This post was originally published November 24, 2007 at my former blog, The Presbyterian Polis. I post it now as I believe it provides us perspective for the times we are in.
For past couple of months, I've been drawn to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His short book Life Together has been a helpful perspective in a church world torn between artificial triumphalism and institutional cynicism. It's about how real people engage one another through their faith in Christ and in their relationships with one another.
Lately, I have been reading portions from The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics trying to grasp who this man was. I find his perspective on the Christian faith and the church totally different from most of the people I know and read today.
A couple days ago, I ran into United Methodist pastor colleague Tony Sayer at the bookstore. After a wide ranging discussion that lasted over an hour, I told him I was reading Bonhoeffer. His eyes lit up. He's a Bonhoeffer devotee and after some discussion, suggested I read a piece Bonhoeffer wrote in 1942, not many months before he was arrested by the German Gestapo. So, I went home, dug through a box of books and found my 40 year old copy of Letters and Papers from Prison. The copy I have is not the expanded edition that is now available. I've ordered it and its on the way here.
The essay that Tony suggested is After Ten Years. It is his reflections on his work and life in the context of the rise of National Socialism under the Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler. His thoughts are not historical, but more personal and spiritual. I find them quite relevant to our time.
Bonhoeffer speaks of the radical evilness of evil of the Third Reich and the multitude of failed attempts to confront it.
The failure of rationalism is evident. With best of intentions, but with a naive lack of realism, the rationalist imagines that a small dose of reason will be enough to put the world right. In his short-sightedness he wants to do justice to all sides, but in the melee of conflicting forces he gets trampled upon without having achieved the slightest effect. Disappointed by the irrationality of the world, he realises at last his futility, retires from the fray, and weakly surrenders to the winning side.
Worse still is the total collapse of moral fanaticism. The fanatic imagines his moral purity will prove a match for the power of evil, but like a bull he goes for the red rag instead of the man who carries it, grows weary and succumbs. He becomes entangled with non-essentials and falls into the trap set by the superior ingenuity of his adversary.
Then there is the man with a conscience. He fights single-handed against overwhelming odds in situations which demand a decision. But are so many conflicts going on, all of which demand some vital choice - with no advice or support save that of his own conscience - that he is torn to pieces. Evil approaches him in so many specious and deceptive guises that his conscience becomes nervous and vacillating. In the end he contents himself with a salved instead of a clear conscience, and starts lying to his conscience as a means of avoiding despair. If a man relies exclusively on his conscience he fails to see how a bad conscience is sometimes more wholesome and strong than a deluded one.
When men are confronted by a bewildering variety of alternatives, the path of duty seems to offer a sure way out. They grasp at the imperative as the one certainty. The responsibility for the imperative rests upon its author, not upon its executor. But when men are confined to the limits of duty, they never risk a daring deed on their own responsibility, which is the only way to score a bull's eye against evil and defeat it. Then man of duty will in the end be forced to give the devil his due.
What then of the man of freedom? He is the man who aspires to stand his ground in the world, who values the necessary deed more highly than a clear conscience or the duties of his calling, who is ready to sacrifice a barren principle for a fruitful compromise or a barren mediocrity for a fruitful radicalism. What then of him? He must beware lest his freedom should become his own undoing. For in choosing the lesser of two evils he may fail to see the greater evil he seeks to avoid may prove the lesser. Here we have the raw material of tragedy.
Some seek refuge from the rough-and-tumble of public life in the sanctuary of their own private virtue. Such men however are compelled to seal their lips and shut their eyes to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep themselves pure from the defilements incurred by responsible action. For all that they achieve, that which they leave undone will still torment their peace of mind. They will either go to pieces in face of this disquiet, or develop into the most hypocritical of all Pharisees.
Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not in his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedience and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God.
I find this a relevant discussion concerning the future of the church. There are so many attempts to address the central crisis of our age - the purpose and function of the church in the 21st century. Much of this crisis is institutional, justifiably so. Yet, that is not really where the problem begins.
Instead, the problem begins with what does it mean to live as a Christian. This question is what I find in Bonhoeffer that challenges my whole perception of what it means to be a Christian. It shows itself in how dependent I am on structure and tradition. What comes to mind as I read Bonhoeffer is not the crisis of the church against the culture of an evil regime like the Nazis, but the church in conflict with Christ at its very core.
The various approaches to address the National Socialist threat that Bonhoeffer describes above reminds me of the various approaches that we are trying to use to fix the structure and function of the church. Bonhoeffer speaks of the lack of civil courage in Germany during these ten years, though not the lack of bravery and self-sacrifice.
In the course of a long history we Germans have had to learn the necessity and the power of obedience. The subordination of all individual desires and opinions to the call of duty has given meaning and nobility to life. We have looked upwards, not in servile fear, but in free trust, seeing our duty as a call, and the call as a vocation. This readiness to follow a command from above rather than our own private opinion of what was best was a sign of a legitimate self-distrust. Who can deny that in obedience, duty and calling we Germans have again and again excelled in bravery and self-sacrifice? ... The trouble was we did not understand his world. He forgot that submissiveness and self-sacrifice could be exploited for evil ends.
He then discusses the ethics of success as no better for understanding where one fits in history.
All the time goodness is successful we can afford the luxury of regarding success as having no ethical significance. But the problem arises when success is achieved by evil means. It is no good then behaving as an arm-chair critic and disputing the issue, for that is to refuse to face the facts. Nor is opportunism any help, for that is to capitulate before success. We must be determined not to be outraged critics or mere opportunists. We must take our full share of responsibility for the moulding of history, whether it be as victors or vanquished.
Bonhoeffer points to a responsibility that is ours given to us by God. The question that I have is what does it mean to be responsible in our time. What does it mean for the church to bear the responsibility for history as he describes it?
To read Bonhoeffer is to be struck hard with the reality that this is a man whose engagement with the world was so complete that his relationship with Christ had come to replace his relationship to the church. For most of us, the church serves as the place where we find God. Without the church there is no faith that is secure and real. This is why, I suspect, that the early Calvinists were so adamant about the place of visual and sensual representations of Christ. That these worldly objects could easily come to replace the living God in Jesus Christ as a result. Is this what has happened in churches? This is what I believe lies behind Bonhoeffer's discussion of folly.
Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than malice. You can protest against malice, you can unmask it or prevent it by force. ... There is no defence against folly. Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason. If facts contradict personal prejudices, there is no need to believe them, and if they are undeniable, they can simply be pushed aside as exceptions. Thus the fool, as compared with the scoundrel, is invariably self-complacent.
Folly, Bonhoeffer writes, is a moral rather than an intellectual defect.
The fool can often be stubborn, but this must not mislead us into thinking he is independent. One feels somehow, especially in conversation with him, that it is impossible to talk to the man himself, to talk to him personally. Instead, one is confronted with a series of slogans, watchwords, and the like, which have acquired power over him. He is under a spell, he is blinded, his very humanity is being prostituted and exploited. Once he has surrendered his will and become a mere tool, there are no lengths of evil to which the fool will not go, yet all the time he is unable to see that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation of humanity, which can do irreparable damage to the human character.
But it is just at this point that we realise that the fool cannot be saved by education. What he needs is redemption. ... the only cure for folly is spiritual redemption, for that alone can enable a man to live as a responsible person in the sight of God.
This redemption is not simply joining a church, becoming a member and joining a program. Rather this is the transformation of the whole person to be one who is totally available to God. This is what it means to be responsible and free. It also means that many of the "things" of this world become constraints or entanglements that rob us of our freedom. The problem with many prophets and ministries that call for absolute discipleship accompanying vows of poverty is that they are like the rationalist, the fanatic, or the moralist who intellectually or emotionally tries to change the world by sheer will. It rises from that sense of duty that gets confused and clouded in the multitude of motivations that rob us of our freedom.
What my reading of Bonhoeffer leads me to see is that this responsible, spiritually mature person is simply a whole human being. We aren't to be some super-heroic super-spiritual being whose accomplishments and failures are on some grand scale. Rather, we are to live our human lives as the beings God created us to be. All the things I've quoted from Bonhoeffer above have pointed to how our human lives become diminished in so many ways. The problem with these various paths to perfection is that they result in de-humanizing us and therefore affecting our attitude toward others. Here is what Bonhoeffer says about those who hold such a contempt for humanity.
There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity. We know full well that it would be very wrong, and that it would lead to the most sterile relation with our fellow men. ... The man who despises others can never hope to do anything with them. The faults we despise in others are always, to some extent at least, our own too. How often have we expected from others more than we are prepared to do ourselves! Why have we until now held such lofty views about human nature? Why have we not recognised its frailty and liability to temptation? We must form our estimate of men less from their achievements and failures, and more from their sufferings. The only profitable relationship to others - and especially to our weaker brethren - is one of love, that is the will to hold fellowship with them. Even God did not despise humanity, but became Man for man's sake.
For Bonhoeffer, as we well as it should be for each of us, how we relate to the other individual is where the practicality of our faith is formed. From this simple, basic approach to our relationships with people can grow the ability to demonstrate the kind of civic courage that he practiced in his own ministry. It simply becomes how we act in love towards others, regardless of who they are.
Within a matter of a few months of Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing this letter to friends in 1942, the Gestapo came and arrested Bonhoeffer, and within two years he was hanged for his leadership of the church in Germany. Eberhard Bethge, friend and biographer of Bonhoeffer, in the introduction to Letters and Papers from Prison, tells the story of what the man was like during his emprisonment.
Bonhoeffer's last weeks were spent with prisoners drawn from all over Europe. Among them was Payne Best, an English officer. ... Best writes: "Bonhoeffer ... was all humility and sweetness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive. ... He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom his God was real and close to him." And again, "The following day, Sunday, April 8th, 1945, Pastor Bonhoeffer held a little service and spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right worlds to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought. He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said: ' Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.' Those words 'come with us' - for all prisoners that had come to mean one thing only - the scaffold.
"We bade him good-bye - he drew me aside - ' This is the end,' he said. 'For me the beginning of life,' ... Next day, at Flossenburg, he was hanged."
We live in a time of great change and ferment in the church. We have church schisms in our own denomination. We have Megachurches that are questioning methods and whose leaders are examples of moral failure in tragic ways. We have churches emerging as communities and communities that are emerging as places of hope and love in cities. All the foundations of the church are being shaken to see what will remain.
What I am finding as I travel this journey of spiritual and ecclesiastical change is that the Christ that gave Bonhoeffer joy and peace at the time of his execution is real. The church is not the whole faith, but one place where we meet God, find nurture and nourishment, focus and replenishment for the lives we are to live outside. While I am a realist, it is my faith and the experience of it that teaches me to be an optimist. Thank God for the life and legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.