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Archive for March, 2015

I’ve been reading Bonhoeffer’s circular letters written to his former students at the Finkenwalde seminary. They are letters of encouragement — and sometimes scolding! — for the young men entering very difficult situations.  In these letters, as nearly everywhere else in Bonhoeffer’s writings, I am reminded often of the badly misguided idea (fostered by Metaxas) that Bonhoeffer had nothing to do with social justice.

In his second letter, written only a few months after the closing of the seminary by the Gestapo, it is clear that the young men have been writing to Dietrich about how discouraged they are, how tempted to go along with Nazi requirements for the church, and how they would like their supervising bodies — the Councils of Brethren — to stop expecting them to be engaged in social and political issues. Bonhoeffer challenges them with a question:

Is it clear to you that a Council of Brethren that would only practice a so-called spiritual leadership, as you wished, would be leading an illusory existence, which can be swept away in a moment?

When the church of Jesus Christ retreats from real life and seeks only to be a spiritual fellowship, it loses all substance and becomes a mere wisp of a real church. The church that is not engaged in the world, offering both comfort and challenge, is flimsy and insignificant.

Bonhoeffer never forgot his insight expressed in his essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” There he said we must hold the state accountable, bind the wounds of those injured by state injustice, and jam the wheels of state when it pursues injustice. We do not, we must not merely stand back and offer a spiritual perspective on life. We walk where Jesus walked, right into the jaws of injustice. Our prayer that the cold ones would be clothed has no meaning if we are withholding our own coat.

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My last blog posting was an extensive quotation from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, written as if he had been asked to express the regrets of the repentant church. In fact, he had no such assignment and, worse, the kind of repentance that Bonhoeffer had in mind came only very slowly and bit by bit in the post-war church in Germany. Whether the German church heard it or not, we in America certainly need to pay careful attention to Bonhoeffer’s confession because it is a first step toward some kinds of repentance that we, too, need.

For today, we’ll think just of the level of personal confession with which Dietrich begins. Our sin, even if we think it is secret, poisons the whole community. We contribute ourselves to the community and, if our own souls are poisoned by sin, we inject that poison into the whole. When we speak of sin, we tend to think merely of individual misdoings. What Bonhoeffer has in mind is more biblical in scope: Sin is a condition of the soul. it leads to specific sins but is not the same as those sins. Confessing the individual sins, however, is a necessary step toward repenting of the inner and more basic condition of sinfulness.

“Murder, envy, strife, war — all arise from the desire that lies within us (James 4:1ff),” he writes. The community soaks up our sin just as a blotter soaks up ink and spreads it wider.

But, you may be thinking, my sin is too small, too minor to do much damage to the fellowship. But Bonhoeffer insists, “There is no calculating here.”  As James puts the matter:  “. . .whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”  the end of this line of reasoning is that we all bear a sense of responsibility for the sins of the whole world. Seem unreasonable? Isn’t that just what Jesus did, this Jesus whom we follow and emulate?

Notice the list of “personal” sins for which Dietrich wants to confess: “I am guilty of inordinate desire; I am guilty of cowardly silence when I should have spoken; I am guilty of untruthfulness and hypocrisy in the face of threatening violence; I am guilty of disowning without mercy the poorest of my neighbors; I am guilty of disloyalty and falling away from Christ.” Those clearly he had in mind the sins of nearly every German under Hitler, and just as clearly he was thinking of the Jews in his reference to the poorest of his neighbors, we can very easily see that as a church we have made little or no progress in the last 75 years.

In fact, many who call themselves Christians resist speaking up for oppressed neighbors, explaining to us that “social justice” is just a mask for socialism. How the devil must enjoy the way we try to explain away our sin!

Bonhoeffer also warns us against measuring our sin against that of another. The silly comfort we give ourselves when we say “At least I’m not as bad as Joe or Jane” must be scorned in the heavenly courts. Besides involving us in calculating and weighing our sin, such thinking blocks us from forgiving others. Dietrich might have reminded us here that, if we do not forgive, we are not forgiven. Forgiveness cannot be hoarded any more than love itself. It is either shared or it is unreal. Period.

Tomorrow we’ll look at Bonhoeffer’s broader confession on the part of the whole church. it will mean nothing to those who have not accepted what he says about individual confession. Is that yhou?

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A few months after the end of the Second World War, church leaders from around the western world gathered in Germany to begin immediately on supporting the church in Germany and insure that it could quickly take its place again in the broader Christian community. Those leaders were surprised that the Germans seemed not to have put much thought into their own failings during the Nazi years and had little sense that they had sins and were therefore in need of confession and repentance. So, under pressure, the Germans put together what is now called the Stuttgart Confession. It is remarkable in only one way: the “confession” is feeble, lacking in specifics, and has no reference to the fate of the Jews.

In his book Ethics, Bonhoeffer has his eyes on the post-war church, even though he is writing in the year 1939. He knew there would be no health in the German Church until after Hitler was gone and that the health would have to begin with confession. In a very strongly worded passage, Bonhoeffer spells out just what needs to be confessed. I will include here an extended section. As you read it, ask yourself to what degree the sins he mentions characterize the church in America today.

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A Passage from Ethics pp. 137ff, “Guilt, Justification, Renewal”
First of all, the quite personal sin of each individual is acknowledged here as a source of poison for the community. Even the most secret sin of the individual soils and destroys the body of Christ (I Corinthians 6:15). Murder, envy, strife, war – all arise from the desire that lies within us (James 4:1ff). I cannot pacify myself by saying that my part in all this is slight and hardly noticeable. There is no calculating here. I must acknowledge that my own sin is to blame for all of these things. I am guilty of inordinate desire; I am guilty of cowardly silence when I should have spoken; I am guilty of untruthfulness and hypocrisy in the face of threatening violence; I am guilty of disowning without mercy the poorest of my neighbors; I am guilty of disloyalty and falling away from Christ.

Why does it concern me if others are also guilty? Every sin of another I can excuse; only my own sin, of which I remain guilty, I can never excuse. It is not an unhealthy, self-preoccupied distortion of reality but the essence of a genuine admission of gilt, which no longer calculates and argues, but which acknowledges my sin as he origin of all sin, as, in the words of the Bible, the sin of Adam.

It is meaningless to try to reduce this insight ad absurdum by pointing out that there are countless individuals, each one similarly aware of being guilty toward the whole. These many individuals are joined together in the collective I of the church. The church confesses and acknowledges its guilt in and through them.

The church confesses that it has not professed openly and clearly enough its message of the one God, revealed for all times in Jesus Christ and tolerating no other gods besides. The church confesses its timidity, its deviations, its dangerous concessions. It has often disavowed its duties as sentinel and comforter. Through this it has often withheld the compassion that its owes to the despised and rejected.  The church was mute when it should have cried out, because the blood of the innocent cried out to heaven. The church did not find the right word in the right way at the right time. It did not resist to the death the falling away from faith and is guilty of the godlessness of the masses.

The church confesses that it has misused the name of Christ by being ashamed of it before the world and b y not resisting strongly enough the misuse of that name for evil ends. The church has looked on while the injustice and violence have been done, under the cover of the name of Christ. It has even allowed the most holy name to be openly derided without contradiction and has thus encouraged that derision. The church recognizes that God will not leave unpunished those who so misuse God’s name as it does.

The church confesses it is guilty of the loss of holidays, for the barrenness of its public worship, for the contempt for Sunday rest. It has made itself guilty for the restlessness and discontent of working people, as well as for their exploitation above and beyond the workweek, because its preaching of Jesus Christ has been so weak and its public worship so limp.
The church confesses that it is guilty of the breakdown of parental authority. The church has not opposed contempt for age and the divinization of youth because it feared losing the youth and therefore the future, as if its future depended on the young! It has not dared to proclaim the God-given dignity of parents against revolutionary youth and has made a very worldly-minded attempt “to go along with youth.” Thus it is guilty of destroying countless families, for children’s betraying their parents, of the self-divinizing of youth, and therefore of abandoning them to fall away from Christ.

The church confesses that it has witnessed the arbitrary use of brutal force, the suffering in body and soul of countless innocent people, that it has witnessed oppression, hatred, and murder without raising its voice for the victims and without finding ways of rushing to help them. It has become guilty of the lives of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

The church confesses that it has not found any guiding or helpful word to say in the midst of the dissolution of all order in the relationships of the sexes to each other. It has found no strong or authentic message to set against the disdain for chastity and the proclamation of sexual licentiousness. Beyond the occasional expression of moral indignation it has had nothing to say. The church has become guilty, therefore, of the loss of purity and wholesomeness among youth. It has not known how to proclaim strongly that our bodies are members of the body of Christ.

The church confesses that it has looked on silently as the poor were exploited and robbed, while the strong were enriched and corrupted.

The church confesses its guilt toward the countless people whose lives have been destroyed by slander, denunciation, and defamation. It has not condemned the slanderers for their wrongs and has thereby left the slandered to their fate.
The church confesses that it has coveted security, tranquillity, peace, property, and honor to which it has no claim, and therefore has not bridled human covetousness, but promoted it.

The church confesses itself guilty of violating all of the Ten Commandments. It confesses thereby its apostasy from Christ. It has not so borne witness to the truth of God in a way that leads all inquiry and science to recognize its origin in this truth. It has not so proclaimed the righteousness of God that all human justice must see thee its own source and essence. It has not been able to make the loving care of God so credible that all human economic activity would be guided by it in its task. By falling silent the church became guilty for the loss of responsible action in society, courageous intervention, and the readiness to suffer for what is acknowledged as right. It is guilty of the government’s falling away from Christ.

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When writing his book Ethics (which he never finished), Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed some radical ideas, such as that we are not to concern ourselves with what is good but, rather, with what is God’s will. And that, he believed, could only be known by knowing God.

More than a decade earlier, when he was still in his early 20s, Dietrich was already radical. In his 1928 lecture entitled “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic,” he argued that there is in fact no such thing as a Christian ethic, that ethics is simply a matter of “blood and history.” By that odd phrase he meant simply that what seems ethical to us, what seems to be the set of proper principles by which we are to live, is determined not by anything universal but by our location in time and culture.

One of my treasures is a book copyrighted in 1831 in Connecticut. It is called “A New Family Encyclopedia or Compendium of Universal Knowledge: Comprehending a plain and practical view of those subjects most interesting to persons in the ordinary professions of life.” Its first section is on Man and includes on page 15 this paragraph:

INTELLECTUAL CAPACITY. Of all the varieties of mankind, there can be no doubt that the white man exhibits the greatest marks of ingenuity and intelligence; and of this variety the most intelligent will be found to be those who reside in temperate climates. . . .While none of these [Asian races] equal the Chinese and some others of the Mongul race, few, perhaps, are so sunken as some portions of the Negro race. This last race exhibits much animal power, yet it is far beneath the white man in intellectual capacity.

Such a view of the relative intelligence of the races was the best scientific observation of the day. One had only to look at the cultural achievements of the races to see their obvious rank on the scales of intelligence. Now, of course, we know that the intellectual potential of the various races cannot be distinguished but 200 years ago there was no way to know that.

An ethic based on science, such as heralded by atheists such as Dawkins, will always be as fickle and malleable as science itself. And it will always be liable to one man or group saying, “My science is better than yours and therefore so is my ethical position.”

Bonhoeffer way right: What seems ethical in one time and place will not seem so in another. Even science cannot provide a foundation for ethics. Science is the study of nature and nature, we were reminded long ago, is “red in tooth and claw.” Science can give us no more than the law of the survival of the fittest. The atheist is unwittingly calling us back to the primitive jungles of existence where “might makes right.”

There is no “good;” there is only God.

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In the daunting book Ethics, there are some sections which are not difficult to understand but are very difficult to accept, not because they are wrong but because they impose such great responsibility upon us. In a section on confession in the chapter entitled “Guilt, Justification, Renewal,” Bonhoeffer argues that to be meaningful, our confession of sin must be far deeper and broader than we normally can imagine. It is such a long and powerful passage that I will include it without comment. In a later blog I will muse upon its implications.

——————————————–

BY FALLING SILENT
A Passage from Ethics pp. 137ff, “Guilt, Justification, Renewal”

First of all, the quite personal sin of each individual is acknowledged here as a source of poison for the community. Even the most secret sin of the individual soils and destroys the body of Christ (I Corinthians 6:15). Murder, envy, strife, war – all arise from the desire that lies within us (James 4:1ff). I cannot pacify myself by saying that my part in all this is slight and hardly noticeable. There is no calculating here. I must acknowledge that my own sin is to blame for all of these things. I am guilty of inordinate desire; I am guilty of cowardly silence when I should have spoken; I am guilty of untruthfulness and hypocrisy in the face of threatening violence; I am guilty of disowning without mercy the poorest of my neighbors; I am guilty of disloyalty and falling away from Christ.
Why does it concern me if others are also guilty? Every sin of another I can excuse; only my own sin, of which I remain guilty, I can never excuse. It is not an unhealthy, self-preoccupied distortion of reality but the essence of a genuine admission of gilt, which no longer calculates and argues, but which acknowledges my sin as he origin of all sin, as, in the words of the Bible, the sin of Adam.
It is meaningless to try to reduce this insight ad absurdum by pointing out that there are countless individuals, each one similarly aware of being guilty toward the whole. These many individuals are joined together in the collective I of the church. The church confesses and acknowledges its guilt in and through them.
The church confesses that it has not professed openly and clearly enough its message of the one God, revealed for all times in Jesus Christ and tolerating no other gods besides. The church confesses its timidity, its deviations, its dangerous concessions. It has often disavowed its duties as sentinel and comforter. Through this it has often withheld the compassion that its owes to the despised and rejected.  The church was mute when it should have cried out, because the blood of the innocent cried out to heaven. The church did not find the right word in the right way at the right time. It did not resist to the death the falling away from faith and is guilty of the godlessness of the masses.
The church confesses that it has misused the name of Christ by being ashamed of it before the world and b y not resisting strongly enough the misuse of that name for evil ends. The church has looked on while the injustice and violence have been done, under the cover of the name of Christ. It has even allowed the most holy name to be openly derided without contradiction and has thus encouraged that derision. The church recognizes that God will not leave unpunished those who so misuse God’s name as it does.
The church confesses it is guilty of the loss of holidays, for the barrenness of its public worship, for the contempt for Sunday rest. It has made itself guilty for the restlessness and discontent of working people, as well as for their exploitation above and beyond the workweek, because its preaching of Jesus Christ has been so weak and its public worship so limp.
The church confesses that it is guilty of the breakdown of parental authority. The church has not opposed contempt for age and the divinization of youth because it feared losing the youth and therefore the future, as if its future depended on the young! It has not dared to proclaim the God-given dignity of parents against revolutionary youth and has made a very worldly-minded attempt “to go along with youth.” Thus it is guilty of destroying countless families, for children’s betraying their parents, of the self-divinizing of youth, and therefore of abandoning them to fall away from Christ.
The church confesses that it has witnessed the arbitrary use of brutal force, the suffering in body and soul of countless innocent people, that it has witnessed oppression, hatred, and murder without raising its voice for the victims and without finding ways of rushing to help them. It has become guilty of the lives of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.
The church confesses that it has not found any guiding or helpful word to say in the midst of the dissolution of all order in the relationships of the sexes to each other. It has found no strong or authentic message to set against the disdain for chastity and the proclamation of sexual licentiousness. Beyond the occasional expression of moral indignation it has had nothing to say. The church has become guilty, therefore, of the loss of purity and wholesomeness among youth. It has not known how to proclaim strongly that our bodies are members of the body of Christ.
The church confesses that it has looked on silently as the poor were exploited and robbed, while the strong were enriched and corrupted.
The church confesses its guilt toward the countless people whose lives have been destroyed by slander, denunciation, and defamation. It has not condemned the slanderers for their wrongs and has thereby left the slandered to their fate.
The church confesses that it has coveted security, tranquillity, peace, property, and honor to which it has no claim, and therefore has not bridled human covetousness, but promoted it.
The church confesses itself guilty of violating all of the Ten Commandments. It confesses thereby its apostasy from Christ. It has not so borne witness to the truth of God in a way that leads all inquiry and science to recognize its origin in this truth. It has not so proclaimed the righteousness of God that all human justice must see thee its own source and essence. It has not been able to make the loving care of God so credible that all human economic activity would be guided by it in its task. By falling silent the church became guilty for the loss of responsible action in society, courageous intervention, and the readiness to suffer for what is acknowledged as right. It is guilty of the government’s falling away from Christ.

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