Posts Tagged ‘Responsibility’

Ten years of resisting Hitler, watching the tyrant’s popularity grow during that whole time, must have been exhausting for Bonhoeffer and the others who never gave up fighting for truth and justice. In fact, however, it was not.

His mini-essay entitled “Optimism” helps us understand why Bonhoeffer remained strong. He recognized that it seems “more sensible to be pessimistic” as a way of protecting oneself against disappointment. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer was firmly committed to optimism.to him it was “a power that never abandons the future to the opponent but lays claim to it.”

Those who despair of building a better future become irresponsible and therefore end up increasing their future problems. They do not accept the “responsibility for ongoing life, for building anew, for the coming generations.”

Responsibility, you will recognize, is a major theme in Bonhoeffer’s thinking. We are called to be responsible to God for ourselves. This is not self-centeredness, which would be the case if Bonhoeffer were arguing that we are responsible to ourselves. No, we will answer to God for ourselves. And we had better be able to answer, “Yes, Lord, I accepted responsibility for my present, my future, and for generations to come.”

“It may be,” concluded Bonhoeffer,”that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future.”


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A fundamental concept in the thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was “responsibility.” We are responsible to God for ourselves. We are accountable to God for being responsive to God.

With that idea in mind, it was easy for him to see that Hitler was a fearsome tyrant because he fostered irresponsibility toward God and responsibility/responsiveness toward Hitler alone. When an absolute autocrat is in place, the people have the sense that responsibility for justice has been removed from their shoulders. They feel they never have to ask whether something is right or wrong. They just have to do what they are told.

And, as Bonhoeffer recognized, there was also another sense in which Hitler urged irresponsibility: scapegoating. Nothing is my fault because it is always somebody else’s fault. Germany did not “lose” WW I; the Jews simply gave Germany into the hands of the enemy. Germany did not destroy its own economy; the Jews sucked all life from the economy.

Now jump ahead in time and look at donald trump. We don’t have full employment? It’s the fault of the illegal immigrants. I don’t have to temper my outrageous mocking of other people — whatever I say is their fault because they criticized me.

Many thoughtful people wonder why trump’s followers don’t seem to care that he leaves major questions unanswered or that he changes his answers unpredictably. Why not care? Because the followers are not responsible for evaluating trump’s answers. He can do whatever he wants because he is responsible, not us.

trump, precisely like Hitler, believes that that law is whatever he wants it to be. That’s the way tyrants always think. And irresponsible, blind followers always say Yes.

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One of my favorite New Testament words is stoicheia, which refers to the fundamental elements of any social or intellectual system.In some ways we can see it as meaning simply common sense, those ideas which seem obvious to everyone and don’t need elaborate defense or explanation.

For Bonhoeffer, one of the stoicheia is the idea of responsibility. He refers to it often, obviously assumes it to be of fundamental importance in the Christian life, and leaves it undefined. He intends the word to convey the fact that we are held accountable to God for our responses to him. To live as Christians we must be responsive to Word and Spirit and we are accountable for being just that.

We sometimes slip into thinking God is satisfied with us if we simply live decent lives. that’s not true at all. We are accountable for being followers of Jesus Christ, our living and present Lord.

I remember a friend saying, “I don’t know why people try to make Christianity sound so complicated. It’s just a matter of learning some principles from the Bible and living by them.” Nope, that’s what the Pharisees tried to do and it blinded them to Jesus Christ.

For Bonhoeffer, it is crucial that we distinguish between being obedient to the Law and being responsive to Jesus Christ. If we merely live by law, we are loving God indirectly. Bonhoeffer sees that Jesus Christ is calling us to follow him directly, to hear him and to heed him directly.

Our Lord is worth nothing less.

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“Who stands firm? Only the one whose ultimate standard is not his reason, his principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call. Where are these responsible ones?”

So wrote Dietrich in his 1942 essay called “After Ten Years.” He was still trying to finish what he intended to be his major work,
. The essay was to be included in that book.

The paragraph quoted above is an example of a fundamental theme in Bonhoeffer’s thought, namely that God is the center and ground of all reality. I suppose we all believe that in one sense or another but Bonhoeffer is unique in how totally that thought governed all others for him. He rejects all human efforts to make ourselves into good people or strong people. All that is expected of us — and all we can do — is to be faithful to God.

Again, that doesn’t sound very radical, but all around me and sometimes even in my own mirror I see people who are trying very hard to do the right thing, to make themselves into good people, and who are usually discouraged by their lack of success. In truth, it is difficult for us to believe that God holds us accountable not for being successful but for being faithful. We are responsible to God, which — as Bonhoeffer understands — means something deeper than mere accountability. We are to be responsive to God. His is the initiative. In the ultra-simple way Barth put the matter, our lives are to be one continuous Yes to God.

What freedom awaits those who discover this simple truth!

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A recent article in The Atlantic*points out that, while atheism is getting lots of press coverage these days and religious affiliation is declining in the West, belief in God is still by far the dominant intellectual position in all countries except China. Even in the younger group (ages 18-33), 86 per cent say they believe in God.

It doesn’t help the atheist’s argument, of course, that they are so rude. The attitude displayed by such popular atheists as Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens is sheer snobbery. They openly believe that theirs is the only rational position and that therefore anyone who disagrees is irrational and, they seem to believe, stupid. This is as narrowminded and provincial as any Fundamentalist can get. The intellectual “giants” among the atheists turn out to be very small-minded indeed.

One atheist, on finding faith awakening in him through his contact with poor people, commented that “Perhaps atheism is an intellectual luxury for the wealthy.” (Quoted in Christian Century, 22 Jan 2014, from an article in the Guardian by Chris Arnade.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer called us to learn to a whole new, mature sense of what it means to live faithfully and fully human. “Before God, and with God, we live without God.” Like the arrogant atheists, he wants to live “without” God, that is, without a divine nanny who hovers over us to attend to our every little whim. We are to grow into mature human beings, by which Bonhoeffer means persons who are responsible, answerable for ourselves. Unlike the atheists, however, Bonhoeffer knows to whom we are responsible and answerable. We live before God and with God. No other way of living makes sense.

The Atlantic article quotes Sartre on the essence of existentialism:

“Man is free; but his freedom does not look like the glorious liberty of the Enlightenment; it is no longer the gift of God. Once again, man stands alone in the universe, responsible for his condition, likely to remain in a lowly state, but free to reach above the stars.”

How very sad, how deeply lonely is the one who feels responsible without having Anyone to whom we may respond. . .

* Available online at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/the-intellectual-snobbery-of-conspicuous-atheism/284406/

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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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