Confronting Christian Hypocrisy


It was funny when he entered the race, ridiculous when he got his first Evangelical endorsement, outrageous when they kept coming in, shocking when so-called Christian leaders (apply the so-called to either term) defended his vitriol while he was popular, and downright shameful when, over the last several hours as scores of prominent Republicans abandon any pretence of supporting him, the Christians stand by him.

I feel sick, but I’m also angry. I want to look Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, James Dobson, etc. in the eye and say “That’s it, we’re pulling your card. Your claim to Christianity is revoked, you no longer have any right to identify with Christ.” But I can’t, because it doesn’t work that way. At the same time, I can and must call them out. Christians live with the call to offer grace and mercy and forgiveness, as well as the call to challenge injustice and expose hypocrisy. Doing them both at the same time is really hard, but it helps if we understand the situation.


When the Nazis came to power in a Christian country (yes, Germany was officially a Christian country), and ultimately when the holocaust occurred there, Carl Jung (famed German psychotherapist) described it as a type of “mass possession.” Why would so many otherwise decent people go along with such an awful regime doing such horrifying things? We are susceptible to something unseen, that thing that turns a large group of happy sports fans into a rioting mob, suddenly breaking windows and burning cars. That thing that causes otherwise stingy people to give to charities during disaster relief, leading to record amounts given; or that leads to people who haven’t watched a baseball game in their life suddenly wearing a Jays hat in public.

We’ve long known that we are susceptible to peer pressure, trends, etc., but in some cases even a rational modernist like Carl Jung resorts to religious language of “possession.” These invisible forces not only influence us, but they cause us to do things that we would not otherwise do, even things that go against our own values, and deafen us to the dissonance. Theologians throughout the 20th century picked up on this, and connected it to Paul’s language of the Powers and Principalities.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 6:12

This kind of language points us to a struggle that is both internal (psychological, involving our will and virtues/vices) and external (social, involving social institutions). In both cases it is a struggle to maintain our freedom against a force that would overcome our very self.

Here’s the thing though: we make the Powers. Think about it: we elect a government, and we grant that government authority over us by consenting to its use of power. Walter Wink, the latest major theologian to write on the Powers, describes them as an emergent spiritual property that arises from groups of people who form social institutions, formally or informally. The Powers are social institutions, but they are also spiritual forces that exercise influence over us – often even more than we have over them! Long-standing major institutions, like governments or political parties or cultural institutions (like the Religious Right) are very powerful forces that demand a lot from their followers, including deep loyalty and obedience – whether they state it explicitly or not.

Walter Wink

Walter Wink

There are two points we can take out of this to apply to Evangelicals who support Trump despite his obviously unrepentant sinfulness and demagoguery:

First, these people are caught up in something that they can’t control. Actually. Which is at least partially why leaders who scorned Trump as a buffoon during the nomination contest later endorsed him wholeheartedly. Sure, we could be cynical and say that they’re all faking it – but you can only say something so many times before you begin to believe it, and I really do think that these people believe what they say about Trump. Surely he believes what he says about himself. (I think Trump is caught up in this spiritual quagmire along with everyone else.)

Second, the Powers we’re talking about are the US government and the two major political parties. Even for non-Americans, we’re pretty much all involved in this. We are a part of this system, part of the group from which the spiritual Power emerges and over which it exudes influence. We are all complicit. Which is why we can’t just point fingers at the most grievous hypocrites and be done with it. We have to follow what Wink called “Jesus’ Third Way” – neither winning nor losing, but instead reconciling.

Solidarity with Christ

The thing about Jesus is that he managed to maintain solidarity with everyone. Not only did he refuse to get involved in partisan squabbling, religious or political, but he also lived and died with and for people in every station. He lived among the poor, and yet still moved among the rich. He died as an innocent victim, in solidarity with all victims; and yet he died a criminal’s death, in solidarity with criminals. We too are called to identify ourselves with the oppressed and criminals, saints and sinners.

Following Christ involves looking first at ourselves – because we are the criminals. As I said above, we are all complicit in this broken system that victimizes people. In that regard we also have to look at how this broken system hurts everyone involved: we are the victims AND the perpetrators, and so we need to recognize that those we tend to see as being the perpetrators are also victims, just like us. Recognizing that we’re all both perpetrator and victim gives us a solid base for solidarity. Because we cannot have real solidarity with Christ if we do not have solidarity with those with and for whom he lived and died.

Blind Guides

Naming the Powers, bringing them into the light to expose their injustice, is a painful process. After all, we’ve just established that it means looking inward and recognizing our complicity! But that also forms the basis for addressing injustice without becoming hypocrites.

Hypocrisy is the one thing Jesus refused to put up with, and he was in a position to tell it like it is. He addressed the Powers that ruled his world, refused to be complicit in them, and then called out those who blindly continued in their complicity but claimed to know better. We absolutely must address the hypocrisy among us, first in our very selves, and then in our brothers and sisters.

Tonight, James Dobson, who righteously condemned Bill Clinton’s sin of adultery after Clinton came clean and publicly repented, urged Christians to forgive Donald Trump for his sins (despite a non-apology) by way of voting for him. Rachel Held Evans tweeted that this is spiritual abuse, and she’s damn right about that. Should we forgive Trump? Sure. Trust him to represent the interests of women and people of colour? Absolutely not. Using Christian obligation to forgive as a way of directing voters is an egregious abuse of power, of the name of Christ, and of the people who trust you. Dr. Dobson, you are a blind guide, a white-washed tomb, and you need to repent.

That said, you’re always welcome among us. Not over us, but certainly among us. Because like it or not, we’re in this together. I will not follow you, but I hope you’ll join me as we follow Christ together.

The Church’s Mandate

American Christians are more political than just about any people on earth, and I actually think that’s a pretty good thing, so long as it’s well directed. The Church has a political mandate, but it has nothing to do with voting for a particular party or exercising cultural control.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was probably the most brilliant theologian of the 20th century, and that’s saying something. He was also hung by the Nazis. One of the things he was working on when he died was an essay on the Divine Mandates, which he named as Work/Culture, Government, Family, and Church. Each of these aspects of life is given a mandate by God, a reason for being, and they must all stay in balance with each other. Whenever one of them takes control of the others, the result is an idolatrous Power (using the language above).

Ironically, this is the cover of the biography of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I can't figure out how he doesn't see the dissonance between what Bonhoeffer died for and what he supports in Trump.

Ironically, this is the cover of the biography of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I can’t figure out how he doesn’t see the dissonance between what Bonhoeffer died for and what he supports in Trump.

Each Mandate has its function in society. For example, Government is supposed to keep society safe and ordered, but it should not take on the role of Family (e.g., what kind of society would put all children in government care rather than their parents?). The Mandate of Church is to keep the other Mandates in line, either by using our prophetic voice to signal when one Mandate is over-reaching, or by standing in the gap for Mandates that are being subordinated or are failing to do their duties. For example, when a family breaks down, the Church provides a home and family care; when Work is unavailable, the Church provides food and necessities; and when Government breaks down, the Church provides social services. None of these things are the sole responsibility of the Church, but the Church can be a surrogate to meet needs neglected by the proper Mandates. And the Church is mandated to cry out at injustice and expose the Mandates that exercise their power inappropriately.

Right now in America, the Mandate of Church (in the form of right-wing Evangelicals) is in a very strange position. First, it has attempted to usurp both Government and Culture (via the Religious Right), and has melded with Government (via the Republican Party). As such, it has completely undermined its own prophetic voice, making it unable to expose the systemic injustices of the institutions it has aligned with – or the personal injustices of its candidate. To illustrate how deep this complicity goes, consider this: even as many high-profile Republicans have denounced Trump over the last 24 hours, Evangelical “leaders” have stood by him and glossed over his disgusting, self-centred misogyny. Evangelical Christians are more committed to the Republican Party than the Republican Party is.

That’s demonic. That’s idolatrous. That absolutely has to stop. We’ve lost our way.


Jesus Christ and his followers have a crucial role to play in our politics. Our job is to see the Powers for what they are, to reduce our own complicity as much as possible, and to raise a prophetic voice against systemic injustice. We need to keep our heads and resist the “mass possession” that has led so many to support a man who is the antithesis of Christ. And we need to call on our supposed leaders who have become blind to their own complicity to repent, and do so with the solidarity of Christ.

If we can do that, the rest of this election season will look very different. I’d like to see that.

Book Review: Just Spirituality

Cannon, Mae Elise. Just Spirituality. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 208 pages.

In Just Spirituality, Mae Cannon undergirds our efforts toward social justice with the essential practices and spiritual disciplines that give those efforts a solid foundation and longevity. In an age when activism is cool, this is a necessary and welcome approach!My own experience with the book is perhaps the opposite of what was intended. I was immediately drawn to the book because, while I tend to be passionate about issues of justice, I struggle with spiritual disciplines. While Cannon seems to want to enhance our activism through spirituality, I found myself more interested and engaged in spirituality because of its connection to activism.

In the book, Cannon profiles seven famous Christian leaders of the 20th century, pairing each of them with a particular spiritual practice that enhanced their ministry, and then comparing them to a contemporary Christian leader. This approach has strengths and weaknesses.

The weakness is that there is far too much material to be covered in a short chapter, making the connection between the particular practice and the person’s biography seem vague and overly simplistic: we know that Mother Theresa practiced many spiritual disciplines, and it isn’t clear that silence stood out or influenced her work any more than any of the others. Cannon acknowledges this by discussing the spiritual life of the subjects of her book more widely, but that de-emphasizes the particular practices that she means to emphasize. The connection between the historical and the contemporary subjects also seems quite thin at points for the same reason. Ultimately, Cannon is summarizing a person’s life, ministry, theology, and spiritual practices on a handful of pages, making it come across as a teaser, and perhaps a bit shallow.

The strength of Cannon’s approach is that it serves as an accessible entry point into the lives and stories of people of faith, both exalted heroes and everyday saints. It’s one thing to point to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prayer life as exemplary, but it’s quite another to compare myself to him! Cannon’s inclusion of contemporary examples makes such practices seem much more accessible and realistic, and serve to remind us that it was Bonhoeffer’s practice of spiritual disciplines that made him a saint, not his saintliness that made him able to practice spiritual disciplines.

I appreciate Cannon’s variety: while I was very familiar with Bonhoeffer’s story, and generally familiar with Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Theresa, I had only vague notions of Oscar Romero’s story, had only heard the name of Watchman Nee, and had never heard of Fairuz at all. These seven heroes come from all over the world (no two from the same global region), and all served in different movements and conflicts. Amidst their differences their similarities stand out all the more, as they are all defined by their spiritual discipline and commitment to care for others.

On the other hand, Cannon’s contemporary examples seem to come from a much narrower field. I appreciate that they were all examples that she has a personal connection with, but at times it almost seems like a commercial for Willow Creek. Her writing style was somewhat repetitive; at 208 pages it’s hardly a long book, but it could have been shorter. This style made reading more than one chapter at once a bit of a trial, but the content of the book is much better digested one meal at a time: read one chapter per day, or better, one per week, and then try out the practices recommended at the end of each chapter. I found that doing so gave me a sense of practicing the discipline with the person. I intend to revisit the chapters, one at a time, and make a more concerted effort to implement the disciplines described.

Ultimately, this book works best as an introduction, a teaser, into both the lives of these important Christian figures and the disciplines they practiced. It’s an excellent book to read in a small group setting, where each chapter can be discussed and elaborated upon and other sources can be brought into the discussion. Disciplines are usually more difficult to practice alone (particularly the discipline of community!), so a small group setting would be a perfect place to explore these disciplines and integrate them into your life.

Overall I give it a B. For what it is, it’s quite good; for what it could be, it’s disappointingly short and simplistic. Read it with friends.


On Being Subject to Authority

The church-community has, therefore, a very real impact on the life of the world. It gains space for Christ. For whatever is “in Christ” is no longer under the dominion of the world, of sin, or of the law. Within this newly created community, all the laws of this world have lost their binding force. This sphere in which brothers and sisters are loved with Christian love is subject to Christ; it is no longer subject to the world. The church-community can never consent to any restrictions of its service of love and compassion toward other human beings. For wherever there is a brother or sister, there Christ’s own body is present; and wherever Christ’s body is present, his church-community is also always present, which means I must also be present there. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (DBWE 4), 236.

An interesting take on political theology: rather than being subject to two kingdoms (Church and World) as Lutherans hold, Bonhoeffer says that we as Christians are only subject to Christ, no matter where we are or what we’re doing. There is no sphere in which we stop being Christians, united to Christ and to one another; wherever one Christian is, the whole body of Christ is with them.

Does this mean that Christians are not subject to the laws of the land? Yes! Does that mean that we should not obey them? By no means! We are subject to Christ, who demands even more of us than any law; all just laws still fall short of the demands of discipleship, and so obeying the law is the least service to Christ. If a law is unjust, then it is contrary to Christ and must not be obeyed. Even though we should not obey an unjust law out of a sense of patriotism, refusal to obey an unjust law is again the least service to Christ. Whether we obey just laws or disobey unjust laws, in either case we do so incidentally, not out of service to the law or to the nation but out of service to Christ, to whom alone we are subject.

This can be seen in the way Christians live in community without coercion. Acts tells us that they held all things in common and gave to everyone as they had need, providing for widows, etc. They did not collect taxes amongst themselves to do so, but everyone gave as they were able, voluntarily. What the law requires under coercion, Christians give freely as service to Christ. In this way we are not subject to even the best laws, because we surpass them in Christ.

There is no such thing as a Christian criminal in this sense, because if we transgress so far as to break the law, we have long since failed to fulfill the demands of Christian discipleship, that is, to follow Christ. And when we break the law in service to Christ, we are not called criminals but martyrs, prisoners of conscience or faith.

So in all things seek first the kingdom of Heaven, and the law will be satisfied.

W5 with Bonhoeffer

I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures…very, very slowly. I can only do about two pages before I have to write a post. My assignment is an analysis of a 23 page chunk, and I thought “that’s pretty short – should be easy.” Right.

So, for the first six pages Bonhoeffer is introducing the topic of Christology by talking about the kinds of questions that we can ask. It’s not quite W5, but he goes through several different questions that humans ask to find the one that is appropriate for the task of Christology. I’ve already written a few posts about it over at iheartbarth, if you’re interested; here I’ll try to be a bit less meandering, but I’m still working through the concepts. Most of what I’ll say here is Bonhoeffer, but much of it is interpreted and expanded upon as I work it out.

1. How

This seems to be the only question that human beings are capable of asking on our own. Whether we’re examining the world through the lens of the sciences, the soft sciences, or the humanities, all of our questions are a type of the question “how?” Knowledge, in the sense of what we can learn about the world through studying it, involves cataloguing the world into different categories. These categories, though, occur within our own heads: we can really only understand anything else in its relation to other things, but ultimately we understand all things in relation to ourselves. This is a limitation we have, a result of our limited perspective. All questions boil down to “how” because ultimately we’re asking “how does this other thing relate to me?”

This is a useful question when dealing with objects, but when we are confronted by an other, another subject, it will no longer do. When we ask “how” of another person, we are in a sense objectifying them because we treat them as something whose primary feature is its relation to ourselves. We are at the centre of our own universe, a position from which we cannot respect the other as other; they instead become a mere projection of ourselves. I may have much in common with you, and so I have a sense that I know you or have knowledge about you; but in reality, I’m only projecting myself onto you because my knowledge of you is only in relation to myself.

2. Who

When we are faced with an other, the “how” questions no longer suffice. Not only does it objectify the other, but it does not obtain any actual knowledge of them, because it only allows us to project ourselves onto them, to co-opt them. No, the only sufficient question for an other is “who are you?”

The trick is, we cannot ask “who are you?” until the other has revealed themselves to us. As long as we are asking from within our self-centred universe, in which all knowledge is categorized by the relationship of objects to ourselves, “who” is actually just “how” in disguise. But when another reveals herself to us, we can suddenly transcend our self-defined paradigms: knowledge has come into our self-contained universe from outside! Only then is there any fruit in asking “who are you?” because now we have a basis for asking the question, and a new paradigm for the knowledge that the answer will bring.

Bonhoeffer hasn’t mentioned it in this lecture so far, but I don’t think it’s wise to read Bonhoeffer without keeping in mind his concept of the ethical encounter with the other. I think that is precisely what he’s talking about here. In short, to Bonhoeffer ethics cannot take place in our minds, as if we’re sitting around a table debating ethical questions and hypotheticals; rather, real ethics takes place in the ethical encounter with the other. We cannot act ethically all by ourselves, because the ethical question only arises when we meet an other. The other provides a boundary for ourselves, a place where me-ness ends and other-ness begins, and this boundary is where life takes place. It is at this boundary that ethical questions arise, but they arise here because it is at this boundary that the other can make claims upon me: I have responsibilities to the other. Bonhoeffer spends some time in his first dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, developing this notion; here we can add that this boundary is also the place where I can gain genuine knowledge that is more than just a projection of myself, because this other not only provides a boundary for my me-ness, but they also provide a boundary for my self-centred paradigms and categories. In the encounter with the other there arises an ethical claim on me; when the other reveals herself, there arises an ontological challenge: there exists something outside of me!

But we can get around that. Bonhoeffer points out how clever we are at assimilating the other into ourselves, and says that we can even do so with God, or his self-revelation in the Bible. But the challenge that Christ poses to us is greater, and more insistent, than that of any other:

But what happens if the counter Logos [that is, Christ] suddenly presents its demand in a wholly new form, so that it is no longer an idea or a word that is turned against the autonomy of the [human] logos, but rather the counter Logos appears, somewhere and at some time in history, as a human being, and as a human being sets itself up as judge over the human logos and says “I am the truth.” I am the death of the human logos, I am the life of God’s Logos, I am the Alpha and Omega? Human beings are those who must die and must fall, with their logos, into my hands. Here it is no longer possible to fit the Word made flesh into the logos classification system. Here all that remains is the question: Who are you? – DBWE 12, 302

We can treat God as an idea, and categorize him in our self-centred paradigms; we can treat the Bible as an object, and do the same. But in Christ, God confronts us as a concrete other, a human being. Now, though other human beings can confront us with the end of ourselves and make ethical claims on us, Christ makes much greater claims! He is much more difficult to ignore. Faced with Christ as the self-revelation of God, “how” is completely insufficient, and we cannot help but ask “who are you?”

3. That

“That” isn’t to be questioned; he goes so far as to say that questioning it is “prohibited” in the Christological enterprise. Once we have asked “who are you?”…

Two questions are prohibited:

(1) Whether the answer that is given is the right answer. This question has no right to be asked, because there can be no authority for our human logos to cast doubt on the truth of this Logos. Jesus’ own witness to himself, then and now, stands on its own and substantiates itself. The “that” in “that God was revealed in Christ” cannot be theologically questioned.

(2) The second prohibited question is how the “that” of the revelation can be conceived. This question leads in the direction of trying again to get behind Christ’s claim, and to ground it in our own. In doing so, our own logos is presuming on the role of the Father of Jesus Christ himself, when all we actually know is the fact of God’s revelation. – 303

As I’ve already written about this, I’ll keep it short: we have no basis on which to question whether God has actually revealed himself in Christ. Aside from Christ’s self-revelation, we’re pretty much stuck inside our own heads. We can’t question Christ’s answer to our question of “who are you” because it actually comes from outside of ourselves; and we can’t question how we can know Christ’s answer to our asking of that question, because we have no epistemological basis for doing so, because it does come from outside ourselves. It transcends all of our categories and classifications, and we can only accept it or reject it. Anything else is just another attempt to return to the “how” and assimilate Christ into ourselves – or kill him. It doesn’t make for a good Christological endeavour, either way.

What happens again if the claim of the counter Logos is questioned. The human logos kills the Logos of God, the Word become human, which it has just questioned. Because the human logos does not want to die itself, the Logos of God, which is death to the human logos, must die instead. The Word become human must be hung on the cross by the human logos. The person who was causing the worry has been killed, and along with that person, the question.

But what happens when this counter Word, though it has been killed, raises itself from the dead as the living, eternal, ultimate, conquering Word of God, when it rises up to meet its murderers and rushes at them again, appearing as the Resurrected One who has overcome death? Here the question “Who are you?” becomes most poignant. Here it stands, alive forever, over and around and within humankind. The human being can still fight against the Word become human and kill him, but against the Resurrected One the human being has no power. We ourselves are now the ones who stand convicted. Now our question has been turned around. The question we have put to the person of Christ, “Who are you?” comes back at us: who are you, that you can ask this question? Do you live in the truth, so you can ask it? Who are you, you who can only ask about me because you have been justified and received grace through me? Only when this question has been heard has the christological question been definitively formulated. – 305

The claim that Christ makes on us when we encounter him is greater than the ethical claims of other humans: it is judgment and grace at the same time. Because of the judgment of that encounter, our question of “who are you?” springs back on us, as we become aware of ourselves before God as one judged. We can’t handle this, so we undermine the question, destroy it – we kill Christ so that the penetrating question “who are you?” will go away. But he returns, more glorious and more terrible than before, and his question “who are you?” remains. We can’t ask him, without the question returning to us. That is the judgment of encounter with Christ; the mercy and grace of the encounter with Christ is to hear his answer to the question. “Who are you?” is answered: the Son of God.

His answer, then, can only truly be heard in faith. To question his answer is to kill him, to reassert our own autonomy, to keep asking “how.” If we want to seriously ask “who are you?” we need to listen in faith to actually hear the answer (otherwise, we will only experience the question rebounding upon us in judgment). That is why Christology can only occur in the context of the church.

4. What

Finally, Bonhoeffer finishes up his introduction with the question of authority.

There are two contrasting types of authority in the world: the authority deriving from office, and the authority inherent in the person. When these two authorities confront each other, then the question posed to the authority of the person is “What” are you? The “what” means, what office do you hold? The question of the individual person to the person in authority is where do you as an individual get your authority? The answer is from myself, since I recognize your authority over me. Both questions about authority are derived from the “how question.” All people are holders of some office, of some community, of themselves. Even prophets are only bearers of the word; they are not the word itself.

What happens, then, when someone appears who claims not only to bring the divine office and Word but actually to be that very office and Word? That is, not only to have authority but to be authority itself? Here a new existence breaks into our existence. Here the highest authority in the world, that of the prophet, is superseded. This is no longer the saint, the reformer, the prophet, but rather the Son himself. Here we no longer ask, What are you, where do you come from? Here the question asked is that of the very revelation of God.

Once again, then, the only question we can ask of Christ is “Who are you?” We define ourselves and each other by our office, by our authority – authority that is, like our knowledge, derived from how things relate to ourselves. But Christ transcends all of that, because he is authority. “What” no longer has meaning, only “who?”

Christ transcends all of our categories and classifications, and therefore our knowledge and basis for knowledge; he also transcends our personal barriers, being an Other whose claim upon us judges us and gives us mercy and grace at the same time. In this way, Christ allows us to see ourselves, and our world, truly. The question “who are you?” is thus the question of transcendence and existence: we can only really know who we are in relation to Christ. Our classification system has become reversed, for now all things are known in relation to Christ rather than in relation to ourselves; and our sense of authority is reversed, for now authority is recognized to come from God rather than to be something that I give to others.

In this encounter with Christ we see the world as it truly is, and we see ourselves as we truly are, but only if we can ask in faith, “Who are you Lord?”

Reading Bonhoeffer: The End! (Of Religion)

This is it: tomorrow is the last day of class, and I’ve just finished my last required chapter of the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (chapter 13, “Christianity in a world come of age” by Peter Selby), which discusses Bonhoeffer’s notion in Letters and Papers from Prison of a “religionless Christianity” in “a world come of age.” (See LPP, letters from May 5-6, 1944, and especially June 8 and 30 1944)

A World Come of Age

When Bonhoeffer talks of “religion” in this context, he’s not talking about Christianity itself, but rather a certain notion of religion in general that nobody would aspire to, yet nevertheless existed quite strongly in the German Evangelical (Protestant) Church: outward proclamation combined with inward piety, and generally without much of an ethic or a politic at all. In a word, irrelevant, perhaps even hypocritical. But of course, Bonhoeffer had been answering this kind of empty religion his entire life: when as a child he told his family that he would be a theologian, and they were unimpressed due to the bourgeois nature of the institutional church, his answer was “then I will reform it!” His radical ecclesiology, stemming as it does from his robust christology, certainly was answer enough to a church that simply lacked engagement with the world.

The problem, though, was not simply that the church had lost relevance; rather, it was that the world (at least the world of modern intellectual Germany) no longer needed it. In the modern age of science, art, and social thought, the boundaries of knowledge had been continually pushed back, and with them, society’s reliance on God.

It’s not that God himself is irrelevant, but rather that “religion” tended to only present God as a deus ex machina, a God of the gaps, the answer to all things mysterious. In Bonhoeffer’s time, science was believed to have prevailed almost entirely, answering all of life’s questions. Without gaps in human knowledge, the God of the gaps was unnecessary. Humanity needed no intellectual crutch to lean on: it had come of age, and was now independent of God.

Religionless Christianity

Bonhoeffer recognized that the world had come of age, and was no longer dependent on the notion of God. Rather than rail against this, he embraced it, seeing it as something that God himself demanded of them. Rather than seeking God in unanswered questions, as “religion” did, Bonhoeffer held that we should seek God precisely in the answered questions. Rather than having a church that required people to come to it, and required people to lean on it, Bonhoeffer had already proposed a church that was radically “missional” (to use today’s language – see yesterday’s post for clarification), sent out into the world to exist on its behalf.

Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” still had a church – the type of community he proposed in all of his works, but particularly Sanctorum Communio, Discipleship, and Life Together, infused with the responsibilities outlined in Ethics. It also still had the necessity of a strong faith, discipleship, and spiritual disciplines. What it didn’t have, what it had given up, was proclamation: the proclamation of “religion”, and even of the Confessing Church who had held true to the gospel in the face of the Reich Church’s misuse of it to support Nazi ideology, had failed entirely. He held out hope that someday the time for proclamation would return, but in the meantime he suggested that Christianity in a world come of age would be a hidden church. In place of proclamation, which under “religion” had often been empty moralising, would be the radical existing-for-others ethic which required incredible discipline and spiritual/ethical formation. This church would bear witness through its actions, through its being-for-others, through its devotion to the God who had allowed himself to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross in order to be weak and suffer along with his creation. This suffering would be the mark of Christianity in a world come of age.

I sense in Bonhoeffer here a notion of progress (though perhaps that word is too loaded with conceptual and historical baggage): the world had begun to become self-sufficient, building societies and making discoveries and having laws and justice and occasionally peace – all “as if God didn’t exist.” We were getting along just as well without the notion and motivation of the existence of God as we were when we were shackled to religion, and this itself could be a testament to God at work in the world, allowing Himself to be pushed out of it while still upholding it, for the sake of our maturity. If the world can get by without being beholden to religion, should not also the church? It seems to me that Bonhoeffer is suggesting that we should be able to grow up to the point where we are good to one another, not because piety demands it or to avoid the hypocrisy of having proclaimed it without acting upon it, but instead because we have been shaped into the form of Christ and have actively chosen to participate with him in caring for others out of our own maturity in Christ. Rules are for children; continued dependence on laws even when we already know not to break them is thus infantile, or else legalistic (Bonhoeffer compares “religion” to Paul’s discussion of circumcision as legalism). We should no longer go through the forms of religion upon which we used to rely, when we are instead capable of living in a state of Christ-likeness to which those old forms were to point!

Now, I should be clear that Bonhoeffer never really set out a design for the church, he only worked out a theology of the church. The actual form of the church, I’m sure he would say, would depend on the context and people involved. He was definitely not a fan of uncontextualized principles, urging instead that people live out of their basic convictions, which of course were to be theologically informed. In Letters and Papers from Prison he was engaged in the task of dreaming about a Germany after the war, a Germany he never saw; he was not dreaming of Canada in 2013.

That’s up to us.

I haven’t seen this one before…might have to pick it up.

p.s. I’ll be back tomorrow with some final reflections, but this is the end of my summaries from the Cambridge Companion. Don’t go away!

Reading Bonhoeffer: Politics and the Aryan Paragraph

Finally, the moment I’ve been waiting for: Bonhoeffer’s political theology! This can be hard to define, because almost all of Bonhoeffer’s writings are rich with political implications and veiled references to Nazi ideology and policy, but the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer collects his political ideas and attitudes in chapter 10, “Church, state and the ‘Jewish question'” by Ruth Zerner.

The Givens: Bonhoeffer’s Inherited Views

Bonhoeffer was raised in a nation that had a very strong sense of tradition and heritage, not least of which was the legacy of Martin Luther. In fairness to Luther, the views of Bonhoeffer’s day were mostly twisted versions of Luther’s ideas, but nevertheless they found their roots in Luther. Two views in particular are relevant here: antisemitism, and the “two kingdoms” theology.

It’s a bit shocking for Bonhoeffer fans of today (like me) to see him write about the “Jewish problem” or refer to and seemingly affirm notions such as Jewish guilt for deicide (the killing of Christ) and God’s punishment for it. Though he also wrote that there is no justification for a state who takes the task of this punishment on itself, the idea that he even used those terms is shocking, especially when he was usually so careful and clever to avoid using Nazi-esque language in other settings. Bonhoeffer himself was involved in rescuing 14 Jews, and it was evidence of this act that later caused his arrest, which eventually led to his execution, so clearly he wasn’t antisemitic. But even so, it makes me wonder if his vehement arguments against the Aryan paragraph, which excluded all non-Aryans from holding any public service positions including pastorates, was not a sticking up for the Jews as much as it was sticking up for the independence of the Church. At least initially, it seems like his arguments are based on the principle of the matter – not that he was indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews, but that they were of secondary importance after the freedom of the Church. Bonhoeffer’s later statements, including “only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant!” shows that he felt strongly about the treatment of the Jews. In the worst case, I suppose this shows that his theology made him a better person and overcame his inherited prejudices; may we also be so affected by our theology!

The other view that Bonhoeffer inherited that had a profound impact on his political theology and activism was Luther’s theology of Two Kingdoms. Luther’s view was (very basically) that God had ordained two different kingdoms to order reality, the Church and the State. Each of these two separate realms were given authority over different aspects of human life, reflecting their different purposes. By Bonhoeffer’s time, this notion of their separation and different purposes had morphed into the notion that they were mutually independent, and could not even criticise each other. As such, Bonhoeffer felt that it was not the place of the Church to criticise the State, much less demand certain policies or elements of justice. Bonhoeffer also used this doctrine to argue that the State had no right to apply the Aryan paragraph to the Church, as pastors were not servants of the State (even though they received government salaries in Germany) but of the Church. To Bonhoeffer, this meant that the Nazi regime had overstepped a sacred boundary, which it did increasingly (eventually requiring all pastors to pledge allegiance to Hitler!), prompting Bonhoeffer to suggest that salvation was of the Confessing Church (as opposed to the Reich Church), implying that those who gave in to Hitler’s demands were cutting themselves off from the true church.

A New Political Theology

I wonder what Bonhoeffer would have (or could have) done if he had not assumed and supported Luther’s theology of Two Kingdoms. (Jurgen Moltmann picks the Two Kingdoms view apart quite nicely in On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, though in Bonhoeffer’s time Moltmann was reading the Bible for the first time in a British POW camp). As it was, he got around the apparent prohibition against the Church criticising the State by saying that individual Christians could still do so (though he generally avoided emphasis on individualism in all other respects).

In Ethics he subverted this doctrine further still when he replaced the doctrine of the orders of creation (the notion that things such as “blood and soil” – or race and nation – were the givens of creation, orders created by God) with the notion of divine mandates: church, work, family, and government (sometimes there was a fifth mandate, “culture”, but it is not always mentioned). Note that he says “government” instead of “State”. He draws a distinction between government and State, with State remaining a God-ordained institution, while government describes a particular instance of it, which is fully capable of falling and is open to critique. In fact, the purpose of the divine mandate of Church is to critique the other mandates, drawing them back to their purpose under God. This gave the Confessing Church not only the license to critique the Nazis, but the responsibility to do so!

There are times when obedience to the State requires resistance to the government.

New Directions

Where would Bonhoeffer’s political theology have gone, if he hadn’t been executed? His ethic and notions of discipleship and Church were highly political, and the implications of them are still being worked out in political theology today. A few notable directions his thoughts lead include:

Human rights: his notion of theological anthropology, his inclusive and active-for-others notions of Church, and his speaking out for the Jews were all forerunners for the notion of universal human rights. Zerner points out that it was some of Bonhoeffer’s friends and students who had a hand in building our notion of human rights, so it’s not hard to imagine that he would have been part of it himself had he lived.

A theology of the Powers and Principalities: his notion of divine mandates sounds incredibly similar to later scholars’ definition of the Powers and Principalities, and his ethic of fighting or restoring the mandates as a duty of the Church is very similar to today’s ethics of the Powers (which I’ve been writing about for a while now; see most of my posts from the past six months for more info!). I’d love to find a way to work Bonhoeffer into my thesis on this subject, but alas, his theology is just different enough that I can’t justify it.

Christian anarchism. Bonhoeffer himself would NOT have supported this movement – he was still too committed to the Two kingdoms theology – but his incredibly robust ecclesiology combined with his powerful criticism of his government certainly lend themselves well to the concept. His “religionless Christianity” would do rather well as the foundation for a new world order, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it has been used as such to some extent.

I can’t wait to study this some more in class tomorrow!

Reading Bonhoeffer: A Missional Ecclesiology

I feel like my posts are getting shorter, and of lower quality, as the week goes on. For this I apologize!

As the last reading for tomorrow’s class was written by my professor and thesis advisor, and because it’s already late, I’ll be brief.

Missional Church

Missional ecclesiology has arisen relatively recently, drawing largely from the works of Lesslie Newbiggin. The basic notion is that mission is not something that the Church does, but is something that ought to be essential to its very nature. Dr. Franklin, in MJTM 9 (2007-2008), 96-128, a journal of McMaster Divinity College, argues that Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology is essentially missional, and thus way ahead of its time. Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology is missional in the following ways:

The Church Proclaims and Embodies the Gospel

The proclamation and embodiment of the gospel are not things that the Church does, they are the essential and defining features of the Church, without which it would cease to be the Church. Bonhoeffer was quite critical of the notion that mission or evangelism was something peripheral to the nature of the Church, something that the Church does against the world: “To try and force the Word on the world by hook or by crook is to make the living Word of God into a mere idea, and the world would be perfectly justified in refusing to listen to an idea for which it had no use” (Discipleship). To proclaim without embodying the gospel would be speech without actions, cheap grace.

The Church Practices Religionless Christianity

When Bonhoeffer talks about “religionless Christianity” we must be aware that to him, “religion” refers to the Lutheran church of his context, which was largely based on inward pietism. He thus draws a distinction between religion and faith, with the latter including everything Christianity depends upon and the former being an empty and inward ritual that places conditions on grace and compartmentalizes our lives into the sacred and the secular (and the two rarely meet!). In critiquing this false dichotomy, Bonhoeffer insists that there is no reality outside of Christ, and thus such dichotomies are impossible. Religion is inward piety, but faith provides an outward witness; religion treats God as a deus ex machina or God of the gaps to be employed where other theories fail or where God meets their needs and desires, while faith knows that God is there through our worst suffering and trials, and even demands that we go through them for His sake and for the sake of others. Religion makes people dependent upon the Church, while faith brings them into concrete and mutual relationships. Religion draws people into the Church, while faith “leads to a transformative encounter with the real world” (Franklin, 113). “Christian life is participation in the encounter of Christ with the world” (Ethics, 132).

“In essence, religionless Christianity means life re-oriented to the reality of God and subject to the lordship of Christ in a holistic or integrated way” (Franklin, 119).

The Church Exists-for-Others

“In his Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus shows us that the true nature of both God and humanity (in the imago Dei) is being-there-for-others” (Franklin, 117). True transcendence, Bonhoeffer argues, is not found in the unreachable and ethereal, but rather in the concreteness of relationship with my neighbour. With this as foundational to the nature and character of Christ, and thus of the Church, it’s impossible for the genuine Church to be anything but missional.


Bonhoeffer’s insights are also helpful correctives to certain ideas coming out of the missional movement today, such as his definition of a society or club over against community: missional movements are vulnerable to being united by the common mission, rather than by Christ himself, and thus are better described as a society. A society is a means to an end, but a community is both a means to an end and an end in itself, in Bonhoeffer’s thought.

In the end, “Bonhoeffer locates mission within the essence of the Church without thereby reducing the latter to instrumental or functional categories” (Franklin, 124). Truly a man ahead of his time!

Reading Bonhoeffer: The Necessity of Ethics

Ethics is how I was introduced to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which means that I’ve been working backwards, as he intended it to be his ultimate book. Since I started this blog by working through the unfinished manuscripts that make up what Bonhoeffer was able to write before he was imprisoned and executed, I won’t go into any particular chapter here. What I will do is, following chapter 11 of the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sketch out the milieu in which Ethics was inspired and written.

Fantastic book. Go read it, right now.

The Failure of Western Ethics

In 1935, Bonhoeffer was almost ready to head out to India in order to learn from Ghandi. This is not only because Ghandi was a major figure of non-violent resistance at that time, but also because the Western world was ethically bankrupt. Bonhoeffer had been aware of this for a long time, and for a shorter time he had lived admist the unmistakable evidence of this sorry state. We can see how it failed by looking at Bonhoeffer’s critiques of his own situation, but also from examining Bonhoeffer’s theological and practical writings, because everything that Bonhoeffer wrote was written in and for his context.

Traditional Western ethics had no foundation in the Church. When Bonhoeffer was a child, his parents didn’t take him to church. It was a club in which all Germans were members by default, but attendance wasn’t considered necessary. Christianity was to some extent assumed, but it was rarely vital for most Germans. The German church was increasingly tied up in the State in Bonhoeffer’s time, which became the basis for all ethical action: ethics became defined as unquestioned obedience to the Fuhrer, as even pastors were required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler.

Even aside from institutional or structural issues, Christianity in that context had no firm foundation for ethics either. The academy was largely liberal in theology, and modernism was at its height, with all of its individualism or atomism. In this context, the notion of relationship with Jesus Christ was a strange one. Theology was used largely to justify the powers and policies of the State, which was theological ethics…of a sort (!). Even theological language had been co-opted by Hitler, making it very difficult to critique the Nazis theologically. Aside from this, Christianity in that context suffered from many of the issues it still does in our context today: Christianity was expressed largely as inward pietism with little outward action, and many Christians were concerned more with the issue of their own otherworldly salvation than with the plight of their neighbour in the world today.

Christianity also had plenty of competition as a source for ethics: not only was theology being used to support nationalism, but it was being used as such by two opposing and equally radical groups: the far-right, fascist Nazi party, and the far-left communists. It was this intense polarization in Germany that helped Hitler to gain power in the first place, as part of a coalition of right-wing parties that was made in an attempt to overcome the rising socialist and communist leanings in Germany.

But even aside from having no Christian foundation for ethics due to the weakness of the German church, its being co-opted by the State, and the competing interests of the Nazis and communists, Western ethics were based on faulty assumptions.

Bonhoeffer’s Answers

All of Bonhoeffer’s writings address these issues. I should also note that Bonhoeffer’s thought did not run in a straight line from Sanctorum Communio through to Ethics, but was more of a spiral, as the same themes appear over and over again throughout his writings. Let’s take a look at how they all lead to Ethics.

Early Works

Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer’s first doctoral dissertation, established foundational issues: what is a person, and what is the Church? Both can only exist in relationship: I am only a person when I exist-for-others, and the Church is defined as Christ existing in community (for-and-with-others). With this more robust notion of humanity and Church, Bonhoeffer was able to set the stage for later Christian ethics by defining the context of ethics: in relationship with the Other, the neighbour – the Jew.

Act and Being, his second doctoral dissertation, deals extensively with sin, guilt, and conscience. Conscience was largely thought of as being God’s voice; Bonhoeffer corrected this, noting that a conscience can lead us astray (as we saw in the Holocaust and the trials which followed, in which Nazi officers defended themselves by saying “I was just following orders”).

In Creation & Fall, Bonhoeffer critiqued the notion of “orders of creation”, states of affairs that were natural, and therefore ordained by God, and therefore good and assumed. The primary order of creation in Germany at that time was loyalty and obedience to the State, to nation, and to race. Bonhoeffer instead said that these were “orders of preservation”, which, rather than being part of the created order and therefore eternal, were part of Christ’s intervention in the fallen world and therefore must be done away with as soon as they in any way interfere with the proclamation of Christ. (This book was also controversial for the time because in it Bonhoeffer dared to exegete Genesis, a Jewish holy book, in a time when Jewish books had already been banned).

Bonhoeffer’s lectures were only published much later, but his 1933 lectures on Christology were radically different from the historical Jesus or mythical figure described by the liberal theology of his time. Liberal theology was entirely anthropocentric, or focused on human beings, but this created a paradox: the anthropocentrism of liberal theology was largely focused on Jesus as a human being only (without deity), and thus only a moral teacher or an ideal; and once he was only a moral ideal, Jesus himself became redundant, since one only needed to remember the ideal. Thus anthropocentric Christian theology excluded Jesus almost altogether, and placed human values at the centre instead. Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures remind us that Christ is the centre, a position which did not allow for radical manipulation of theology to suit Nazi ideology. As was pointed out in class a few times this week already, Bonhoeffer’s own views were in many ways quite radical, but his consistent and incredibly robustly orthodox Christology allowed him to get away with a lot of other radical thoughts. I would add that if our picture of Jesus is correct, it necessarily leads to radical thoughts!

Later Works

Now, having established a more robust concept of the Church and human personhood, and having developed in alignment with that a less corrupted notion of guilt and conscience, and having demolished the theological underpinning of radical devotion to race and nation (or “blood and soil”, as it was referred to at the time) and established a Christology so robust that it could not be manipulated, Bonhoeffer returned to the notion of Christian community, but more than that, to Christianity itself as it is practically lived. His years living and teaching at the seminaries at Finkenwalde and Pomerania had given him an opportunity to apply the theology he had already written, and when the seminary was shut down by the Gestapo, he wrote about it in Discipleship and Life Together and The Prayerbook of the Bible.

In Discipleship, Bonhoeffer develops a more robust notion of Christianity. Rather than being concerned with whether or not one was going to heaven when they died, he applied the gritty reality of Christ in the world today (existing as community for the world, from Sanctorum Communio) and the call that Christ puts on us all to follow him in this radical way of living. At this time he was already considering that following Christ might mean dying, in a context in which it might occur at any time. The discipleship that Christ calls us to has nothing to do with inward pietism, and everything to do with being-for-and-with-others, to the death.

In regard to pietism, Bonhoeffer was not against piety itself; in Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, he explores the forms of worship and righteous living in community that occurred at the seminary. He famously said at one point that “only he who cries out for the Jews can sing Gregorian chant!” And he did sing (though he was more prone to negro spirituals than Gregorian chant!), and was an excellent musician, and practised spiritual disciplines with a Moravian leaning (proto-Pentecostals of a sort!). Empty pietism had been a weakness in the German church, just as empty Christology and Ecclesiology had been. But the answer to bad theology is not no theology, but good theology; and the answer to weak and empty pietism is not a cold intellectual faith, but rather a faith expressed in devotion that spills over from good theology and practice.


So Bonhoeffer had broken down the theological assumptions in which the Nazis had found footholds, and replaced them with more robust theology that was not so easily manipulated; and he had brought pietistic devotion back into a fuller alignment with theology and ethics. Orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopathy (right motivations, or piety) had been re-established; all that was left was orthopraxis (right actions), which of course he had been dealing with piecemeal as he went, but still needed a full and concentrated treatment.

He began by pointing out the fundamental flaw of traditional Western ethics, which usually ended up being lists of values and priorities for hypothetical situations: they consisted entirely of asking “what is good and evil”, which is entirely the wrong question (remember, that was the question that Adam and Eve were asking when they started this mess!). The right question is, “What is Jesus Christ doing in the world today” and “how can I participate in that?” He also talks about fundamental issues such as the difference between the “penultimate” (what is before the ultimate, i.e., right now) and the “ultimate” (the fullness of God’s plan for the earth coming to fruition), and how that relates to ethics today. He was one of the first theologians to talk about universal human rights. An throughout, he critiques his own context through the lens of cultural critics such as Nietzsche, Barth, and Dostoevsky. He wrote about his context, but used it as a way to bring out foundational issues. Because ultimately, foundational issues are all that we can draw from the ethic of another context; our own ethical application depends upon hearing Christ in our own context, acting in obedience to and participation with him, and hoping for his mercy when we do so erroneously, or when doing so causes us to bring guilt upon ourselves. It’s beautiful, and challenging, and hard to hear, and oh so necessary.

Bonhoeffer wrote his Ethics manuscripts while he was awaiting missions for military intelligence (i.e. meetings with fellow conspirators and supporters abroad), so he was interrupted often, and had not finished when he was arrested. Rather than continuing to work on it in prison (which was probably too risky), he tried his hand at a novel and a play, not finishing either. In his letters to Eberhard Bethge, smuggled out of the prison by guards who had become his friends, he began to develop the idea of “religionless Christianity.” The time for religious words is past, he said; the religion of the future will be about action. In this we can see that he was still thinking in terms of Ethics, but at the same time, it seems to me, we can see a type of resignation in this. I don’t think that Bonhoeffer was nostalgic for the religious language that had been stolen by the Nazis, or for the inward pietism of Church life before, and he certainly had long been saying that the Church had failed; but the way he talks about the end of religion speaks, finally, that the Church has failed.

But Christ has not!

Reading Bonhoeffer: An Ecumenical Pacifist

Day two of class, and my backside is getting sore. Whoever thought up one-week classes never sat in those chairs.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known for plotting to assassinate Hitler; he is less well-known for his role as an international ecumenical activist and pacifist, even though his work in this regard spanned more of his life than any of his other endeavours and even provided the context for his journeys abroad as an agent of the Abwehr.

The Background

Being a German Lutheran, perhaps especially in that era, there was absolutely no reason for Bonhoeffer to be an ecumenicist, let alone a pacifist. Pacifism was looked down upon or ignored in the Lutheran church, which had a notion (from Luther’s doctrine of Two Kingdoms) that the affairs of the State (including war) were no business of the Church; this meant that Christians who preached the “gospel of peace” had absolutely no problem picking up the weapons of war when they were called upon to do so by their nation. And to fight for one’s nation was a matter of deep pride and honour; even at Finkenwalde, the illegal Seminary, many of the students were excited when war broke out because it meant a chance to show their national pride.

National pride was not in short supply in Germany in that era, either. Germany had fought World War I on the notion that they were being attacked by their surrounding neighbours (who were inferior to them) out of jealousy; the treaty of Versailles, which the defeated Germany had been forced to sign in 1918, insisted that Germany take all of the blame for the war, and also pay reparation payments to their affected neighbours. If Germany had felt picked on before, their attitude toward the international community was even more frustrated now. When the Great Depression hit, and Western nations started calling in the massive loans that they had made to help Germany rebuild after WWI, Germany was hit with a financial double blow which was easy to blame on those same “jealous” Western powers, which many in Germany still felt were inferior to Germany, which was believed by Germans to be the height of culture and power. Hitler promised to return his Volk (people) to the place of a world power, and was incredibly popular for it.

In light of this situation of nationalism and suspicion of the outside world, the idea of going abroad to meet with representatives from all over the world was not only considered foolish, but somewhat suspicious. Ecumenicism was a growing phenomenon after WWI, but the groups that were meeting were still small, just getting off the ground. But why did Bonhoeffer go at all?

According to Keith Clements, who wrote “Ecumenical witness for peace” (ch. 8 in the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer), Bonhoeffer wasn’t much different from the average German in these regards until he went to study in New York. He wasn’t particularly impressed with the social gospel movement there, but he was deeply impressed by the institutional racism he saw  against African Americans, which showed him the necessity for Christian response to social issues. He was also deeply impressed with his new friend Jean Lasserre, a French student also studying at Union Theological Seminary. They went on a road trip to Mexico, and Lasserre’s pacifist theology rubbed off on Bonhoeffer, so that by the time they reached their destination, they tag-teamed sermons on peace for their Mexico audience. A German and a Frenchman, preaching together on peace!

At the heart of their discussions was the Sermon on the Mount, which Lasserre insisted was actual ethical instruction. For Bonhoeffer, who was raised on the Lutheran idea that the Sermon on the Mount was an idealistic passage intended to make Christians aware of their inability to earn their salvation, this was revolutionary. And of course, the Sermon on the Mount includes powerful instruction in non-violence. The rest of Bonhoeffer’s life would be marked by Lasserre, for Bonhoeffer spent it in non-violent resistance to Nazism and in international ecumenical discussions of peace.

Theology of Nationalism

German Nationalism wasn’t just a grass-roots movement of angry people; it was supported by the intellectual elites as well, including theologians. They proposed a theology of the “orders of creation”, which identified certain things as self-evidently part of the way God designed the world to function. Part of this was Luther’s Two-Kingdoms theology, which established the State as a divinely appointed order of creation, as well as other orders such as marriage, race, and nationality. These last two so-called orders of creation fed German nationalism and Aryan superiority complexes in particular, because German theologians had elevated them to the highest prominence among the orders of creation. To serve one’s race and nation unquestioningly was taken for granted as being one’s Christian duty.

In response to this theology, Bonhoeffer suggested (primarily in Creation and Fall) that there are no orders of creation, but rather “orders of preservation.” God may have ordained such institutions as orders, but they were not to be taken for granted as God’s intention for the world, but rather seen as a part of Christ’s intervention and rescue of the post-fall world. As such, if they in any way were not open to the proclamation of the gospel, they must be abandoned. Bonhoeffer delivered a speech on this at an ecumenical council, right after another German delegate had delivered a speech about the nation as one of the orders of creation.

On Ecumenical Councils

Shortly after he returned from New York, Bonhoeffer was asked to be a youth delegate to an international ecumenical meeting (the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches, in Cambridge, England). There, he was made one of two youth secretaries for the movement. He was later also involved in a similar group, the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work; both of these groups had some overlap between them, and were predecessors to the World Council of Churches, which still exists today.

From early on, Bonhoeffer was critical of these groups for having weak or no theology. As differences of doctrine are largely responsible for the division between different churches in the first place, the slogan of Life and Work was “doctrine divides, service unites.” These groups were working for international peace in spite of doctrinal differences, pushing theology to the background so that they could focus on calling for political peace. This frustrated Bonhoeffer, who felt that they had no basis on which to call for peace, because they had no theology to justify such a call: “Because there is no theology of the ecumenical movement, ecumenical thought has become powerless and meaningless” (Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, vol. 1, p. 159).

Bonhoeffer was also critical of calling for peace without proper theological justification, because it was not clear to him that peace was the default theological position. There should not be peace for the sake of peace, but rather for the sake of Christ:

There shall be peace because of the church of Christ, for the sake of which the world exists. And this church of Christ lives at one and the same time in all peoples, yet beyond all boundaries, whether national, political, social, or racial. And the brothers who make up this church are bound  together, through the commandment of the one Lord Christ, whose Word they hear, more inseparably than men are bound by all the ties of common history, of blood, of class and of language. – Ibid., p. 290

In this way, the Church was the answer to nationalism’s claims, and Bonhoeffer’s theology pitted him against Nazi ideology from the beginning. But the councils’ work calling on world governments for peace was fundamentally flawed:

How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security….Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. – Ibid.

Here we can see the impact of non-violence on Bonhoeffer’s thought; he was already counting the cost of pacifism, which ultimately ends on a cross. And once again, peace is not necessarily always called for by the gospel, and thus should not be called for without due thought:

The broken character of the order of peace is expressed in the fact that the peace commanded by God has two limits, first the truth and secondly justice. There can only be a community of peace when it does not rest on lies and injustice. Where a community of peace endangers or chokes truth and justice, the community of peace must be broken and battle joined. – Ibid., p. 168ff.

Keep in mind that the Western powers did nothing when Germany broke the treaty of Versailles and started re-arming. They did little when Germany started expanding, annexing its neighbours. They gave up the freedom of those nations to Germany under a policy of appeasement, in order to preserve peace. To Bonhoeffer, peace with the Nazis was peace for peace’s sake, and was antithetical to the gospel.

Pacifist, Conspirator, Spy, Martyr

When asked what he would do if conscripted, Bonhoeffer had once said “I pray that God will give me the strength not to take up arms”, knowing that this would mean execution (Germany had no concept of conscientious objection to military service, and those who refused were traitors). He had planned to visit India in 1935 to learn about non-violent resistance from Ghandi, but was asked to run the seminary at Finkenwalde and so put the trip off; shortly thereafter, conscription started, and Bonhoeffer suggested that his students think carefully about pacifist options.

Bonhoeffer had already pastored in London for a time, perhaps hoping that if war broke out while he was away he would be spared execution for refusing to fight. He was criticised by Barth, who called him back to Germany, but he remained there for 18 months. War did not actually break out until much later, but in anticipation of the war some of his friends had arranged for Bonhoeffer to take up a teaching position at Union Seminary in New York. He went there, but stayed only a few days, feeling compelled to return to his people. War broke out shortly after he returned.

Because of his contacts with the ecumenical community, Bonhoeffer had a cover for his involvement in the Abwehr, or German Military Intelligence, where his brother-in-law Hans von Donanyi worked. In order to avoid Bonhoeffer’s conscription, he was made a spy of sorts for military intelligence, citing his excellent network of international contacts which could theoretically be used to the benefit of the Nazis. In reality, Bonhoeffer was using his contacts to report to the outside world about the atrocities that were occurring inside Germany, and to advocate for the Confessing Church to be recognized as the only legitimate German Evangelical church (as opposed to the official Reich Church).

Because of Bonhoeffer’s theology, which called for peace to be set aside in the face of injustice and lies, he was not overly concerned when the plots to overthrow the government became plots to assassinate Hitler. Because of his involvement in these plots, he was executed in April 1945. His last recorded words were a message to Bishop Bell, an English lord and head of one of the ecumenical councils, who was the greatest friend to the Confessing Church and the Resistance movement:

Tell him, that with him I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests and conflicts, and that our victory is certain. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Reading Bonhoeffer: Discipleship

Tomorrow afternoon we’ll be covering Bonhoeffer’s soteriology (doctrine of salvation). The required reading for this section is chapter 9 of the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Costly Discipleship” by Haddon Wilmer, along with an excerpt from Act and Being. I don’t yet see how these two readings are related, and Act and Being is even more difficult to comprehend than Sanctorum Communio, so we’ll see how far I get into it tonight.

The Cost of Discipleship

After the Gestapo shut down the seminary at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer wrote a few books: Life Together, The Prayerbook of the Bible, and Discipleship. The original German title of the latter meant literally “Following”, but when translated into English it was given the name The Cost of Discipleship. This is because Bonhoeffer spends some time in the opening chapters discussing two types of grace: cheap grace and costly grace.

Grace is cheap when the demands of God are silenced by trading on God’s kindness….Cheap grace arises when grace is universalised as a principle, for if God does anything universally, it can be taken as a given, existing reality and as automatically available to human beings. They do not need to seek it, or to get themselves into any place where they will receive what is in God’s gift. When grace is not automatically available, when it has to be asked for, the person apprehends himself as one who is exposed to God’s freedom to give or not to give. This is a true encounter with God, the essential element of a right relation with God. – CCBD, ch. 9.

So then what is costly grace? Wilmer also describes that rather well:

Bonhoeffer wanted costly grace – real grace which cost God the death of his Son and would be powerfully significant for human beings. And grace becomes costly to people as they respond to the call to discipleship. It is discipleship, as such, which is the cost of grace; and discipleship involves suffering because it means following Jesus, breaking with the world and therefore being vulnerable to rejection by the world. – Ibid.

The cost of discipleship is thus on both sides: if God gives grace too freely, it is spent too freely; but if it is rare and precious, and recognized as having cost God his Son, then it calls us into discipleship, which means following Christ into the same ministry that cost him his life. The cost of grace is shared, then, between God and those he calls, even though it is offered freely (see my last post to see how freedom is only truly freedom when we are free-in-obedience; I think in the same way, freely receiving grace from God involves freely sharing in its great cost).

Discipleship as Mediated

Disciples are separated from the world, as they give up their families, work, wealth, and land to follow Jesus. It’s a trade: Jesus for the world (the New Testament says that this is a very good trade). As such, discipleship involves “a breach with the world”, as the disciple gives up all direct relation to the world and accepts all relation to the world as mediated by Christ. In my last post I mentioned that, to Bonhoeffer, all human relationship, not just to God but to everyone and everything else, is mediated by Christ. As I see it then, the conscious choice of the disciple to give up all immediate relation to the world and accept all relation as mediated by Christ is really just a decision to live in reality, recognizing how it really is.

The Demands of Discipleship

Discipleship requires both “extraordinariness and hiddenness.” First, Jesus tells his disciples that they must have a greater righteousness than the Pharisees, that they go above and beyond what is expected. The Sermon on the Mount takes all of the commandments and pushes them further. While studying in New York at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer became friends with another exchange student, a French student named Jean Laserre, who believed that the Sermon on the Mount was to be taken literally as ethical instruction. This was a huge shift for Bonhoeffer, because German theologians had long interpreted it to be an impossible ideal that was written only to make us aware of how dependent we are on God’s grace. Lasserre and Bonhoeffer borrowed a car and took a road trip to Mexico – always a great way to have deep conversations – and talked about pacifism and the radical ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, and this had a profound impact on Bonhoeffer’s ethics and notion of discipleship. No longer could his notion of following Jesus involve only inward decision (though decision was very important to his theology as well!); it must also be outward, visible, concrete obedience.

Somehow, this visible discipleship must also be hidden: Matthew 6 (part of the Sermon on the Mount) demands that works of righteousness be done in secret, so that the disciple’s reward will come from God alone, and they will be motivated by love of God rather than seeking praise from people. “Our activity must be visible, but never be done for the sake of making it visible” (Discipleship). The trick, then, is that one’s actions are done out of spontaneous and reflective obedience. (He talks in Ethics about how judging and acting are mutually exclusive; we cannot act while we are judging others, and so if we are acting out of obedience to Christ, we are precluding judgment of others. This involves listening to the voice of Christ and obeying without question. I think that what he’s talking about here is similar: acting spontaneously and without question to the demand of Christ not only precludes judging others, but also precludes judging ourselves as righteous due to our visible actions, and in this way we can keep them hidden from ourselves).

Discipleship in Community

Disciples live in community as mediated by Christ, having given up the right to direct relation to one another. That of course doesn’t mean that they never talk to each other, but only that their life together is ordered around Christ, down to the way that they talk to and about one another. At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer had a rule that students would only talk about someone else in their presence. Social pecking orders are hard to form when you can’t put others down or raise yourself up with words or visible actions! Time together was balanced by time apart, sometimes by design (as with times of meditation followed by times of corporate worship or work or sports) and sometimes by necessity (the “illegal” pastors of Finkenwalde and the seminary that followed in Pomerania spent a lot of time alone on the road between lonely parishes).

Confession is important to life together:

‘In confession there takes place a breakthrough to community’ and ‘to the cross’, thus ending both the loneliness and the pride of sin. There is the breakthrough to new life and to assurance. Without confession, community rests on what pious believers have in common, but not on the reality of what people are, as sinners. Christ’s presence ends pretence – but it is not presence as idea or feeling. Christ is present in the action of one person with another….Confession to a brother is an action in which community is both made (at the point of confronting what unmakes community) and comes into the light to be understood. – CCDB, ch. 9.

Talking to God

The voice of God, to Bonhoeffer, was the Bible (not particularly Pentecostal!). His students would meditate on a verse or passage short enough that they would not be tempted to exegete it or write a sermon from it; meditation in the Bible was something that was to be an end in itself, with no goal beyond seeking to hear God. Prayer also came from the Bible, talking to God with the words of Christ (to whom Bonhoeffer attributed the Psalms via David), so that the disciple’s relationship with God is fully mediated by Christ.

The Politics of Discipleship

Bonhoeffer’s anti-Nazi politics were the direct result of his discipleship, and took the form of pacifism. Rather than arguing that pacifist politics could actually overcome anything, he said that such political forms of discipleship would ultimately result in the Church sharing in and fulfilling the suffering of Christ, which would be a victory of a different sort. I’m not so pessimistic as that; non-violent resistance in Scandinavia was very effective against the Nazis.

Eventually, Bonhoeffer did have a plan for taking on the Nazis: he conspired to assassinate Hitler. The justification for this in his discipleship was that, if the genuine guilt of murder was acknowledged as such, the one who committed it and broke the law while acknowledging the cost was still paying due respect to that law, and thus not relying on cheap grace. Bonhoeffer was thus willing to take guilt upon himself for the sake of the other (the Jews, in this case), in an active sense.

Part of his theology of confession was that the Church was to take on the guilt of the world, confessing on behalf of of the world, and in so doing follow the vicarious action of Christ who took on the sin of the world. This is not very controversial. What is much more controversial is Bonhoeffer’s willingness to become personally guilty by actively breaking laws in the service of others, and throwing himself on the mercy of Christ. I think he’s only potentially wrong in underestimating less violent forms of resistance, but that’s easy for me to say, and I don’t blame him for opting for stronger means.

“His pacifism was not a political programme or device, but a correlate of faith, which came into play in a discipleship to which all are called, and in which they may live by not resisting the evil they are caught up in as agents” (CCDB, ch. 9). I don’t think this notion of pacifism is very helpful, nor do I think that it’s what Bonhoeffer was doing; after all, he resisted until the end, and was willing to pay the price for doing so, but even so sought the mercy of God. To me, that sounds like what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

Looking forward to reading this, but can’t decide if I want to write the major paper on this or on Letters & Papers from Prison.