Archive for May, 2013

I have recently returned to an older book for a second reading. I appreciate it more than ever! The book is Friendship and Resistance, by Eberhard Bethge, the one person most responsible for helping us to know the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The subtitle is “Essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” though that was likely added by the publisher (Eerdmans, 1995) just to attract attention. The important parts of the book are the essays which help us understand the ethical complexities of living in Germany in the 1930s.


Most difficult for today’s American readers is that political resistance was almost unimaginable even for those who recognized Hitler as evil. The first barrier was that Luther’s teaching about the Two Kingdoms, patterned after the thinking of St. Augustine in the 5th century, had become in the German mind an almost absolute barrier between church and state. Each, it was commonly thought, had its own responsibility before God and neither had responsibility to or for the other.


Thus, when it became clear within a couple of months that the newly appointed Chancellor Hitler was going to seek control of the church, the Christians — if they saw any problem at all — saw themselves as facing a choice between the Nazification of the church and the insistence on a singular loyalty not to Hitler but to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer was one of only a handful of those who knew from the very beginning that resistance was necessary, though even he did not yet imagine that political resistance would be required. The first battle cry of the resistors, Bethge tells us, was simply, “Let the church be the church.” They could not yet conceive of a concern for civil “justice and righteousness” being a church concern.

When the anti-Semintism of the Nazis became obvious after just two months, Bonhoeffer wrote in an essay that the church must call the state to accountability before God, must bind up the wounds of those injured by the state, and must even stop the wheels of the state from crushing the weak and defenseless. But the essay was not well known even among those who appreciated the young theologian.

And, five years later when the Nazis ordered the destruction of Jewish businesses and synagogues on the infamous Crystal Night of November 9, 1938, Bonhoeffer was almost alone in seeing that there must be solidarity between Christians and Jews. “If the synagogues burn today,” said Bonhoeffer, “the churches will be on fire tomorrow.” He saw, in other words, that the world had moved beyond “mere” anti-Semitism to a more openly anti-God stance. “A rejection of the Jews from the West,” he said, “must bring after it a rejection of Christ, for Christ was a Jew.” Even more strongly insistent upon Jewish-Christian solidarity was his statement that, “The church. . .has become responsible for destroying the lives of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.”

It was always a deeply discouraging reality that even among those who listened to him most carefully, there was only the slowest of transitions toward an understanding of the responsibility of the church to hold the state accountable for justice. His voice barely overcame the centuries of tradition which had insisted not that faith and obedience required one another but that all that was required of a Christian was faith, not necessarily obedience.  If they did not hold themselves accountable for being persons of justice, how could they imagine holding the state accountable?

Conservative Christians in America, especially those who have become aligned with conservative political views, have an idea of justice that has withered from under-use.  Bethge’s book can help us recognize our own difficulties in forming a clear idea of our responsibility, especially in a democracy in which the state is avowedly answerable to its citizens.


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“Teaching about Christ begins in silence,” Bonhoeffer told the students in his Christology class in 1933. That’s a very hard lesson for us to learn.

We are so eager to speak that we are impatient with listening. The one who dares to speak of anything important — especially Jesus Christ — without first being silenced by the mystery of that which is beyond our knowing makes a fool of himself and misleads any who might be touched by his words.

We are silent before Jesus Christ until we are brought to our knees in submission, in awe, in worship. We are silent when we sense that we can have nothing to say that is not given us. To speak without first being silent is to create our own words, our own ideas. And they will always be false and empty.

By no coincidence, when Bonhoeffer taught his class on Genesis, he said the same thing.

The place where the Bible begins is one where our own most impassioned waves of thinking break, are thrown back upon themselves, and lose their strength in spray and foam. The first word of the Bible has hardly for a moment surfaced before us, before the waves frantically rush in upon it again and cover it with wreaths of foam. . . . Where the beginning begins, there our thinking stops, there is comes to an end.

Fewer books would be written and deeper thoughts would emerge were we to learn to be silent before our Lord. And that sounds good to me!


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Bonhoeffer and Christian Maturity

One of the words Bonhoeffer used often is “responsible.” It meant a great deal to him to learn what it means to be a responsible, mature follower of Jesus Christ.

I have observed over the years that, without undue simplification, we can recognize three stages of Christian maturity. They are especially clear in someone who becomes a believer after childhood.

First, there is the initial joy of discovering God’s great and beautiful love. We are motivated to serve God with great fervor. All that we do is for God. Before long this leads to a period of discouragement when we realize we cannot do nearly enough or be good enough to be all that God is worth. Many new believers retreat at this point, either ceasing to consider themselves Christian at all or falling into a “good enough to get by” kind of faith.

Only a few seem to discover a second level, when we realize just how immense is God’s grace and how absolutely trustworthy is his love. We learn to accept life as being perpetually from God, a continual gift. We learn to rest in his love and grace and our hearts are shaped by deep gratitude.

Fewer still discover that the Lord is moving them to a third level, one which incorporates the first two but moves us beyond them. We begin to realize that God is forming a certain Christlikeness of character within us, not leaving us as little children but treating us as responsible adults. In this stage we are learning to live with God.

This is the stage upon which Dietrich Bonhoeffer meditated the last several years of his life. In his book Ethics Bonhoeffer wrote,

Formation [in the image of Christ] occurs only by being drawn into the form of Jesus Christ, by being conformed to the unique form of the one who became humans, was crucified, and is risen. This does not happen a we strive “to become like Jesus,” as we customarily say, but as the form of Jesus Christ himself so works on us that it molds us, conforming our form to Christ’s own (Gal. 4:19).

Maturity, Christlikeness of character, is not an achievement but a gift. We become mature not by asking “What would Jesus do?” but by allowing the Spirit of God to teach us and mold us through joy and travail, experienced in faith.

It is also important to note that growing up is not merely a private matter. We grow by “speaking the truth in love” with one another. Take time to meditate on this passage:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16).

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