Bonhoeffer’s Life Together
I just finished reading a new translation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” It is well worth looking at.
If you don’t know already, Bonhoeffer was the greatest Christian martyr of the 20th Century. He was executed by the Nazis just before the defeat of Germany in World War Two for participating in a plot to kill Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was also a great theologian and pastor. He was a founder of the “confessing church” movement that resisted Nazi attempts to rewrite Christianity. The Nazis wanted to drop the Old Testament and turn Jesus into an icon of Aryan superiority. Their hatred and persecution of Jews was both genetic and religious. They didn’t accept that any Jew could become a Christian. Most of the churches in Germany went along with this — some enthusiastically, others were just cowardly and wanted to work “within the system.”
Some time ago I read Eric Metaxas’ terrific biography “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” but this is the first I’ve read of Bonhoeffer’s own writing. He is a fabulous writer, but more than that, his thinking is fresh and vibrant even sixty years after he wrote it.
I was especially struck by how he sees Jesus everywhere and in every Christian. We are each human, of course, but Christ is alive inside each of us, and Bonhoeffer sees the Jesus within us – not figuratively, not metaphorically, but actually. Maybe this is not a new thought to you, but it is to me. I have tended to view Christians as people who believe — some half-heartedly, others whole hog — but that belief resides in the mind as an understanding. But to Bonhoeffer, we are partly Christ in fact. He is growing within us, and the longer we follow His way, the more he grows.
So, Bonhoeffer addresses the Christian community as a grace allowed by God. He writes –
“The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the Cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the exclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work.”
What a stunning thought to the American mind! We have always been, at least nominally, a Christian nation. Being a Christian is no great challenge for us. It is the default position, it has been what we were expected to do. Of course Bonhoeffer was living among Nazis and the Nazis tolerated Christians only if they replaced the Cross with the swastika. He says –
“It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace.”
He cites “the imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands” as examples of isolated Christians. Think of the house churches in China or the underground believers in Muslim lands reading smuggled Bibles. It would be a joy for such followers to be free to worship with each other in public and without fear.
So, we experience “incomparable joy and strength” when we meet with other believers. But, “what is an inexpressible blessing from God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trampled under foot by those who receive the gift every day.” It is easy to forget that this gift can be taken from us at any time, so “let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts.”
Bonhoeffer uses his experience in running an underground seminary to model what an ideal community of Christians might be like. I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but briefly, he deals with the following –
Bonhoeffer is very concerned about people who bring their own expectations into a Christian community. Such people can deaden the community by measuring it against some subjective standard and criticizing it when it doesn’t match up. He sees this as narcissism (though he doesn’t use that term) – “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.”
He is especially critical of pastors who find their own congregations lacking – “Pastors should not complain about their congregations, certainly never to other people, but also not to God.”
He says that, however challenging it may be, God has placed us in a particular situation for a reason and we need to set aside our pride and listen to what God is saying about the situation.
I’m not sure I completely buy this, since I myself left a PCUSA church for one that I believed was more faithful to Scripture. But I left only after much prayer, so God may have placed me in the church to be exposed to apostasy and God may have wanted me to leave it as a witness to others. Many others left that church after I did, so perhaps God wanted me to set an example for these others.
The Day Together
Bonhoeffer says when we awake we should be still and let God have the first word of the day – “The early morning belongs to the church of the risen Christ.” I like this idea — that the rising sun belongs to the Risen Son. Bonhoeffer says, “Scripture reading, song, and prayer should be part of daily morning worship together.” Now, keep in mind that Bonhoeffer was coming from the context of running a seminary where a group of students were housed together. Obviously most of us do not live like that, and community worship is not possible for us first thing in the morning. Still the idea of starting each day with Scripture and prayer is something we all can do.
He especially likes the idea of reading and praying the Psalms first thing in the morning. Bonhoeffer argues that the Psalms are the prayers Jesus prayed, and were written in anticipation of Christ. Not all the Psalms apply to us personally, but we should still pray them because they all apply to Jesus, so we are praying not to Jesus but with him. Like the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms will show us how Jesus wants us to pray.
He never falls from his focus on Jesus. This is unlike the modern American focus on what God is or will do for us. Bonhoeffer writes –
“It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, in God’s son Jesus Christ, than to discover what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment.”
Now, I don’t agree with everything Bonhoeffer says. For some reason he objects to singing in harmony and prefers unison singing, kind of like Gregorian chant, I guess. He dismisses bass and alto voices as calling “everybody’s attention to their astonishing range and therefore sing every hymn an octave lower.” Sorry, but some of us have voices that have to be an octave lower or we wouldn’t be able to sing the melody at all. It isn’t vanity.
He deals with a whole lot of other topics that I won’t go into here – communal meals, work, evening prayers, the need for alone time even when (or especially when) living in a community.
But there is one topic I want to focus on a bit. He calls on Christians to confess their sins to each other, quoting James 5:16, “Confess your sins to one another.” This is something I know many people are very uncomfortable with. He says, “Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone in our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners.”
This is beautifully written. He says, “You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner. Thank God for that; God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” He says, “Sin wants to be alone with people. It takes them away from the community…. Sin that has been spoken and confessed has lost all its power.”
He urges us to confess our sins to another Christian. Not to make a big show of it, but do it privately, in confidence. He clarifies, “Does this mean that confession to one another is a divine law? No, confession is not a law; rather it is an offer of divine help to the sinner.”
If you find this idea alien, as many Protestants do (after all isn’t confession a Roman Catholic ritual?), you have never been to an AA meeting. Members of AA are not shy about confessing their many, many sins to the rest of the group. And guess what? People do not react in horror. They are far more likely to laugh with recognition, because we have all done that and worse. We are amazed at how stupid and irresponsible we have been and we are grateful that we do not have to be that way any longer. I should add that having other people laugh at our transgressions also mitigates the shame we feel, it frees us from the burden of carrying our shame alone.
And, isn’t that what Jesus promised us? He said —
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Isn’t the burden most of us carry the burden of sin and shame?
Bonhoeffer, concludes this section by writing –
“To whom should we make a confession? According to Jesus’ promise every Christian believer can hear the confession of another. But will the other understand us? Might not another believer be so far beyond us in the Christian life that she or he would only turn away from us without understanding our personal sins? Whoever lives beneath the cross of Jesus and has discerned in the cross of Jesus the utter ungodliness of all people and of their own hearts, will find there is no sin that can ever be unfamiliar.”