“Falling away from Christ is at the same time falling away from one’s own true nature. There is only one way to turn back, and that is acknowledgement of guilt toward Christ. The guilt we must acknowledge is not the occasional mistake or going astray, not the breaking of of an abstract law, but falling away from Christ, from the form of the One who would take form in us and lead us to our own true form. Genuine acknowledgement of guilt does not grow from experiences of dissolution and decay but, for us who have encountered Christ, only by looking at the form Christ has taken.”
Bonhoeffer has a much different view of guilt than Reverend Lovejoy, that wonderful foil of the Church. Common understanding of the Church is that we love guilt – and it stops there. Luther thought guilt was great, because its presence opened the door to grace, by which we are saved; Protestants, particularly evangelicals, have made guilt a major point in evangelism: once people realize that they’re evil sinners doomed to hell, then they can turn to Christ and receive grace.
Bonhoeffer makes a subtle distinction here that’s very important. It’s not that we must understand our own guilt before we can turn to Christ, but it is precisely when we turn to Christ and see in Him everything we are supposed to be, we see our guilt in that we have fallen away from Him (and thus from our true selves). We are called to be formed by him, in his image or form, and the comparison serves to showcase our guilt in falling short of that. Jesus isn’t concerned with keeping lists of our sins; it is not your sinful habits, your slip-ups, that keeps you from God: it’s the fact that you’re not yet just like Jesus, that you are imperfect and sinful in general, that you have not been conformed to Christ. Guilt is not something we exploit in order to turn ourselves or others to Christ’s grace; it is something that we experience in light of Christ and simultaneous to grace. It is because we have encountered Christ that we are able to acknowledge our guilt, and it is that acknowledgement (in a sense) that makes us the Church:
“The place where this acknowledgement of guilt becomes real is the church…the church is that community of people that has been led by the grace of Christ to acknowledge its guilt toward Christ…if it was otherwise, the church would no longer be the church. The church is today the community of people who, grasped by the power of Christ’s grace, acknowledge, confess, and take upon themselves not only their personal sins, but also the Western world’s falling away from Jesus Christ as guilt toward Jesus Christ.”
Whoa, hang on: taking on the guilt of the Western world’s falling away from Jesus Christ? We’re the Modern West, we don’t do the whole “corporate guilt” thing, right? We’re all about our own personal guilt, which nobody else shares; we are unique in our sinfulness, every single one of us – right? After all, we’re all at different levels of sinfulness; for example, I’m way less sinful than that adulterer in my church. [/sarcasm]
“When one still calculates and weighs things, an unfruitful self-righteous morality takes the place of confessing guilt face-t0-face with the figure of Christ. Because the origin of the confession of guilt is the form of Christ and not our individual transgressions, therefore it is complete and unconditional…Looking on this grace of Christ frees us completely from looking at the guilt of others and brings all people to fal on their knees before Christ with the confession: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
It’s not our individual sins that cause us to fall on our knees before Christ: it is Him, His perfection, that drives us to our knees. It is the contrast between us and Him. In light of that contrast, our individual sins blur together, leaving us with the simple understanding that we fall short in every way; we are not confessing our sins, as much as we are confessing our sinfulness. The Latin above is from the Catholic Mass, and is the confession of sin, which has been traditionally translated “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” Christ died to take the penalty of our sins; regardless of which sins they were, the same confession applies: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. That’s something we can say together, a confession we rightly share in, a confession that none are exempt from.
“With this confession the guilt of the world falls on the church, on Christians, and because here it is confessed and not denied, the possibililty of forgiveness is opened. Though this is completely incomprehensible to the moralist, there is no search here for the actual guilty person, no demand for the just expiation as punishment for the evil and reward for the good. Evildoers are not branded by their evil…for there are people here who take all – really all – guilt upon themselves, not in some heroic self-sacrificing decision, but simply overwhelmed by their very own guilt toward Christ. In that moment they can no longer think about retributive justice for the “chief sinners” but only about the forgiveness of their own great guilt.”
When one is confronted with Christ, our own sin stands out unmistakably, and leaves us with no regard for the sins of others. When we confess our sins, realizing that it is through our fault that Christ was crucified, we cannot look to pass that blame onto any others; nor do we seek to pass the punishment Christ has already paid on to others. In light of this, I’m not sure I could ever support capital punishment, for Christ was executed on my behalf – and no less on the behalf of the murderer. Something to think about, I guess. But how can acknowledgement of our personal sin be taking on the guilt for all of the sin in the world?
“First of all, the quite personal sin of each individual is acknowledged here as a source of poison for the community. Even the most secret sin of the individual soils and destroys the body of Christ. Murder, envy, strife, war – all arise from the desire that lies within us (James 4:1ff). I cannot pacify myself by saying that my part in all this is slight and hardly noticeable. There is no calculating here. I must acknowledge that my own sin is to blame for all of these things. I am guilty of inordinate desire; I am guilty of cowardly silence when I should have spoken; I am guilty of untruthfulness and hypocrisy in the face of threatening violence; I am guilty of showing no mercy, of denying the poorest of my neighbours; I am guilty of disloyalty and falling away from Christ. Why does it concern me if others are also guilty? Every sin of another I can excuse; only my own sin, of which I remain guilty, I can never excuse.”
We can excuse others all day long, but we cannot excuse our own sin: this is the reality that strikes us when we come face-t0-face with Christ, the reality that we confess and acknowledge – and in that confession, Christ Himself excuses us, forgives us, and redeems us. In each of our individual sins, we take part in the evils that destroy the world: every time I lie, I take part in the dishonesty that leaves families broken; every time I steal, I take part in the evil that leads to exploitation of the poor and the looting against the rich; every time I lust I take part in the thing which leads to so much rape and adultery in this world. Because I do all of these things, I am an accomplice to the evil that tears our world apart, and I can make no accusations against those who also take part in it. Faced with Christ, the acknowledgement of our guilt springs forth: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!
What grace we have recieved, each one of us the chief of sinners! Our guilt is deep and all-inclusive; how much moreso the grace of Christ!