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!