In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer wrote to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge, that the time for a Church that proclaims is over, at least for the time being. Words had become useless, irrelevant. In its place would rise a “religionless Christianity”, characterized by its secret nature and its vicarious action on behalf of the “least of these” – in his case, the Jews.
Words are Useless
Bonhoeffer was many things, but first and foremost he was a preacher and a writer – a man of words. When faced with a political crisis, he wrote theology; when faced with an ethical crisis, he wrote theology. Through his preaching and theological writings, he criticized the corrupt and lawless regime in the language he knew best (theological) while at the same time presenting the good news that God had reconciled the world to Himself in Christ, a claim that itself was a clear challenge to Hitler’s regime. His critiques were sharp, his view penetrating, his logic sound, and his tone passionate.
And nobody listened.
Part of the problem was that Bonhoeffer was being too radical in his message to get much of a hearing from those who were against him, pointedly moderate or deliberately uninvolved, or just plain afraid. The other part of the problem was that he didn’t have the support of most of the Church; and not only did they not support him, but they gave their own voices and language over to the side of the Nazis.
It’s not that all pastors or theologians were Nazi supporters. The problem was that they allowed Hitler to use theological language and concepts in his nationalistic propaganda. So while Bonhoeffer was talking about the concrete ethical demands of Jesus Christ, Hitler was talking about the divine orders of creation that demanded obedience to the State. How was a Christian to tell the difference between them? According to the official church, the Reich Church, it was the Christian duty of every German to love and support the Reich, including in its policies of war (which God would certainly grant victory in) and genocide (as God was surely judging the Jews). Bonhoeffer’s voice, even with all of the voices of the Confessing Church (which made up less than one third of the pastors in Germany), was drowned out by the proclamations of a competing gospel with similar language.
The Church’s lack of integrity in regard to the Aryan paragraph, the fact that they stood by as Jews were fired, deported, imprisoned, and executed, also robbed them of any credibility to preach. What good were words, if they were not accompanied by actions? No, the time for proclamation had, for the time being, passed.
Scholars who read the Letters and Papers from Prison without first reading the rest of Bonhoeffer’s works assumed from this language that he meant a Christ-less Christianity, reading him along with the liberal theologians of his time and philosophers like Nietzsche who claimed that God was dead. This could not have been farther from the truth.
What Bonhoeffer really meant was a Christianity that, rather than spreading through open proclamation, was hidden and secret. Rather than wasting words, which could be co-opted by the State and twisted into unspeakable horrors, this new type of Christianity would focus on embodying Christ in the world. This Christianity would focus on the areas of prayer and social action.
Vicarious Action (Solidarity)
A key concept in Bonhoeffer’s theology, going all the way back to Sanctorum Communio, is that the Church is “Christ existing as community” and that this community must “exist-for-others and with-others”.
Christ loved the world, and took on the guilt of the world so that he could die on behalf of the world. He exists-for the world. As the worldly embodiment of Christ, the Church is to also to exist-for-others, which means acting on their behalf, or vicariously. We do this through confession, repentance, and seeking absolution before God on behalf of the world, as a type of priestly service in Christ.
We also do this through suffering. In times of great suffering, theologians and critics have long asked “where was God in this suffering?” The answer, of course, is that God was suffering along with them. We wonder why God allows suffering, and what his response to suffering is, but Bonhoeffer noted clearly that God’s response to human suffering was to become a human being and suffer not only with us, but on our behalf. Suffering is a clear example of how Christ exists-for- and exists-with-others, and the Church is to participate in this vicarious action of suffering with him.
Now, we don’t suffer in the sense that we flagellate ourselves, or something like that. We suffer along with those who are suffering by taking action for their sake, working for social justice (Bonhoeffer himself was a peace activist on an international level through ecumenical societies, not to mention conspiring to overthrow or assassinate Hitler for the sake of the victims of the Nazis). This vicarious action in solidarity with the “least of these” stems from Christian ethics.
Today in class we discussed the basis for ethics. In any given situation, we are guided in what to do by up to four things: 1) a decision made in the moment, which usually depends on either our particular feeling in that moment or the influence of one of the deeper levels of ethical thought; 2) a rule or law, which is usually very black and white and universal, such as “don’t steal”; a principle, which explains and provides nuance in a rule, such as “respect other people’s property”; and our deep convictions, the worldview out of which we derive our principles, laws, and hopefully, our actions in the ethical moment of decision.
Bonhoeffer hated principles, as they were usually abstract and didn’t take context into account, and one rarely had time to recall the correct principle in the moment of ethical decision. Rules were even worse, as they also didn’t take context into account and offered no purpose for their demands. No, the response in the ethical moment must come out of the deep conviction, which for Bonhoeffer was: “God has reconciled the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.” This prompted him to ask “What is Jesus Christ doing in the world,” and “how can I participate in that?” These are the true ethical questions the Christian must ask, which of course leaves them with no firm rules to rely on for that critical ethical moment. So what does a Christian do to ensure that they are acting correctly in this ethical moment, especially because Bonhoeffer has identified vicarious ethical action as the primary purpose of the new, religionless Christianity?
The answer is for Christians to be conformed to the image of Christ – which, of course, is the purpose of the Church. If one is increasingly like Christ, then acting like Christ in the ethical moment will come naturally to the disciple. Ethical formation of this sort occurs through spiritual disciplines, the primary discipline being prayer, which not only forms the disciple into the likeness of Christ, but also sustains them in their being-for-others. We see Bonhoeffer’s notion of spiritual disciplines and devotional practices clearly in Life Together, The Prayerbook of the Bible, and Discipleship. Far from being a side project of devotional writings, or an aside from his more serious theological and ethical work, these writings provide the form and practice of the Church of tomorrow, the Church that exists and acts for the sake of the World that God loves.