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Posts Tagged ‘Forgiveness’

Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to the suffering of Christ’s people again and again. Suffering, in fact, is one of the mark’s of a true disciple. He gives multiple reasons for this in various part of his writing. I’ll mention just two and then add another of my own which I believe complements Bonhoeffer’s ideas.

First, “The community of disciples does not shake off suffering, as if they had nothing to do with it. Instead, they bear it. In doing so they give witness to their connection with the people around them” (Discipleship, DBWE 4:104). Followers of Jesus Christ are not excluded and sheltered from the world around them. The “prosperity preachers” are simply liars. While the Lord does indeed grant us more blessings than we can count, he also sends us into the suffering world. We are connected to the world around us, especially at the point of their suffering. Christlike compassion would never allow us to protect ourselves from the pain of others.

Second, followers of Jesus suffer because we find our very identity in our communion with the suffering Lord of the Universe. God grieves with humans; God feels every insult to himself or to one of his people; God bleeds because of our sin; God allows himself to be vulnerable to human hatred. To believe otherwise is to ignore the Cross of Jesus Christ, where God accepted into himself all our sins and sinfulness.

And this leads us to a third way of expressing the suffering of God’s people: As the Cross demonstrates, forgiveness means absorbing the sin of the other into ourselves. It means paying a price for the sin of the other. If I forgive you for betraying me, it means I am simply accepting the pain without retaliation or any form of self-protection. We cannot be a forgiving people if we are not willing to be a suffering people.

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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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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.

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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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In our customary self-centered Christianity, we tend to think of confession — if at all — only as a way to gain absolution, the removal of our guilt. Forgiveness does do that indeed but it leads to something far more important.

Bonhoeffer (Ethics, DBWE 6:136) wrote:

Christ conquers us never more strongly than by completely and unconditionally taking on our guilt and declaring it Christ’s own, letting us go free. Looking on this grace of Christ frees us completely from looking at the guilt of others and brings Christians to fall on their knees before Christ with the confession: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Confession does open us to forgiveness, yes. It also opens us to being conquered, claimed by Christ. As he takes on our guilt, he takes us on! We do not drink forgiveness as if from a tap, then turn and go our way. Like blind Bartimaeus, when freed by Christ to go our way, we follow him to Jerusalem. His way is now our way.

And confession protects us from the awful tendency, fostered and nurtured to perfection by many in the church, to concern ourselves with the sins of others. We seem to enjoy the feeling of superiority that comes from becoming judges of other people. None of us is totally free of that temptation but it seems to be especially strong in those who live with a strong sense that right and wrong are defined by rules and regulations, laws and traditions . . . as were the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

Instead, confession simply drives us to our spiritual knees in humility and full awareness that we live solely by the miraculous grace of God. The one who does not live with “Thank you, Lord” on the tip of his or her tongue, has no right to look down at others.

Bonhoeffer adds another dimension to our need for confession and forgiveness:

. . .the quite personal sin of each individual is acknowledged 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).

Sin is toxic. Sin is contagious. It is a poison which seeps from one to another to the whole, if not by causing others to fall into the same sin, then by dampening the sense of openness to and rejoicing in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

By the grace of God, we are called to confession, cleansed by forgiveness, and restored to freedom and joy in following Jesus Christ, bringing others along with us in our devotion to Christ.

What does an atheist do with his or her sin? Simply try to atone and/or dismiss the sin or its consequences. And remain alone at the deepest level. And that is very sad.

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