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Archive for December, 2014

I’ve recently been reading again Bonhoeffer’s 1932 essay, “Thy Kingdom Come.” When I first read it years ago, I found it difficult. Now, after years of reading Bonhoeffer, I have returned to it and find it. . .difficult. Like much of Dietrich’s writing in the early 30s, he was stretching his own understand, writing and speaking so that he could understand, not because he already understood the matter. We can easily forgive him (after all, he was stretching all of western theology and he was only 26). Just as easily, we can sense the direction he is trying to move and even identify ideas which he later dismissed.

In the Lord’s Prayer, the phrase “Thy kingdom come” is completed by “on earth as it is in heaven.” It is the whole idea which Bonhoeffer is trying to explicate, or at least the “on earth” part. What does is mean to pray for the kingdom of God to come on earth?

He first identifies the common misunderstandings. “We are otherworldly or we are secularists, but in either case this means that we no longer believe in God’s kingdom.” If we are otherworldly, we are escapists, just enduring life on earth as we long for heaven. We try to create our churches as little “down payments” (my term) on heaven, protective little ghettos to shelter ourselves from the world/Earth until the final deliverance comes.

By “secularists” Bonhoeffer does not mean we are agnostics or atheists. He is talking about believers who believe the kingdom of God can be established on earth if we just try hard enough or come up with a bright enough scheme. When we try to take over for God or to do his work for him, we are in effect pushing him to the sidelines as a mere observer. We want his blessing on our work, of course, but it remains our work.

The otherworldly want God without the burden of the Earth, of fallible humanity. The secular want to establish the Kingdom on Earth without God, the divine observer. What truly godly people pray for is for God to establish his kingdom on Earth. They do not want the kingdom without the Earth nor want the Kingdom without God. Rather, they want the Kingdom to be established by God on the Earth, in the world.

(Those who have wrestled with Letters and Papers from Prison will recognize in this essay an early struggle to understand what later became his call to a “this-worldly Christianity.” Thus the essay, written well before Hitler came to power, is another of the many examples of Dietrich’s ideas which required many years to develop.)

To know the meaning of the prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” we need some understanding of the nature of the kingdom God is establishing. Because our democracy is so different than that in Germany a century ago, we Americans are not entirely comfortable with Bonhoeffer’s explanation: The kingdom of God on earth is a duality of church and state, the church sharing in and attesting to God’s miracles (especially life over death) and the state maintaining order. That sounds very old-school Lutheran and very Germanic.

Not many years later, Bonhoeffer would have to renounce the church for its failure to be the church, becoming instead a department of the state. And then he would have to struggle very hard to understand how to oppose the leader of the state while remaining true to the state itself.

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