Archives For Bonhoeffer

When God appears to him in an unconsuming fire, calling and commissioning Moses, who’s on the lam in the desert for murdering a man, Moses rightly asks for God’s name. Moses knows that his hearers in Pharaoh’s court will inquire of him which god has dispatched him to bring them a message of liberation. 

The god of which place? The god of what function? Moses anticipates them asking. 

By answering “I Am Who I Am,” Yawhweh refuses to be confined to a particular place or people. The God who is “I Am Who I Am” is Being itself; this God will not be circumscribed to a specific location nor limited— as the fertility gods— according to utility. 

Likewise, God issues the same refusal earlier in Genesis 12. The God who calls Abram doesn’t appear to Abram in a burning bush. The God who calls Abram doesn’t appear to Abram at all. The God who calls Abram just calls. 

The ancient rabbis believed that Abram’s father was idol maker. Whether that’s true or not, Abram did grow up in a culture populated by a pantheon of gods— useful deities who could be fashioned out of wood and stone, gods that could be sought out when you needed them and put back on the shelf when you didn’t. Abram grew up with gods who were visible and confined to particular places and people and called upon only on particular days.

But this God who calls Abram is different, different from the gods he grew up with.

This God who calls Abram just calls.

Unlike the gods he grew up with, this God who calls Abram is invisible. Invisibility, that’s scripture’s way of speaking of God’s omnipresence. Because God is not precisely there, God can always be here, which is to say, everywhere. You can bet Abram’s takeaway from his encounter with the Living God matched Moses’ takeaway: the discovery that the God who hung the stars in the sky is everywhere. 

There is no where Abram can go in his life where this God isn’t already.

And calling Abram, this God immediately sends Abram away his land. 

To belong to the true God is to be summoned out of your place of birth and people of belonging.

This God is not a god who can be taken off the shelf to bless the land where you live.

This God is a God who calls people out of their people to be a pilgrim people.

In order to bless the entire world. 

As Karl Barth notes, the Israelites received the Torah amidst a theophany on Mt. Sinai; therefore, the commandments themselves are not natural, universal principles but are a revelation of God. And because this revelation of God comes amidst their delivery from one master to another Master, the commandments also function as a kind of description of an idolatrous society. In as much as “Thou shall not kill” is a command it’s also an indication that the society which worships God falsely is a society marked by violence. Thus the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods except me,” is a command meant to contrast with the land whence they came. 

Unlike Yahweh, the false gods of the Old Testament represent a settling for a partial local identity. 

The late Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe, writes that “to worship the local gods of the Old Testament meant seeing oneself as essentially belonging to this tribe, this place, this time.” The false gods with which Moses, Abram, and the Israelites in Egypt were familiar were closely tied to the soil of a particular region, to the fixed rhythms of nature, or to the structures of a particular society. “The call away from this to the worship of the non-god Yahweh,” McCabe insists, “meant a radical dissatisfaction with any such settled belonging.”

Yahweh doesn’t simply give the Israelites the commandments as they’re getting out of Egypt; rather, Yahweh gives the commandments to the Israelites so that the commandments might function as the means by which Yahweh gets Egypt out of the Israelites. The problem with nationalism, then— or, even, patriotism, is that it replicates the very devotion Yahweh would have his pilgrim people renounce. The Ten Commandments essentially confess to our idolatries “I do not believe, and I will not serve you.” 

The danger posed by nationalism is the lure of false worship. 

The false gods made you feel at home in a place, McCabe observes, that was their purpose. The fake gods had to do with the country in which you grew up and loved. The fake gods affirmed where you were and thus affirmed who you were. By doing so, rather than creature to Creator, the fake gods bound your identity as a person to your place of origin. Thus the idol creates a dependent, mutually reinforcing relationship between place and personhood such that to critique the former risks undoing the latter. 

In other words, idolatry requires mythology. 

The fake gods of nation and state demand obeisance to false narratives of exceptionalism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was no stranger to the fake gods, said the danger of nationalism is not love of one’s country but that very often nationalism— even patriotism— does not allow for confession of collective sin nor expressions of repentance. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics that to profess Jesus as Lord in the midst of this “religion” of nationalism is to confess one’s own complicity in sustaining the very Powers the Church by its baptism into the exodus of Christ’s death and resurrection has been commissioned to confront. 

That is, nationalism is an idol which makes it difficult for Christians, in obedience to the true God, to call bullshit, as Stanley Hauerwas counsels Christians, on the Powers of the places where they find themselves and this fake god makes it impossible for Christians to confess truthfully our own promiscuity with these other lords. 

    Stanley Hauerwas identifies the essence of Christianity thus:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.”

     If Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos and the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, it quickly becomes apparent that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

When the Risen Jesus commissions the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he tells them the way they will manifest his lordship is by baptizing and making disciples of all nations; that is, Jesus commissions them to plant communities of faith. The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call bulls@#$ on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge.

This is slippery work for Christians in America, more difficult for us than it was for the first Christians.

It’s easy to be shorn of any illusions about the goodness of your nation when it’s making you lion food for Rome’s entertainment.

The first Christians thus harbored no confusion that the Kingdom of Caesar was commensurate with the Kingdom of God so their calling to be an alternative community, a set-apart people within the polis, was more self-evident than it is to us who live in an allegedly Christian nation.

About that nation, presently led (I use that term with no small amount of irony) by The Donald.

Many Christians, primarily progressive Christians but not uniformly so (e.g. Catholic conservatives like Michael Gerson and Ross Douthat and even my muse and mentor, David Bentley Hart, who is Orthodox), view support for The Donald as outside the bounds of Christian endorsement. Rev. Willam Barber, understandably if mistakenly in my view, has characterized even prayer for The Donald as “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.”

The danger posed to America by The Donald, the thinking goes, is so grave Christians must meet it with protest, mockery, and resistance. Certainly all of those are valid forms of prophetic Christian witness, but i wonder if those are the only ways to resist, or, even, the first way to do so.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the danger of patriotism is not love of one’s country but that very often patriotism does not allow for confession of collective sin nor expressions of repentance. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics that to profess Jesus as Lord in the midst of this ‘religion’ of nationalism is to confess one’s own complicity in sustaining the very Powers the Church confronts. People forget- Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazis not to save the Jews but to protect his nation from the destruction the Nazis were wreaking upon it.

As a German Christian, Bonhoeffer’s first response to Hitler was to confess his Church’s own complicity in creating the conditions for the Nazism he now felt the Church was charged by God to resist.

Admittedly, the analogy to Hitler and Nazi Germany is an indelicate one. The takeaway from Bonhoeffer however is this one: perhaps resisting The Donald as the Enemy and his stubborn legion of supporters as the other is an insufficient Christian posture. Maybe like Bonhoeffer progressive Christians et al would do better to discern and confess the ways we’re guilty of creating the conditions ripe for The Donald’s demagoguery. What has the Church in America and the Left in America left neglected such that Americans felt only he could give them a voice ? And by what, I mean, of course, who. Who have we neglected?To what extend are we culpable such that those voters accepted The Donald’s (idolatrous) language of “Only I can help you…?”

Bottom line:

 Bonhoeffer provides a needful reminder in our current cultural climate.

Without confession, resistance only perpetuates the cultural antagonisms, which produced the very president progressives now feel compelled to combat.

In this respect, to call BS, as Hauerwas counsels Christians, entails a willingness for Christians to own and name their own BS; that is, their promiscuity with other lords.

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You might think, when you have a group of 30 friends, acquaintances or just fellow church members all crammed together, sleeping/snoring/farting, eating and working on top of each other, that there would be little opportunity for solitude on a mission trip.

There might even be some part of you that suspects the terms ‘mission’ and ‘solitude’ don’t belong in the same theological conversation. Those kinds of Christians do mission. These kinds of Christians do solitude, the little theologian in your ear might whisper. 

In fact, mission settings do provide surprising chances for solitude, to be alone:

The quiet, unhurried rhythm that you and a work partner settle into when you know both the task and your partner so well that you no longer have to fill the moments with chatter.

The silence around the morning table, everyone chilled from the mountain air, the only sound the steaming coffee being poured or a whispered ‘dias’ from our hostess.

The solitude of a group hike, the thin air leaving no spare air for conversation.

I guess it could be hard to understand unless you’ve been here but it’s somehow the experience of living together- even living on top of each other- that allows me to notice and appreciate such opportunities for solitude. There’s something about living together in community that makes me better at being alone, paying attention to my thoughts, my body, the world and people around me. It sounds counter-intuitive perhaps but a week spent in community is somehow the best training there is in how to be solitary. I haven’t tried it but I’d bet that if I just went out into the woods by myself for a week a la Into the Wild I’d soon be crazy bored and my mind would never stop racing. I’d be alone, but I’d bet solitude would be about the last thing I was experiencing.

It works the other way too.

Somehow these solitary moments stolen during the day make me better for the community.

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer says it’s only in being alone that we learn how to be a true, contributing member of community and it’s only in community that we learn how to be authentically alone.

So here’s the question I’m struggling with: why is Bonhoeffer’s insight so easy to (almost tangibly) experience here in Guatemala and not back home in church?

The easy answer: It’s because we don’t have time for solitude here. Our lives are too busy, too hectic, too over-scheduled so that both our solitude and our community suffer.

The more challenging (and likely true) answer: It doesn’t have anything to do with the pace of our lives. It’s because our churches seldom reflect genuine Christian community. Maybe even the un-solitary pace of our lives reflects just how badly churches do community.

I mean, the kind of deep, honest relationships that are unavoidable when you’re crammed together and living on top of each other for a week aren’t possible when you treat church simply as a place where you passively receive religious services and maybe make a few superficial relationships along the way.

According to Bonhoeffer- and Guatemala, it’s only by forging a deeper bond with the community that the quiet and solitude we all claim we want more of in our lives becomes possible.

On many nights here the dinner hour and the worship hour we’ve scheduled blur together, the dinner table becoming the communion table.

Just like it was in the ancient church. Just like it should be, I think.

Because the mountain village where we’re working this week is so remote, we’re not lodging or eating in the city below as many volunteer teams do. We’re here in the village, housed and fed by the same people we’re serving.

I can’t really describe how it feels (humbling? unnerving? indicting?) to be fed by people for whom the sound of an empty belly is as present a daily reality as the barking of the wild dogs at night. I eye my portions, trying to imagine what they look like through Mayan eyes. I clean my plate because, well, there are children starving in Guatemala.

Every meal time I feel like the categories we’ve brought with us as do-gooders from the States are upended. I mean… we’re there to serve but then there at the table we discover we’re the ones being served. It’s at the table I realize how fluid is the distinction between who’s the servant and who’s the served. It’s when that same dinner table transitions to the communion table that I realize this fluidity is exactly how it should be.

In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer, says:

‘Christian community at the table signifies our obligation. It is our daily bread that we eat, not my own. We share our bread. Thus we are firmly bound to one another not only in Spirit, but with our whole physical being. The one bread that is given to our community unites us in a firm covenant. Now no one must hunger as long as the other has bread…as long as we eat our bread together, we will have enough even with the smallest amount. Hunger begins only when people desire to keep their own bread for themselves. Could not the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread also have this meaning?’

On many nights here the dinner hour and the worship hour we’ve scheduled blur together, the dinner table becoming the communion table.

Just like it was in the ancient church. Just like it should be, I think.

Because the mountain village where we’re working this week is so remote, we’re not lodging or eating in the city below as many volunteer teams do. We’re here in the village, housed and fed by the same people we’re serving.

I can’t really describe how it feels (humbling? unnerving? indicting?) to be fed by people for whom the sound of an empty belly is as present a daily reality as the barking of the wild dogs at night. I eye my portions, trying to imagine what they look like through Mayan eyes. I clean my plate because, well, there are children starving in Guatemala.

Every meal time I feel like the categories we’ve brought with us as do-gooders from the States are upended. I mean… we’re there to serve but then there at the table we discover we’re the ones being served. It’s at the table I realize how fluid is the distinction between who’s the servant and who’s the served. It’s when that same dinner table transitions to the communion table that I realize this fluidity is exactly how it should be.

In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer, says:

‘Christian community at the table signifies our obligation. It is our daily bread that we eat, not my own. We share our bread. Thus we are firmly bound to one another not only in Spirit, but with our whole physical being. The one bread that is given to our community unites us in a firm covenant. Now no one must hunger as long as the other has bread…as long as we eat our bread together, we will have enough even with the smallest amount. Hunger begins only when people desire to keep their own bread for themselves. Could not the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread also have this meaning?’

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.