Bonhoeffer the postmodern?
Preamble: My Brothers
has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin
to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ's; I must meet him
only as the person he already is in Christ's eyes." (Bonhoeffer
Christian living is
exemplified in perfect love. Certainly the greatest commands which Jesus
ever gave were to love God and to love others. Few people are ever recognised
so widely because of their great love and grace toward other fellow human
beings. The young Bonhoeffer always had a great desire to meet Ghandi,
whom he never did in his life. Yet as we reflect on Bonhoeffer's lived
theology, it is in order to say that Bonhoeffer, like his inspiration,
had come to a fuller understanding of what love really is as he took a
firm stand against social injustice and paid the highest cost, his own
life so that others, of a different faith to his own and whom he described
as brothers and sisters may know freedom. The following paper provides
a brief biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and an overview of the major
theological reflections of the young theologian.
The Young and the
Born into an upper middle class family in 1906, an outstanding intellectual
obtaining his doctorate at age 21 and Bonhoeffer became a Lutheran pastor
and lecturer (Kelly 1990:5). He authored many books which are often quoted
by theologians today regardless of their stance. However, this is not
the Dietrich Bonhoeffer whom I wish to introduce to you. The Bonhoeffer
I have discovered in my research is one with whom I can relate to as a
young adult. A reckless theologian with a passionate faith, one who even
went as far to openly defy the Nazi police orders not to teach publicly
and to end his discourse with a "heil Hitler". A theologian whose own
personal reflections on faith caused him to feel an inner separation and
drifting away from the other leaders in his own church. One who occasionally
had to retreat to be able to re-order his inner world and to understand
how to respond to the world around him. A theologian who eventually came
to the realisation that faith and religion are two different concepts
and put forward the idea of nonreligious interpretations of Scripture
(Wustenburg, R 1998: 159-160). It is this authenticity, passion and recklessness
which I believe moved Dietrich Bonhoeffer to write what he did and to
do the things he did as he expressed his faith in Christ.
"What you do unto
the least of these my brethren"
Many young revolutionaries and futurists today find inspiration in the
life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Shane Claiborne, author of the Irresistible
Revolution and founder of the Simple Way, a Christian commune in the US
notes how the "reckless faith" of Bonhoeffer motivated a few of his college
friends to spend many nights sleeping on cold pavements with street kids,
because deep inside they sensed something was radically wrong with the
poverty in the area and that as Christians, they felt responsible to do
something about it. It was not fair for them to enjoy the comfort of their
Christian college residence when others went cold and hungry. In South
Africa, an extremely controversial author of "Acid Alex", Al Lovejoy writes
of how genuine faith in Christ must cause us to do something about the
state of society. Al uses his oven to bake bread and to make food for
a family of orphans whom he spends his days with and poses a question
to other Christians "What does what you believe and pray, make you do
on behalf of those who have nothing or no one to believe in?"
of Scripture is best described by the popular emergent lingo known as
"subversive theology"(theology from the underdog's point of view), in
fact, Bonhoeffer's life seems to epitomise what postmodern interpreters
write about today. He viewed scripture from the point of view of those
who are least in society, and asked the question "how do I respond?" It
is this subversive theology which formed the major theological thrust
of his writings, especially so in the book he wrote titled "Ethics" (Kelly
Free for Others
"In the language
of the Bible, freedom is not something man has for himself but something
he has for others" (Bonhoeffer 1959: 37)
that if human beings were made in the image of God, then like their Creator
they were "free". Bonhoeffer debated this freedom though, saying that
humanity is only free in that they are created by God, thus their freedom
is not for themselves, it is freedom to worship God. Freedom then, writes
Bonhoeffer (1959:37) "is not a quality of man, nor is it an ability, a
capacity…it is not a possession…but a relationship and nothing else."
This view of being free for others expresses the love and grace which
Bonhoeffer sought after. It is the sort of "freedom" which necessitates
that we set right wrong relationships and seek out good for humanity as
a whole. Bonhoeffer suggested that we actually lose our freedom and our
dominion over the earth when we fail to see freedom as being "freedom
for". We cease to rule, and the earth subdues us.
without his brother, man loses the earth" (Bonhoeffer 1959:40)
We lose out when we
seek freedom independently; it is like the letters of John proclaim that
how we love others is how we love God. Bonhoeffer understood this with
great clarity and could not follow in the suit of many Christian leaders
in Germany at the time, who took on the brown uniform and swastika as
they submitted to the authority of a corrupt and evil government, and
looked on as many of the fellow brothers and sisters, the Jews, were being
Bonhoeffer's social justice, his view of the imago dei and freedom for
others, his call away from religious interpretation to Christological
interpretation of Scripture all bear a common thread. They all lead us
to question, what is the role of the church in society? In what is arguably
his most well known work "The Cost of Discipleship" he draws many of these
strands together in his vision of the "Visible Community" of faith. Bonhoeffer's
vision is that the Church be "a colony of the true home" (Bonhoeffer 1948:223)
and that they show the true love of God to all men. For Bonhoeffer who
lived and was executed in Nazi Germany, it meant fighting for freedom
of the Jews. For us as South Africans, it may be fighting for the freedom
of those enslaved by the chains of poverty and prejudice. However love
takes its form the disciple must realise their duty…to be salt and light
and to in so doing transform society and culture. This I believe was the
greatest of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theological reflections.
"The Body of
Christ takes up space on earth…Having been called, they could no longer
remain in obscurity, for they were the light that must shine, the city
on the hill which must be seen." (Bonhoeffer 1948: 223)
Bonhoeffer, D. 1960.
Christology. London: Fount Paperbacks
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The Cost of Discipleship. London: SCM Press
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Creation and Fall: Temptation. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Bonhoeffer, D. 1954.
Life Together. London: SCM Press
Kelly, G & Nelson,
F (Eds). 1990. A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich
Bonhoeffer. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers
Wustenburg, R. 1998.
A Theology of Life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company