My Journey to Political Theology

I’m back from another brief hiatus. This one was caused by taking on a political campaign for the Green Party in our riding’s recent by-election, which gives me a good opportunity to bring up two of my favourite topics: stewardship of creation, and political theology. You may see these as recurring themes here in the future. Today I’d like to talk about why I’m interested in politics, and maybe later, why I’m interested in Green politics. (I haven’t forgotten about the post on Original Sin – that’ll come eventually!)

My journey toward politics has been a bit of a zig-zag as I follow the ethical implications of my theology (guided largely by the theology and ethical thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer). God demanded that human beings act justly and love mercy, and told us how to do that; when we didn’t get the message, Jesus showed us how to do it. At the same time, he painted a picture of what the world would be like if we all did it, and he called it the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom isn’t here in its fullness, but it appears, however briefly, when we gather together in right relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. In short, the Kingdom appears whenever the church acts like the church is called to act.

That said, there are glimpses of the Kingdom outside the walls of our local congregations. The Spirit goes where the Spirit wills, and God has implanted notions of justice and goodness in the hearts of human beings, and there are a lot of people out there who are doing good things. This, too, glorifies God and gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m trying to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven by enforcing Christianity through the state! Far from it: I believe strongly that Christianity is something that must be chosen by individuals (see Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship for an account of that confrontation). I keep referring to the Kingdom because the picture that Jesus paints of it contrasts sharply with our present reality, and acts as a character foil for our social systems and personal choices. It’s the reality that I’m trying to live in, and it makes injustice in the world stand out all the more. It’s what gives me the ability to see that something is wrong, and it’s what calls me to do something about it.

In short, the Kingdom of God has made me an activist. Well, at least a slacktivist.

I say slacktivist because being a true activist involves going out and doing something about society’s ills. I’m much more prone to stay home and blog about it, sign petitions, and even occasionally donate small amounts of money. I feel called to do more because Jesus has given me a glimpse of a better world, but the media has shown me the extent and depth of this world’s dysfunction and distress, and I’m overwhelmed by it. My little acts of kindness and mercy, the outward marks of my discipleship, seem like a drop in the ocean. Perhaps if I could see the church organizing to do something about these issues in a bigger way, I’d be content to have the church be my only political affiliation (and make no mistake, becoming a Christian is a highly political act!); sadly, I don’t see that happening very much. I think that the church has been failing in its divine mandate to hold the other divinely instituted mandates in check (government, work, family – see Bonhoeffer’s discussion in Ethics), and I think that’s partially because Christians from across the political spectrum (with the exception of the far right) have stopped engaging in politics.

This is why I’m getting involved in politics: my discipleship makes me sensitive to injustice and demands action, and I want the action I take to have a far-reaching impact. This doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on small, personal acts of justice and mercy; on the contrary, those little acts of discipleship, and my formation in a community of worship, inform and inspire the action I want to take on a larger scale. But one act of personal kindness can feed one person for one day (or teach them how to feed themselves, as the old adage goes), but one piece of legislation can set up a program to teach a whole nation how to feed itself forever. I don’t think any government has the ability to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven, but we can certainly hold it up as an ideal as we work toward a more just society.

You may still think that I’m somehow trying to enforce my Christian ideals on people – well, all politics is about enforcing some kind of ideals. The trick is, what kind of ideals are we enforcing? People tend to have a problem with faith and politics mixing because, as I said above, religious commitment is a very individual thing that should not be coerced. To put it another way, you can’t enforce morality (at least not effectively, and not in a way that respect’s the Other as other – that is, as a human being who can make their own moral choices). But there’s a whole lot more to Christianity than just a certain morality; in fact, Bonhoeffer once preached that Christianity is distinctly amoral.  So it doesn’t follow that politics inspired by, or even enforcing, Christian ideals or values must actually enforce Christian beliefs or morals.

Besides, providing a moral example is something that the church has, more or less, done fairly well. If anything, the church tends to put too much emphasis on morality, especially in regard to sex (but that’s a post for another day). It was the same in Bonhoeffer’s Germany: in Letters and Papers from Prison he talks about how the church has been reduced to moralism, with nothing relevant to say to society except to dig through people’s drawers and closets in search of secret sin. He argued that our lived morality (that is, ethics) needed to be the primary witness of the church, rather than merely preached morality (moralism). He called this “religionless Christianity,” and it’s still necessary, though it’s not everything the church must be.

Another major way that the church is supposed to impact society (and the other divine mandates) is through its worship of God on behalf of the world; this is the one way that the church in North America is still fulfilling its function. We love to worship! Unfortunately, we tend to have “worship services” that are heavy on worship and light on (or devoid of) actual service. God scolded Israel for this through the mouths of his prophets, saying that their worship without the accompanying acts of justice and mercy was repugnant, wicked, evil. This is the reason he gave for the destruction and exile of Israel.

So here I am, a disciple of Christ and a member of his church. I want to continue to worship God, but for that worship to be genuine it must also involve service to my fellow humans; and for that service to be most effective it requires an organized effort that the church (with notable exceptions such as MCC, Kairos, the EFC, etc.) isn’t really making. Meanwhile, governments are charged with ordering society in a just manner, but often lack the ethical foundations that Christ is actively building into his disciples. This seems like a match made in heaven: someone (like me) who is based in a community focused on ethical formation, self-sacrifice, and social responsibility would be an ideal candidate to serve the function of ordering society justly in an organization (the government) known for its misuse of power and lack of ethical grounding.

Once again, lest you be concerned that a Christian could not function as a representative of all of the people of their political riding, who may or may not share in the Christian faith: the role of politics is to order society justly, not to preach morality. So long as it stays within that function, there is no danger of legislating morality; and even if there were, Christianity need not be moralistic, and may in fact be amoral (as Bonhoeffer suggests). The issues on which the broader population disagrees with Christian ethics are relatively few, and most of them fall outside of the mandate of government anyway, so it’s far from impossible for a Christian who is acting in accord with their faith to represent a non-Christian constituency.

Ultimately, then, I feel that political activity provides the best venue for the ethical, or “religionless”, aspect of my Christianity. Our current society doesn’t tolerate organized Christian groups very well, and much of the church just plain isn’t interested, but we can still fulfill this important function of the church by being the church at the same time as being citizens. These two realms, which we always seem to want to separate, complement one another in our society today, and allow each other to be fulfilled.

This is obviously a big and complex topic, so please leave your questions or comments below!

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.

Bonhoeffer’s Double Standards

I’m finally working through Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, which has been a long time coming. It’s the last book I need to read for the course I took in January, Reading Bonhoeffer, but I feel like it should have been one of the first Bonhoeffer books I read. It’s certainly one of the more accessible of his writings, though that doesn’t mean that it isn’t difficult. Perhaps challenging is the better word.

In Bonhoeffer’s day, German Lutherans had (apparently) been enjoying Luther’s doctrine of salvation by grace alone for a long time, to the point where grace had become an assumption, and thus had little power in people’s lives. Bonhoeffer starts his book by talking about “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He holds that costly grace, or real grace, comes as a result of obedience in faith. Faith cannot be separated from obedience. Faith and obedience are a sort of chicken-and-egg situation: do you obey because you believe, or do you believe because you obey? Ultimately, the answer is both, which can be hard to get your head around. In obeying, you show that you believe at the same time that you learn to believe.

This discussion of cheap and costly grace has helped me tremendously to understand Luther. Living hundreds of years later and never having actually read Luther, all I know of his thought comes through a massive game of Telephone, distorted by time and retelling. I know mostly about the abuse of the doctrine, but Bonhoeffer put Luther in perspective for me.

Luther was a penitent monk who had given up everything to follow Jesus (Monks aren’t exactly known for their wealth and worldly ways), had trained for years in spiritual disciplines, and then realized that he was saved by God’s gift to him, which he received in faith. None of his training or renunciation of the world, none of what he gave up to be a disciple, was what actually saved him. It was just Jesus, from the start. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is not a renunciation of works – he’d probably do it all again – but rather a strong recognition that works in themselves will not save anyone. Even the most pious works can be done with self-serving attitudes or purposes, but even right purposes and attitudes are evidence of Christ working in us and not something that we ourselves can be credited with.

Does this mean that works, even if good, are not necessary? Not at all; as has already been said, faith cannot be separated from obedience. It was only after Luther had gone through all of those acts of obedience in faith that he could properly recognize that faith was all that was required. His life of obedience had been the soil in which faith grew (a notion that still provides the foundation for the Catholic doctrine of grace, in which we grow in grace by works of obedience that make us into people capable of receiving more grace from God). Luther, as a veteran disciple of Christ, was able to say truly and with full force that salvation is by grace through faith, and that works themselves are of no value to salvation; the same phrase coming out of the mouth of a new or lukewarm disciple is not true in the same sense, if at all. Luther’s grace was costly, coming after toil and sacrifice; but assuming grace as a principle and eschewing works altogether is cheap grace, or not grace at all. I see this as somewhat of a double standard, but a good one.

In chapter 3 Bonhoeffer talks about “simple obedience,” and again I see a double standard here. He uses the example of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. By asking this question, Bonhoeffer points out, the young man is actually trying to avoid the question: he knows the law and has followed it all his life. He’s looking for something more. Bonhoeffer says he’s looking for a way to avoid the question, to turn a commandment into a philosophical question to be discussed rather than obeyed. I was always under the impression that he was just insecure and wanted guidance. In either case, Jesus turns him back to simple commands that should be obeyed just as simply. Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.

We have a way of interpreting Jesus’ commands in an inward, spiritual way, that doesn’t actually require us to simply obey him. We don’t really need to sell everything we have and give it to the poor in order to follow him, we just need to hold our possessions so lightly that they have no hold over us, so that we could hypothetically sell them and give all our money away. Rather than actually doing so, it might actually seem better to hold on to our money and things so that we can remain in this state of hypothetical “obedience.” Our method of “obeying” can thus often mean doing the exact opposite because of our insistence on reinterpreting the command. Bonhoeffer points out that if we obeyed our parents this way, or obeyed the authorities this way, we’d be in serious trouble.

Again, there is a double standard here. We don’t all need to give our money away, and we don’t all need to take a vow of poverty. Doing so might even be a type of self-righteousness, or legalism, or some other negative thing. There are other commands in the New Testament that talk about holding our possessions lightly. But once again, it’s easy for some people to “obey” Jesus in this paradoxical sense, obeying spiritually but not actually. Bonhoeffer holds that this is cheap grace, claiming to obey but actually being disobedient. Those who have actually obeyed Jesus simply, though, and followed him, are capable of obeying spiritually. It’s one thing for a long time disciple who has been practising simple obedience for some time to talk about and practise obeying the spiritual intent of Jesus’ literal commands; it’s quite another for a less mature disciple to use it as an excuse to avoid Jesus’ straightforward commands.

The key to it all is formation: obeying Jesus in faith makes us into the type of people who have enough faith to obey.

On the Position and Posture of Politics

Faith and politics is a perennial problem, and one that’s on the minds of many people in Manitoba these days. Bill 18 has brought it to mind, but it’s always been there, taunting us. How should Christians view, or be involved in, politics?

Secularism is a narrow road, and often misunderstood. It was created by Christians (and probably deists) as a way for different denominations of Christians to come together and agree to disagree. It doesn’t actually demand that we stop practising our religions, but only that we limit the ways that we do so for the sake of everyone else. It’s not the worst system, by a long shot, but every now and then it demands more of us than we’re willing to grant it. Its spirit is to lay aside peripheral issues that divide us when we come together so that we can focus on the greater issues that unite us, allowing us to move forward together. But sometimes the demands of the gospel are simply too great to lay them aside or compromise on them under public pressure.

Some Christians hold that we shouldn’t be involved in politics at all; they’re called Christian Anarchists, and their ranks include such greats as Leo Tolstoy and Dorothy Day. Others hold that we shouldn’t get involved any more than we have to, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and then leave him alone. Greg Boyd, a pastor in Minnesota, preached that during an election year and watched a thousand people leave his church. See his book Myth of a Christian Nation for the story, it’s pretty good. On the other hand, many Christians hold that we should be as involved in politics as we can, that it’s our job to ensure that our nation’s laws honour God. Historically, this was called Christendom. That word doesn’t have a very good reputation anymore, but nobody complains when their government stops persecuting them and makes their religion the official, national faith. It’s only really from the perspective of freedom that we can criticize Christian privilege.

I don’t think that there’s a single answer for all Christians on this point. I don’t think that Jesus wants us all to be politicians, or even political; nor do I think that he would stop us from doing so. But while there might not be a clear call for all Christians to be political, there is a clear call for all Canadians to do so. We live in a democracy, which is both a privilege and a responsibility: the decisions we make together affect all of us, and the rest of the world. Whether or not we think that God is commanding us to do so, we have the opportunity to create laws that honour God.

At issue, then, is not whether or not we are Christians; a Christian can be no less. Nor is the issue one of whether or not we are Canadians; we do ourselves and our nation a disservice by being silent in the public square, and we are responsible for one another and to one another. The issue is the extent to which we are willing to lay aside what may be peripheral things for the sake of greater unity, and the extent to which we must insist upon holding a position that our consciences will not allow us to let drop. These are decisions that we all must make for ourselves, and we will all land somewhere on the spectrum between secularism and Christendom. No matter what position we fill on that spectrum, we are not in a position that allows us to judge where anyone else ought to fall on it. But that’s not what this post is about.

There are two things that affect the way that we do politics, whether we’re Christians or not: position, and posture. These two things will dramatically affect both the style of our political engagement, and its character.


Where do we stand in the world? What is our relationship to power? There are two main positions in politics: above and below. At different times and in different contexts, we may be in both positions, perhaps even at the same time.

Politics from above, or top-down politics, is an excellent way to change the world. A few strokes of a policy-maker’s pen can do more than years of grassroots campaigning. Think of government regulations, for example: a grassroots campaign to get people to waste less energy, drive less, turn off lights, take shorter showers, and buy smaller cars, may have little effect even if it runs for years. But one regulation that requires automakers to produce vehicles with better mileage can have tremendous effects on the same issue, without most people even noticing. World Vision campaigns for international aid year-round, but one government program can provide for more food and medical aid than just about any other source. Politics from above can make a difference in the world, and do so quickly.

Of course, politics from above can also enslave people. If you want to make changes and choices on behalf of the people, and you don’t have their support to do so, then you have to control them in order to rule over them. Communism is a great idea, in theory, but in order to work it needs everyone to do their part. When you begin to enforce things on an unwilling population, we call that tyranny. That is, in large part, why we need politics from below.

Politics from below is the grassroots movements, the true democracy, that we in North America value so much. We should. We have unprecedented freedom, in many senses of the word. This is the result of us all coming together and collectively agreeing on a course of action. Inherent to this notion is the implied agreement that the majority shall rule, as well as the implied agreement that we’ll be able to talk things over and try to convince one another. Also implied is that if I can’t convince the majority to agree with me, then I’ll have to be satisfied with what they decide until I manage to sway them to my side. This is a recipe for peace and freedom, provided we have a functioning system of government and people at the top who agree to play by the rules. It also needs a majority that knows what the heck it’s talking about.

Some (cynical) people say that democracy is merely the tyranny of the majority. Certainly, it’s not always great for the minority. Others are frustrated at the slow pace of democratic change: it takes generations to change enough people’s minds about issues to actually change our world, and governments are often deadlocked with the opposition parties.

Ultimately, of course, we need both of these at the same time. Politics, to be effective, must come from above and below. Christianity started as a grass-roots movement, and for the most part it still is, but there was a long period during which it was passed down from above as the official state religion of every Western nation. The latter was a much more effective method of evangelism(!), but meant much less than the genuine choices of people to follow Christ. In our politics, too, Christians will come from both sides: Stephen Harper claims to be a Christian, and Christians may well find themselves called to politics, but far more common is the kind of politics that occurred at Steinbach Christian High School just over a week ago, when 1200 people showed up to pray about Manitoba Bill 18, the Safe and Inclusive Schools amendment. Is one better than another? What kind of position should Christians take?


Sit up straight. Stand tall. Keep your head up, kid. These references to our physical posture are metaphors for the way we interact with others. These examples of how we carry ourselves speak volume about how we perceive ourselves: confident people have straight backs, push their chests out, and look people in the eye.

Politics uses postural and positional metaphors. Seeing eye to eye, knowing where we stand, standing together, crossing the aisle, etc.

Christians use posture metaphors more than anyone. We sing “we raise our hands, we bow our knees,” even though we rarely actually do either of them; raising our hands is a posture of celebration, while bowing our knees is a posture of humility. We do both of those things before God, at least metaphorically, because we want to be humble and joyful. We open our hands to God to receive from him, and we open our hands to God to give to him. We shake each other’s hands at church and pass the peace, not out of greeting but because the action of doing so opens us up relationally to those around us. Doukhobors bow to each other, bowing to the image and presence of Christ in one another. We bow our heads to pray.

Like position, our posture is in relation to power and people, particularly in politics. If we have it, do we hold it in a closed fist? If we don’t have it, are we grasping for it? Are we treading lightly, or stepping on toes? These postures don’t always amount to one or the other; it might well be possible to charge ahead without stepping on toes, and it’s certainly possible to tread lightly and still crush others underfoot. “Walk softly, and carry a big stick,” as Roosevelt said – but that doesn’t always work either.

In his book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter looks at Christian attempts at social change from the past few decades. He breaks Christian politics down into three different groups: the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists. The Christian Right is defensive against the world, which it sees as a corrupting influence on Christian society. The Christian Left speaks out for the world (and defends against the Christian Right), even while it attempts to court the world, even compromise with it for the sake of the other. And Neo-Anabaptists have removed themselves from the world altogether, opting for their own society instead. Ultimately, in spite of their different postures toward the world (people), their posture toward power remains largely the same: grab it, and hold on to it. Remarkably, that’s the opposite of what Christ did.

What was the posture of Christ toward the world?

The Position and Posture of Christ

I hope that the controversy over Bill 18 makes it clear that it’s possible to hold to many different positions and still be a Christian. In fact, there are many Christians who support Bill 18 for exactly the same reason that many Christians oppose it: because they feel that Christ demands a choice from them on the matter. The idea that there are multiple Christian views hasn’t been coming across very strongly so far, but I hope it will. Regardless, my point here is that there can be all sorts of Christian politics, and I’m not trying to convince anyone to my view on Bill 18 here, or any other particular issue. What I want to talk about is the way we do politics: what position and posture should Christians take when we interact with others?

Christ is the ultimate example of power from above: he’s the king of all kings, the lord of lords, creator of the universe. The heavens are his throne, and the earth is his footstool, and all of his enemies are under his feet. Remarkably, this is also the position that Christians hold in the universe: we are co-heirs with Christ, and share fully in his inheritance. When did we forget this? I’ve heard a lot of defensive apologetics (and whining) from Christians lately. We complain that our religious rights are being trampled or done away with. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t just let other people take our rights, but I have two reactions to such complaints: 1) Christians in Canada are among the most privileged people in the world, and even among the most privileged people in Canada; even if we’re losing essential rights (which I’m not sure is really happening), we’re at most being brought down to a common level with others. And much more importantly, 2) do you really believe that the NDP government of Manitoba, or the Liberal government of Ontario, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? I am convinced that neither death nor life, angels or demons or any other power, NDP or Liberals, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nero could not stop Christians from worship, so who’s concerned about Greg Selinger or Nancy Allen? Christians are, and always will be, in the ultimate position of power in the universe, whether or not our regional governments recognize it. We have absolutely nothing to be defensive about, hallelujah!

So our position is, with Christ, from above. But of course, Christ didn’t stay above! He willingly gave up his position, and all of its glory, to become the lowest of the low and start a grassroots movement. Since the beginning of time, God had been ruling from above but gradually giving more and more power to those under him (angels, nations, kings, prophets). Christ took power all the way to the bottom, to the lowest of the low, and in so doing he inverted the pyramid of power. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Christians do not lord it over one another as the pagans do; instead, whoever would be first among you must be the servant of all. Christ, being secure in his position as king of kings and lord of lords, humbled himself to the lowest position, making the lowest position the highest position. That is the position that Christians are to have, not only with one another, but most especially to the world, and not least in politics!

And what of posture? We’ve already seen that Christ did not lord it over others, but made himself a servant – a humble posture if ever there was one! And secure in the knowledge that all power belonged to his Father, Christ did not see power as something to be grasped, but instead emptied himself. Ultimately, his posture is that of cruciformity, the posture of one hanging on a cross. Christ did not defend himself against the world. He turned the other cheek, gave up his shirt when someone sued him for his coat, and walked an extra mile when forced to walk only one. Christ also didn’t cozy up to the world and compromise his teachings for the sake of popularity; rather, in the confidence of his own power, compromised completely with people by forgiving them and seeing past their sins, even while they were killing him. And he definitely did not remove himself from the world; the gospel begins with the amazing fact that he not only came here, but made himself fit in completely, giving up all of his own glory and security to do so.

Marva Dawn’s book Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God speaks very well about the posture of cruciformity. Read it expecting to be humbled.

So what is the position and posture of Christians in politics today? We rule the universe with Christ, from the cross. We hold all of the power, for the purpose of giving it away. Our position as kings is only made apparent when we serve others as slaves. Our dignity and glory comes from our ability to humble ourselves before our enemies. Our rights are secure in heaven, but here in Canada we give them up for the sake of others.

We must never forget that we are crucified with Christ. Can we grasp at power when our hands are nailed to the cross? Can we lord it over others when we are naked and exposed? Can we separate ourselves from the world when we are, in fact, living and dying on their behalf with Christ? Whatever political choices we make, if we express them from the position and posture of Christ – that is, from the cross – we will honour God AND our nation.

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!