what does it mean for the public’s understanding of Christianity that Jesus suffered and died in public (whether or not he himself made this choice) rather than privately? There is a “silence on the cross.” The critic Frederick P. W. McDowell argues that, “building upon the Kierkegaardian separation between God and man, Auden confesses that, to the reason, God is not so alarming or unkind as ‘utterly banal.’ The only warrant for belief, then, is the silence on the cross, which eloquently testifies to a mystery in creation that cannot be solved by rationality.” Auden acknowledges the mystery without resolving it.
Bonhoeffer decided that Hitler should die. Hitler's regime decided that Bonhoeffer should die, and had the power to achieve it. On what grounds could either of them sit in judgment on the other? This poem seems to undermine Bonhoeffer's religious grounds while acknowledging that he was treated unjustly, and the poem leaves us to ponder the grounds for our moral judgments if we choose not to be grounded in Bonhoeffer's Christianity.