How can Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and life help contemporary U.S. Christians resist Trump’s agenda of white supremacy, xenophobia, and the creation of economic, judicial, and political chaos?
Last week, as part of our Lenten discussions, Paul Feuerstein led a first discussion of excerpts from “Life Together,” introducing us briefly to Bonhoeffer’s life and context. We talked about the strengths and limits of listening, especially to those with whom we disagree and/or don’t understand: what makes President Trump’s vision of the world compelling?
We talked around the issue of race; specifically, do Americans, especially progressive white Americans, really understand the foundations of racism enough to make acknowledgement, repentance and reparations part of the current political debate?
Finally, we wondered what light Bonhoeffer’s work can shed on effective ways for the church to join the civic debate.
As a teaser for the second discussion on March 26th, here are two short suggestions, and a link to the Barmen Declaration, written by a group of church leaders in Germany to help Christians withstand the challenges of the Nazi party and of the so-called “German Christians,” a popular movement that saw no conflict between Christianity and the ideals of Hitler’s National Socialism.
- Pray and organize your life around Jesus, the Son of God who knows suffering. For Bonhoeffer, Christian community, by which he means first and foremost parish congregational life, is the only way to really know Jesus—in worship but mostly in daily work to sustain each other. Christians need to be invested enough in the congregation to really know each other, encourage each other in prayer, work, family, civic life, challenge each other when conflicts arise, confess faults regularly to other people as well as to God, ask and receive forgiveness from each other. Life and faith in the congregation then fuels work in the secular world.
- Live the Sermon on the Mount, because non-violent suffering love is the only way to counteract evil and the world is in desperate need of love. But not all suffering is redemptive, only that which resists evil and incarnates love in all aspects of life—politics, church, work, family, and neighborhood. Therefore one needs to be active enough in civil life, witnessing to what is of God and truth and love and challenging public lies and unjust rhetoric, to risk pushback and rejection (in his case arrest and execution).
It’s interesting that Bonhoeffer was clear that non-violence is the only way to be faithful to God in Christ, and yet he was involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, a rather violent act. He felt that that was wrong, a sin he was committing, but that he needed to take the risk of sacrificing moral purity and perhaps his connection with God when he saw no other possibilities.
The tension between needing to act in this world in time without the ability to be certain that one’s actions were of God is a fundamental tension in his Ethics, one that makes his reflections so engaging – he doesn’t know all the answers. None of us do. There’s not even any experiential certainty of doing God’s will, and yet we have to make choices.
Be careful – any quest for power over anyone else, any imposition of one’s own way, no matter how seemingly loving or just, runs the risk of trusting one’s own will rather than God’s. “Thy will be done.” Our temptation is to do God’s work (something I say I want to do all the time, with the best of intentions) when our vocation is to respond to God and reveal God’s love and justice – invitation, not coercion.
Meet force only with love and truth. In so doing we will join in Jesus’ struggles and know, sometimes experientially and often on faith, that we are part of the Body of Christ healing and transforming the world.