In Remembrance: Eberhard Arnold

November 21, 2015 by

Eberhard Arnold in 1917

Sunday, November 22, 2015, marked eighty years since the death of Eberhard Arnold, founder of the Bruderhof movement. On the weekend of November 21-22, a commemorative event was held in Fulda, Germany, near our Sannerz Bruderhof House. Among other things, Dr. Thomas Nauerth of the Institute for Catholic Theology at the University of Osnabrück launched his new book, Witness, Love and Resistance, which recounts the Bruderhof’s (and Eberhard's) confrontation with the Nazi regime from 1933–1938. (Learn more about the history of the Bruderhof.)

During the weekend of looking back on the legacy of this visionary disciple, Johann Christoph Arnold, senior pastor of the Bruderhof, reflected:

My grandfather Eberhard Arnold died five years before I was born, so I never knew him personally. Yet he had a huge influence on my life, like no one else. His books, lectures, and articles are packed full of wisdom and advice. A man ahead of his times, he influenced writers, students, and seekers, especially in communal movements, first in Germany, then in England, America, and globally. Decades after his death, many still refer to him as an inspiration and a role model. Read his writings, and you will not regret it.

The view overlooking a valley from the hilltop burial ground of the former Rhön Bruderhof where Eberhard is buried.
The view from the hilltop burial ground of the former Rhön Bruderhof

The closing event was held at Eberhard Arnold's gravesite in the burial ground of the former Rhön Bruderhof. Chris Zimmerman presented the following remarks.

We are gathered here today on the 80th anniversary of a man who once embodied the noblest ideals of his Christian-humanist milieu: a gifted academic and public speaker, a devoted family man, and a capable leader whose generous heart and broad mind endeared him to everyone from government officials and society matrons to youthful rebels, war veterans, and beggars on the streets of Leipzig and Berlin. But because none of this mattered to him – neither social standing, economic security, nor religious convention – he relinquished it all and died penniless, broken, and alone – and virtually forgotten by the crowds who had earlier admired him. And because he gave up all these things for Jesus, it can be truly said of him, as it says here on his gravestone, “Blessed are they that die in the Lord; their works shall follow after them” (Rev. 14:13).

This man was, of course, Eberhard Arnold. I will not tell his story – all of us here today are no doubt familiar with the biographical details of his life, and especially his legacy with regard to Christian community. As we know, he believed it was the best way – the only way – to truly carry out the commands of Jesus. But I would like to focus on one particular aspect of his witness that I feel holds singular importance in our day and age, when egocentric individualism has reached such a peak that the very word “community” – let alone an actual community – seems quaint and out of touch.

Eberhard Arnold lived in a time when, as now, the world was coming apart at the seams. Economically, politically, socially, and morally – in every sphere – chaos and confusion threatened (and ultimately overcame) societal progress. At the time of his death, Europe was racing toward an abyss, and Germany into the darkest hours of its history.

Eberhard Arnold's grave

Here at the Rhön Bruderhof, November 1935 was cold and wet and depressing. By the end of the month, the brotherhood was reeling from the loss of their “Word Leader.” Debts were mounting, and food and fuel were in short supply. Internal struggles had weakened the resolve of many, and outwardly, too, the circle limped along, most of the able-bodied men having fled the country earlier in the year to avoid conscription into Hitler’s army. The community’s children were long gone, too, to a refuge in Liechtenstein where they would be safe from the influences of a National Socialist teacher. Nazis and nosy neighbors spied constantly on the community, and there was a lingering sense of dread in the air. The Gestapo had raided the property already once; who knew what they were planning next.

But all was not gloom and doom. Indeed, the sparks Eberhard had fanned in the hearts of the little group gathered around him (and his wife Emmy, and her sister Else) were not blown out by the winds of the time, or drowned in the rising tide of violence and hatred. In fact, they not only continued to flicker, but grew and grew over the next months and years, jumping from one person to another and spreading, mostly haphazardly, and always against the greatest odds. Again and again, they flared up; and they are still burning today, in the communities now known as the Bruderhof.

This flame was not Eberhard’s – he was emphatic about that, and always strenuously objected to the suggestion that he had founded a community, or anything else. But it was something he protected and nurtured throughout his life – the spark of God, the flame of the Holy Spirit within each heart, leading the soul out of its own confines to work and self-sacrifice; to joy in others; to faith, hope, and love. And he knew that this flame could only burn in a heart swept clean of the smoldering ashes so often found there: greed, envy, lust, dishonesty, and – perhaps worst of all – spiritual pride and self-importance. To quote him directly, from an address to the community on his 50th birthday, in July 1933:

On this day I have been especially conscious of my lack of ability and of how unsuited my own nature is to the work I have been given…
There is something that concerns me very deeply: the powerlessness of man, even of the person who has been entrusted with some task. Only God is mighty; we are completely powerless. Even for the work that has been given us, we are wholly without power. We cannot fit even one single stone into the church community. We can provide no protection whatsoever for the community when it has been built up. We cannot even devote anything to the cause by our own power. We are completely without power. But I believe that just this is the only reason why God has called us for this service: we know we are powerless.
It is hard to describe how our own power is stripped off us, how our own power must be dropped, dismantled, torn down, and put away. What I wish for all of us is that this dismantling of our own power might be carried out to its full extent. That is not attained so easily and does not happen through a single heroic decision. God must do it in us.
This is the root of grace: the dismantling of our own power. Only to the degree that all our own power is dismantled will God go on affecting the results of his spirit and the construction of his cause through us, in us and among us – not otherwise. If a little power of our own rises up in us or among us, the spirit and authority of God retreats at the same moment and to the corresponding degree. In my estimation that is the single most important insight with regard to the kingdom of God.
How this actually happens is hard to say. It is as hard to speak of this as it is to speak of the mystic source of all things. The only thing that can be said is that the Holy Spirit produces effects that are deadly for the old life and that at the same time have a wakening and rousing power for the new life which comes from Christ and his Holy Spirit alone.
Let us use this day to give glory to God. Let us pledge to him that all our own power will remain dismantled, and will keep on being dismantled among us. Let us pledge that the only thing that will count among us will be the power and authority of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit; that it will never be we who count, but that God alone rules and governs us in Christ and the Holy Spirit.

We live in a time when, as in the 1930s, the world is creaking at its joints. Terror is again stalking the streets of Europe. Fear, mistrust, and naked hatred are polarizing and fragmenting the last solid remnants of civilized democratic society one by one, day by day. The conflicts at hand are not just societal, but are being fought within each of us, as individuals, too: our lower nature is constantly at war with our better self; our deeds again and again fall short of our intentions, and we often end up battling shame and guilt and regrets over wasted time and missed opportunities.

Eberhard Arnold

But this is no time to hang our heads or despair. As followers of Christ, we are called to hope, and not only for ourselves, but for the whole weary world. And our hope is not just in some imagined future heaven, but in the concrete possibility of a new society here and now.

It may seem like a far-off, unreachable dream. But as the life of Eberhard Arnold proves, it can be attained and realized, even where only two or three are gathered, as long as they are gathered in Jesus’s name, and committed to following him. He said, “I am the Way.” And this way is the way of the manger and the cross – the lowly way – and the only way to true peace, true justice, and true love.

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Chris and Bea Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman

Chris and his wife, Bea, live at The Mount, a Bruderhof in Esopus, New York.

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  • Please sing "Das Tal Liegt Offen Da" (The Valley Opens Wide), arguably one of the most beautiful and mystical poem ever written and one I have always loved. It tells all about who Eberhard was and longed for! Phil

    Phil Hazelton