The God Who Bears Us, and Dropkicking Swastikas
Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Today's Neo-nazis
Church, what are we to do with #charlottesville, and President Trump, and Neo-Nazis, and all the rest of it — that which is beyond naming, beyond words? Today, America overflows with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Today, my only comfort: that swastika-in-the-trash avatar on social media, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work, Ethics. It’s all too much to bear, but martyred German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer contends that we’ve got a God who bears us; a God who bears us, and them. Yes, we’ve got a God who bears us all.
And there is, I believe, an important question before the Church in America today; a question which demands a response: do we affirm a willingness to suffer on behalf of those who are suffering? Will we stick our necks out? Get our hands dirty? Will we use our lungs and pipes to speak, to sing, to lament and to pray?
Who better than martyred German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) to speak into the concept of the suffering, or bearing Church and to call us out of the quiet of our living rooms and into the fray.
Nazi Germany Not Too Long Ago
Bonhoeffer lived during the Nazi Regime in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Through his life and witness, he opposed the state Church’s involvement in the atrocities committed against the Jewish people. In 1934 Bonhoeffer participated in the drafting of the Barmen Declaration. This document outlined the tenets of the true, Confessing Church. It described the marks of the Church or what it should look like to practically follow Christ during the Nazi Regime. Bonhoeffer and many others opposed actions of the Reich Church such as worshipping the Fuhrer (or Hitler), terrorist measures, and racial discrimination. Such actions were deemed “incompatible with the Christian faith.”
Bonhoeffer believed that the Church could not turn its back on the victims of violence and oppression, that the Church should be a bearing Church reflecting the God it serves:
“God is a God who bears.”
You cannot be a Christ-follower apart from bearing one another’s burdens. In Bonhoeffer’s theology, it is precisely such bearing which shapes discipleship and the Church into a community patterned after the image of Christ. This image of the bearing Church is based upon Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (The Holy Bible).
Although only Christ’s suffering had “redemptive efficacy,” Bonhoeffer contended that the world is “still seeking someone to bear its sufferings.” That “someone” is the Church. As the Church follows Christ, suffering becomes our course, too, and in our suffering, we are strengthened and enabled to stand through Christ. In this solidarity of suffering with those who suffer, the Church “stands before God as the representative of the world.” It is an intercessory, mediatory role. The Church stands in the gap (Ezekiel 22:30, The Holy Bible) on behalf of those who are suffering.
Cruciform Theology: Discipleship And The Cross
At the heart of Bonhoeffer’s theology is Jesus, the Christ, and the cross. After 1933, when Adolf Hitler was elected Reich Chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer’s ministry began to take on new dimensions. He witnessed the dismissal of Jews from public office and professions, the systematic destruction of their lives and livelihoods, and increasingly tight restrictions on his public ministry. During 1933–1936, Bonhoeffer continued to disciple and train pastors in the “underground” or Confessing Church of Germany. In 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer finished and published his most famous work, The Cost of Discipleship. During that same year the Gestapo closed his seminary at Finkenwalde, Germany; and arrested and imprisoned twenty-seven of his former students.
Bonhoeffer was himself a man acquainted with sorrows and familiar with grief (Isaiah 53:3, The Holy Bible). It was from this position that his cruciform theology emerged. For Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church, only “cruciform theology” — or Christ as the center — provided an answer to the utilitarian God of Germany in the 1940s.
Carrying The Cross of Suffering And Rejection
“Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus.” Bonhoeffer explains that Jesus’ call to follow Him includes the “must of suffering.” Just as Jesus suffered, so must those who follow Him. Bonhoeffer cites Peter’s reprimand of Jesus, following His prediction of suffering (Mark 8:31–38), as evidence of Peter’s unwillingness to suffer (ibid). Bonhoeffer goes further to say that this same attitude is displayed within the Church when it does not want to have “the law of suffering imposed upon it by its Lord.”
According to Bonhoeffer, this protest by both Peter and the Church today indicate: “Satan has gained entry into the Church, and is trying to tear it away from the cross of its Lord.”
What does it mean then, that “the cross is laid upon every Christian”? What does it look like practically for the Church to be “caught up in the messianic sufferings”? In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer explores these concepts in what he terms the first and second Christ-sufferings.
The First Christ-Suffering: Abandon Attachments To This World
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The first death that a disciple experiences is the death of his/her attachments to this world. This is not a one time, all-inclusive death, but what Bonhoeffer terms many small instances of self-mortification. Such abandonment necessarily includes a self-denying spirit. Bonhoeffer encapsulates this idea in the word freedom:
“Freedom from the bondage of the self-chosen way.”
Freedom from such bondage can only be accomplished through the work of God’s costly grace. The acceptance of such costly grace on the part of the Christian, necessarily catapults him or her directly into, not out of, the world. In the words of one of Bonhoeffer’s mentors, Swiss theologian Karl Barth, the Church in mission must be in solidarity with the world and in obligation to it. Because such costly grace demands sacrifice and the death of selfish desires, it creates space for Christ to incarnate Himself in the life of the disciple. Bonhoeffer argues:
“Only a man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.”
Costly graces is the antithesis of cheap grace. Cheap grace enables a Christian to enjoy the consolations of God’s grace instead of following Christ. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” On the other hand, costly grace “is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” It is such costly grace that the bearing Church must seek after.
In Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer further explains evidence of the first Christ-suffering in the life of the disciples and of the Church.
“It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Isaiah 53 [i.e., the servant as seen by man, despised and rejected, etc.]…”
Such a turning away from one’s attachments to this world and toward the agenda of Christ in the world that He created constitutes the first Christ-suffering for Bonhoeffer. This is the concrete manifestation of costly grace. The true disciple of Christ becomes a servant for the sake of the lost and dying world (Luke 4:18–19, The Holy Bible).
Bearing The Sins Of Others, Even Their Shame
What does it mean to bear the sins of others, even their shame? Although Bonhoeffer concedes that only the sufferings of Jesus are the actual means of atonement, Jesus shares not only the “fruits,” but also the temptations of His suffering with His disciples. Disciples are taken into the glory of Christ, but also into the mystery of his suffering. Bonhoeffer explains that disciples must undergo temptation: “He too has to bear the sins of others; he too must bear their shame and be driven like a scapegoat from the gate of the city.” This includes a de facto abandonment of one’s attachment to the world.
Church, bearing the shame and suffering of others necessarily includes a being driven to “the gate” of the city, a place where the outcasts live and die.
Without Christ, the disciples would break under such burden-bearing. “As Christ bears our burdens” so we bear the burdens of others. Bonhoeffer calls this “the law of Christ,” “the duty” of the disciples, and the bearing of the cross. It is an unavoidable, inevitable aspect of discipleship.
Responsible Action: Taking The Guilt Of Others Upon Ourselves
What does this mean for the Church to become the scapegoat for individuals’ and society’s sins? Shouldn’t the Church seek to avoid such a circumstance?
According to Bonhoeffer, Jesus Christ was the only one who was “guilty without sin,” and He is therefore the origin of “every action of responsible deputyship” from the Church. Bonhoeffer continues that if the Church is performing action that may be labeled “responsible,” then that action must be concerned “solely and entirely with the other man.” Responsible action always arises from selfless love for the real human being who is our brother or sister. It is from this position of self-denial and selfless love that one cannot “shun the fellowship of human guilt.” According to Bonhoeffer, it is for this reason that every human being who acts responsibly becomes guilty. It is in acting responsibly on behalf of the victim and the victimizer that the Church takes on the guilt of the other, the guilt of the world.
The alternative to this identification with the guilt, suffering, and sin of the other, according to Bonhoeffer, is a detachment from oneself and from “the ultimate reality of human existence.”
Such irresponsible action is the retreat into the Christian ghetto that Bonhoeffer warns the Church against. Such irresponsible action is the silence of the Church when God has given her a voice. Bonhoeffer goes further to say that such irresponsible detachment and inaction cuts the Church off from the reality of Christ’s “divine justification.” Ultimately, a person or Church unwilling to act responsibly, to become guilty on behalf of the other, is not, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion, justified before God.
The Second Christ-Suffering: The Call To Community
“Discipleship and churchmanship are synonymous.” You cannot, in Bonhoeffer’s estimation, separate the individual disciple from the life of the community of faith, or the Church. Therefore, when referencing the concept of discipleship, it must always be grounded in the social life and being of the Church. The disciples are taught to think “not about their own way, their own sufferings and their own reward, but of the goal of their labors, which is the salvation of the Church.” According to Bonhoeffer, the salvation of the Church is the cost, the fruit, and the ultimate goal of discipleship.
Simpson explains how the “second Christ-suffering” forms the Church: “Through word and sacrament Jesus Christ himself shares his own bearing of our human finitude, frailty, fate, and failure as the very form of his body the church.” A bearing church is therefore, the embodiment of true Christian discipleship. It is only through becoming a bearing Church that we will experience ‘the joy of discipleship.’”
In other words, through the first Christ-suffering, or the death of the disciple’s “old self” (2 Corinthians 5:17, The Holy Bible), Christ begins to form community with the individual. At the same time, Christ is also bringing the individual into the greater community, or Body of Christ, which is the second Christ-suffering. “A Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ” and, at the same time, “a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ.” In the process of discipleship, community with Christ and with others is therefore occurring simultaneously.
This brings us back to the image of our bearing God. “The God who bears means that ‘bearing constitutes being a Christian,’ thereby shaping discipleship and the church beyond modern individual subjectivity.” A bearing ministry brings the disciple further out of the realm of self and into the realm of community/Church. A bearing ministry is the pathway to the fullness of Christ, encompassing both the pain and the joy of discipleship with and on behalf of, others.
Eberhard Bethge, best friend of Bonhoeffer, explains Bonhoeffers’ ideas as “a new interpretation of the Gospel” which require the Church to change shape “so that it can convincingly communicate to others the experience of Christ, the presence of Christ, the sharing of Christ’s suffering among men.” Bethge reminds us that Bonhoeffer contended:
“The church is the church only when it exists for others” (an idea stemming from his Christology).
We can see how Bonhoeffer’s cruciform theology leads to the first and second Christ suffering (of the individual and then of the community/Church), leading to the reformation of the Church into a bearing Church which exists for the sake of others — or it does not exist at all. According to Bonhoeffer, a Church without such a bearing ministry, willing to take up its cross for both the victim and the oppressor, does not, in the end, stand justified before God.
Becoming A Bearing Church Among The Least, The Last, The Lost
Bonhoeffer, building on Martin Luther’s work, identified suffering as one of “the marks of the true Church.” How then, do we become a bearing Church among the oppressed in our contexts? What does God want His Church to “look like” among “the least, the last, the lost”?
We Begin By Listening
We begin by listening — straining to listen, I used to tell my students at Moody Bible Institute. Listening, especially, to those who feel silenced, oppressed, marginalized. If you do not know anyone who feels this way, you need to expand your community of faith.
As Christians, we must honestly ask ourselves: “What are relationships and what are they for in the context of ministry? Is a relationship simply a tool used to earn leverage with another in order to influence him or her in the direction one desires?” Without a bearing ministry of mutual suffering and place-sharing, we risk becoming ministers by compulsion, ministers by power play.
“According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, relationships in which human persons are with and for each other (sociality) are the place of God’s transcendent presence in the world. Therefore, for Bonhoeffer, relationships are not simply about earning leverage for influence, but rather about sharing in each other’s existence, in each other’s suffering, as one shares in the other’s place (Stellvertretung) and in so doing stands with Christ.”
This “place-sharing” approach to ministry must form the ethos of ministry within our communities. Who is seated at our tables? With whom are we breaking bread? Who are the empowered and dis-empowered in our communities of faith? Included in this “place-sharing” approach to ministry is viewing others — the least, the last, the lost — as full participants in the Body of Christ, in the sufferings of Christ. We must contend for relationships that are not top-down, nor one-way, but relationships of reciprocity, parties of equal power, in a mutual exchange of life.
Becoming A Guilt-Bearing Church For Neo-Nazis
The Church in America stands in the unique position as the only organism, or “Body” on the planet that can offer true, God-given, peace and reconciliation to both the victim and the victimizer. This mediation occurs only through Christ.
Intercede: Stand In The Gap
Becoming a guilt-bearing Church may take various forms in different contexts. For example, a guilt-bearing Church may function as a group of intercessory prayer warriors on behalf of State-level oppressors and Neo-Nazis. In these instances, the guilt-bearing Church pleads on behalf of the guilty ones, asking for God to pour out His mercy and grace upon the person(s) while at the same time praying for an end to the unjust action(s).
Hands-On: Direct Ministry
The guilt-bearing Church may also enter into direct ministry with the victims and the guilty ones.
An example of this can be found in post-genocidal Rwanda. Several faith-based organizations and local and international churches have been working in Rwanda since 1994 to bring true reconciliation to the victimizers. “Any reconciliation in Rwanda is a result of a biblical process that brings perpetrators and victims together at the foot of the Cross.” Leaders of ministries such as Rwanda Partners and Prison Fellowship Rwanda testify that it is the work of the Holy Spirit and the power of God’s word that brings repentance and healing within the heart of the victimizer. When there is a victimizer “who has been transformed by the Holy Spirit to repent and be forgiven, his story can be used in powerful ways to help other victims forgive. A repentant perpetrator also helps other perpetrators to heal, showing them it is possible to move beyond what they have done and be forgiven.” According to Prison Fellowship Rwanda, 60,000 prisoners have confessed their crimes, and more than 12,000 victims have ‘openly forgiven’ their offenders.
Dropkicking Swastikas And Making Declarations
Right now, I’m trying to figure out what costly grace looks like for me. I’m trying to figure out what it looks like to stand in solidarity with the suffering and the guilty — to get dirty, and hands-on, and uncomfortable. Right now, solidarity means putting pen to paper, writing and expressing my anger in healthy ways; solidarity means changing my avatars to the swastika-in-the-trash infographic and having intentional, intelligent conversations via social media. Right now, solidarity means mornings in prayer.
Ultimately, Bonhoeffer concludes — yes, dropkick the swastika in the trash. Do not let the Church retreat into a Christian ghetto. Be the Confessing Church. Make a declaration about who we are and Who we serve. Call out injustice with all the eloquence, grace, and passion afforded us in the moment.
I think, for now Church, we cannot underestimate the power of prayer. All direct action flows from there. God will lead us, shaping us into the Confessing Church in America, a Church willing to stand against evil no matter the cost.
Visual Artist: R. Bea Rios
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