Alien Righteousness and Community: Bonhoeffer and Guatemala

Jason Micheli —  July 16, 2012 — 2 Comments

Our mission team this week is using Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together to guide our worship and reflection in Guatemala. It’s a short little volume that Bonhoeffer wrote in 1938 after the Nazi’s closed the Finkenwalde Seminary and Bonhoeffer responded by starting his own underground seminary. Life Togetheris Bonhoeffer’s account of what constitutes authentic Christian community. I think it’s as timely a book for this century as it was for the middle of the last because Bonhoeffer was attempting to think through how Christians formed faithful community while living in the midst of an empire.

I’m hoping that it will prove a helpful book for our group because creating a sense of community amongst our mission team participants and building Christian community with the people we serve is, when you get right down to it, why we do mission. It’s certainly what I, as a pastor, hope our mission program provides.

Life Together begins with Martin Luther’s concept of ‘alien righteousness;’ that is, as sinners there’s nothing within us and nothing about us that justifies us before God or naturally connects us to God. Any connection, relationship or righteousness we enjoy before God, Luther says, must be an ‘alien righteousness.’ It must come from outside us.

Luther used this idea of ‘alien righteousness’ to emphasize our intrinsic sinfulness, the futility of trying to justify ourselves by our deeds and the importance of the preached, converting Word. That’s all fine. But the way Luther lays it out usually leads to very individualistic understandings of the Christian faith. What Bonhoeffer does with ‘alien righteousness’ is more interesting, more life-giving and, I think, more biblical.

Bonhoeffer says alien righteousness is the root of all Christian community. Because there’s nothing within us that naturally connects us to God that connection has to come from someone besides ourselves: other Christians, Bonhoeffer says.

‘Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves without cheating themselves out of the truth. They need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the word of salvation. The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians. The goal of all Christian community is to encounter one another as bringers of the message of salvation.’

Our life together as Christians in community becomes something much more profound in Bonhoeffer’s formulation. It’s not that it’s in the context of Christian community that we journey towards salvation in Christ. It’s not that we’re primarily individual believers and community is an optional, additional activity- the way so many think of it today.

Authentic Christian community, Bonhoeffer says, is salvation. Our life together, as Christians, is the experience of salvation in the here and now. Just as God’s grace took embodied flesh in Jesus Christ, so too does God’s grace continue to reside and get transmitted through flesh, through ordinary people.

Luther’s notion of alien righteousness tended to imply that we’re saved by hearing an abstract, disembodied ‘Word’ from far outside us.

Bonhoeffer closes the loop by showing how the righteousness that must come from outside us more often than not comes from the person next to us.

Not only do our lives literally depend on one another, our life together is a gift made possible by Christ; therefore, Christian community should always be marked by joy.

It’s this giftedness and joy of community that I think people most often discover in mission settings. Far removed from the minutiae of church budgets, church committees, church programs and all the rest, mission work offers Christians the chance to rediscover what the saints meant by the believing community offering a foretaste of the heavenly community.

Jason Micheli

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