by Rob Touchstone
In a letter to his grandmother, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a question that reflected his realization that he was living in a dilemma in which two identities could no longer co-exist. He wrote to her, “The question is really: Christianity or Germanism?” This question would call for decision. It would call for identity. And it would call for praxis in a way few theologians had ever experienced.
All theologians have been called in some way to put their beliefs into practice. Many have been called to declare it publicly. Few have been called to both apply it and declare it in such a context as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s. In one of his sermon’s on “Vengeance” Bonhoeffer declared, “It is an evil time when the world lets injustice happen silently.” These are the words of a theologian devoted to pacifism. That context alone is a clue into the ethical, theological, and historical dilemma faced by a theologian caught in the center of where theology meets practice.
The life and story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is intriguing to almost anyone who studies theology. The ethical dilemma in which he finds himself is a case study for all who practice their faith and wonder what they would do if they ever faced the same circumstance. Interpretations of Bonhoeffer’s theology are complex even without context. While all theologians have a context that shape their theology, Bonhoeffer’s context is extraordinary. The following pages will explore the theology of a man who was challenged perhaps as much as any theologian to put his own ideals into practice.
One of the things that makes Bonhoeffer unique is that he is such an enigma. As Klassen points out well, his life story could be described in any of the following ways: “the pacifist who would have killed Hitler; the Christian who hated religion; the political animal engaged in the world and dedicated to an eschatological revelation that would end the world.”
If reading Bonhoeffer strictly on the surface, one might conclude that he disregarded his own theology when his context reached its most dire pinnacle. As one digs deeper into Bonhoeffer, however, it becomes apparent that this is not the case. There was something deeply rooted within his theology that demanded that he take the course of action that he did in joining the resistance against Hitler. Christine Schliesser points out a small but crucial part of Bonhoeffer’s writings, from a short section in Ethics, that lends some deep insight into Bonhoeffer’s theology in practice.
In Ethics, Bonhoeffer wrote about the responsibility of the Christian to “accept” the guilt of others upon themselves. Schliesser argues that, for Bonhoeffer, this is a way of sharing the suffering and the cross of Christ.
As Schliesser points out, Bonhoeffer wrote in Discipleship that a believer should “share in other people’s need, debasement, and guilt.” She goes on to show how Bonhoeffer’s concept of accepting guilt was at least partially inspired by Nietzsche who believed the most divine action a believer could take was to accept the guilt of others even more than their punishment. This helps to show that Bonhoeffer did not abandon his beliefs by joining the resistance movement but was rather living them out more fully than ever before.
Perhaps the even more difficult question in all of this revolves around whether or not this is a correct interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s theology. While he truly called believers to an extraordinary level of discipleship, did Bonhoeffer truly expect for believers to take the guilt of others upon themselves? Could anyone other than Jesus at the cross bear the responsibility for human guilt? This is indeed an interesting question. On the surface, this idea might appear to be heretical and even shocking. It must be noted however, that Bonhoeffer’s theology of bearing guilt is connected to his theology of injustice. The two cannot and must not be separated in trying to understand Bonhoeffer’s resort to joining the resistance. If they stand alone then individually they are problematic. But together they form a picture of true embodied love for others in the deepest possible sense.
For the Christian, atonement is typically only thought of as it relates to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for the the sins of humanity at the cross. But Bonhoeffer shows that in the face of injustice the believer is called to do more than just love with words but to love with action. How else would love be embodied? A person cannot simply say, “I love you” to the person who is suffering injustice but is called to love until it hurts. In Letters and Papers From Prison, Bonhoeffer wrote, “We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes.”
So while Jesus is the only one who can atone for sin, Bonhoeffer seems to suggest that the disciple can “share” so fully with Jesus that he, at least in some sense, shares in his redemptive and atoning work. The disciple is not sharing in somehow removing sin but, rather, he or she loves so sacrificially that he or she becomes willing to take whatever means are necessary to embody love to the one in need. This is precisely what makes Bonhoeffer’s expectation of discipleship so radical. As Madision Grace II points out, for Bonhoeffer, “obedience to God now included inward acts of the mind and heart as well as outward attempts at righteousness.”
Bonhoeffer will not fall prey to an age of reason championed in the past. He doesn’t have to figure out suffering before he will act to address it. As Aubert points out, “Bonhoeffer is not interested in providing a logical explanation of what evil is; rather, he approaches the problem of evil from the ‘christological centre of historic Christian faith.’”
For Bonhoeffer, at this Christological center is a grace that is costly. It is costly not only to God because of the sacrifice of Jesus but also costly for the believer of whom it will also cost his or her life. Bonhoeffer believes that a Christian lives in between the calls to “follow” Jesus.
When a believer is called he or she has no choice but to follow. These calls come in different forms and in different circumstances. Bonhoeffer believed the Christian was always called to stand against injustice. In his sermon on vengeance he preached that, “It is an evil time when the world lets injustice happen silently.”
It must be noted the context here is a sermon on Psalm 58 in which Bonhoeffer is calling upon the church to leave vengeance in the hands of God. Bonhoeffer is not arguing that Scripture should be edited. He is not arguing that the psalmists was not justified in calling upon God to “break their teeth in their mouths” (Psalm 58:6). Instead Bonhoeffer says this prayer cannot be prayed “because we are too sinful, too evil for it” and “Only he who is totally without sin can pray like that.”
This would immediately lead the hearer of the sermon to think that it would be impossible to ever pray this prayer. It begs the question however of the identity of the psalmist. This psalmist is indeed David, one who has been guilty in the text of Scripture of some very public sins. This is the same David, however, who has cried out for God to “blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1). This will allow for Bonhoeffer to declare that the psalmist is innocent and that a psalm of vengeance can only be prayed by such a person.
Bonhoeffer declares David innocent only because Christ is being prepared in him. This innocence is only in the atoning work of the coming Christ. Bonhoeffer’s conclusion then is that David is not praying this prayer of vengeance for his own sake. More importantly, he is not praying it “to preserve his own life.” Instead, David has “humbly endured all personal abuse.”
In hindsight, perhaps it is here that it can be seen that Bonhoeffer identifies himself and his plight with David. He sees David becoming one with God, Jesus, and the coming church. David’s identity is no longer his own. His identity is so intertwined with the divine that Bonhoeffer sees “Christ himself praying this Psalm” not only “in David” but also in “the universal holy church.”
This is a key statement for Bonhoeffer. And it is again about identity. Christianity or Germanism? If the disciple and the church dies to self fully then his or her identity becomes fully inseparable from Christ in such a way that it is acting as His hands and feet in the world as the “innocence of Christ steps before the world and accuses it.”
Bonhoeffer saw himself in David’s psalm of vengeance not only in the words of the psalm but in the identity of the psalmist. Bonhoeffer could only take the drastic action of joining the violent resistance against Hitler if he himself had fully died to self, become one with Christ, and allowed Christ to be the one who was acting through him. How could he resort to violence? Only because he believed that Christ had called him. But what had Christ called him to do? Sin? For Bonhoeffer, this is not the point. The point is that whenever Christ calls a man to do something he does it. He walks in the will of God. He cannot refuse it. The will of God is not a simple understanding of good and evil for Bonhoeffer. In Ethics, he wrote that a person cannot figure out the will of God “from [their] own knowledge of good and evil” but only when he has “lost all knowledge of his own of good and evil and therefore abandons any attempt to know the will of God by his own means.”
For Bonhoeffer, discipleship demands action. Inactivity in the face of injustice is not an option. Bonhoeffer declared that “Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior.” But would Christ call someone to do something that was contrary to the law of God? Again, for Bonhoeffer this misses the point. To understand this further, Bonhoeffer’s theology of discipleship must be further examined.
In Discipleship, Bonhoeffer notes how Jesus calls Peter to leave everything and follow and to the “supreme followship of martyrdom.” Again, this is a costly grace that requires something of the disciple who “had received the grace which costs.” Like with Peter, “grace and discipleship are inseparable.” The harmony here is between what God is doing as the initiator by applying grace, and the response of the believer to live in that grace as a disciple. Bonhoeffer saw this harmony fading in the church as “cheap grace” stood in bold opposition to true discipleship because of its “low cost.”
For Bonhoeffer, a discipleship that did not cost something was not truly discipleship. This was never put to the test more than when people are oppressed by injustice. Injustice is an enemy that threatens both the one who is directly oppressed and also the one who dares to take action against it. Injustice causes the oppressed to cry out. In crying out the oppressed participates with Israel who cried out while in bondage at the hands of the Egyptians. It should be noted that Israel is not said to have cried out directly to God but simply “cried out” (Exodus 2:23) and then “God heard their cry” (Exodus 3:7). He not only heard their cry but he answered it. Bonhoeffer sees the role of the believer as being so consumed in the identity of God through Christ that he participates with God in hearing and answering those cries. That is why Bonhoeffer can declare it “evil” when “the oppression of the poor and the wretched cries out to heaven in a loud voice and judges and rulers of the earth keep silent about it.”
The believer cannot keep silent. But he also cannot declare the words of the 58th Psalm without being “innocent.” Here we finally see why discipleship is so crucial in Bonhoeffer’s theology. Discipleship does not stand alone as a kind of personal piety. The way in which a disciple loves God directly impacts the way he treats others. If a disciple loves God intimately he will naturally overflow love into the lives of others. In other words, he will love others well. In Bonhoeffer’s theology there is even more. If a person is so closely connected to and consumed by God then they become even more than distributors of His love. The disciple becomes even more – an agent of His intervention in the world. Though Bonhoeffer believed God transcended all, He is a God of action who intervenes and “is always in actu.”
That intervention and action is delivered. While there certainly were precedents for God delivering it by himself striking down rulers (Herod, for example), was God going to strike Hitler dead? Bonhoeffer believed in the power of this transcendent God while also seeing himself as an agent through which God’s transcendence was carried out. To Bonhoeffer’s credit, he wanted to know what it meant to participate. This is seen well in addressing one of his friends as he says, “Following Christ—what that really is, I’d like to know.” And in his case and his context, it seems he believed he was called upon to be an agent of the divine wrath of God upon the Nazi regime.
Bonhoeffer saw himself as living in a larger story than his own. He believed he was part of a story, the story, of God. Bonhoeffer greatly valued that story above his own believing that “we are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth.”
Bonhoeffer’s resort to a violent resistance was not for him a way of taking control and doing things his way. Instead he saw it as the selfless contribution to the story of God that called him to play a sacrificial role. His personal well being or piety was not his greatest concern. Contributing his God-given role in the story was the priority. That is why his dire circumstance was not in his own hands. The present moment was not to be figured out. It was far too complex. So Bonhoeffer only knows to look to the past. The present could only be interpreted according to the past. This is seen in Bonhoeffer’s declaration that, “It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to His Son Jesus Christ, than to seek what God intends for us today.”
For Bonhoeffer it was not about whether or not resisting Hitler could cost him his life but how the will of God, however dangerous it may be, could be determined by the past story. Israel and Christ’s past story were the means to his present. And Christ’s death was for Bonhoeffer far more important than his own personal present reality. This is where and how Bonhoeffer saw himself called into the story. He knew he was called to die with Christ. But it was Christ’s resurrection that served as “the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day.”
Because of Bonhoeffer’s decision to join the resistance, it can only be wondered how history would have judged him had he succeeded in killing Hitler. Again, this was not the point for Bonhoeffer. Instead, it was Christ who was first and foremost. “I find no salvation in my life history, but only in the history of Jesus Christ.” The guilt associated with resorting to violence made him no worse than how he already saw himself as “the greatest of sinner.” Of his own sin he declared it to be “the worst, the most grievous, the most reprehensible.”
Bonhoeffer was a saint “without wanting to be one.” He saw his life as so completely surrendered to God that he was not his own. Doing good was in no way an act of righteousness for him but rather a way of life. Bonhoeffer made the decision to return to Germany from America not simply as a decision of the will but because “he surrenders to a power that is stronger than himself and in the end cannot say no to it.”
Perhaps the most tragic loss for Bonhoeffer was the loss of community. As was the theme of one of his famous works, Bonhoeffer believed the church was called to be unified against evil and to engage in “life together” whatever the circumstance. James McClendon points this out well in describing this great tragedy as a communal failure of the German church. McClendon laments that “they had no effective communal moral structure in the church that was adequate to the crucial need of church and German people” which led them “to say nothing of the need of Jewish people” and “to say nothing of the world’s people.”
The German church had failed to follow the call of God into the depths of suffering love on behalf of others. It had instead become more concerned with the cor curvum in se (I-enclosedness). The power of the community to intervene and stand against injustice was lost. The “collective person” yielded to individuality, a sin that Bonhoeffer traced back to the Garden and the Fall.
Bonhoeffer’s theological dilemma of losing community shows his need to contextualize. The church community would not act. Bonhoeffer was left to form a different community. This would be a community, the resistance, designed to take guilt upon itself for the sake of the greater good of the world. In Weikart’s critique of the many views of Bonhoeffer, he upholds Schlingensipen’s view that “Bonhoeffer recognized that killing HItler would be murder and thus sinful but he nonetheless thought it the most responsible course of action.”
There are certainly shortcomings to Bonhoeffer’s theology. This can especially be seen in his theodicy, which is both attractive and somewhat flawed at the same time.
It is attractive in that it offers a call to participate. It is a rallying cry to stand up with God and resist evil. It falls short however in fully trusting that God is out ahead of His people as the divine warrior who will fight the battles of His people. The complexity here is discerning the call to participate. As is seen with Bonhoeffer, the question of “when?” seems to be answered with,“always,” because God is always acting and His followers are always following. The primary danger of this theology is when a person assumes incorrectly that “their” battle is God’s battle.
Bonhoeffer’s theology of the absorption of guilt for the sake of others also creates a Christological dilemma. While this theology is extremely noble it unintentionally fails to allow Christ to be all sufficient. Bonhoeffer would never have stated this or embraced such a thought. But if a human being is thought to be able to play a role in atonement in any way, this would seem to take away from the complete confidence that salvation is found in Christ alone. Bonhoeffer would not argue this point but would instead see the Christian as somehow participating with Christ in the application of this atonement upon those in need.
Bonhoeffer’s voice continues to challenge and confront the church today, especially the American church. Much of Christianity in America has been reduced to “getting saved.” Becoming a Christian has often become predominantly about avoiding hell and gaining eternal life in heaven. Bonhoeffer would call this a “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer shows the church today how an embodied faith should look. He shows that Jesus teachings in the Sermon on the Mount were more than simply ways to show how much Christians fall short and need His grace. Interestingly, this was Luther’s view. Bonhoeffer sought to correct the perspective from the past while also speaking into the future to a “Christianized” world who essentially embodies the same Lutheran perspective. Discipleship is a call to action and to embody Jesus. It demands something of the believer. That something is the believer’s life – all of it.
In a world that is crying out for justice, Bonhoeffer is an inspiration to take action. The church often times deceives itself into thinking it is doing “good” by coming up with facades that make themselves feel good for the ministry “programs” they run. Often times these programs do very little. Bonhoeffer calls for a sacrificial love. For the American church this means detachment from material possessions. For a culture that is among the richest in the world, Bonhoeffer’s call is to give until it requires something.
Perhaps even more, Bonhoeffer’s embodied theology for the church today is a challenge to confront its own “Hitlers.” While Bonhoeffer’s context was certainly among the most unique in history, his faith and embodiment of it would apply to all churches in all cultures in all times. The church today must learn to hear the calling of Jesus and follow Him wherever He may lead. This means participating with God in resisting the evils of such things as poverty and injustice. If the church today practiced the embodied faith of Bonhoeffer, “justice would roll down” (Amos 5:24) as the hungry are fed and poor are cared for.
Finally, the church can learn today from Bonhoeffer’s community. Much can be learned about the necessity of “life together.” Often times today Christians stand as an island. Bonhoeffer experienced the beauty of community such as Finkenwalde. He also experienced the failure of community as in the German church’s inability to stand together and take action in the face of evil. The church today can learn from both. Bonhoeffer’s enigmatic legacy will continue to speak to the church as a reminder and a challenge that the telos is, and will always be, to follow Jesus and to embody Him to the surrounding world. Just as Bonhoeffer’s question of “Christianity or Germanism?” was declared, the American church in many ways must ask, “Christianity or the American Dream?” Bonhoeffer’s theology, if practiced by the church today, makes it very difficult to answer “both.”
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