Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts. The first, “Considering dissident’s works” ran July 27 and is available at nwaonline.com .
The columnist, Clint Schnekloth, is reviewing The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Nazi dissident who also founded the Confessing Church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter while held in Tegel prison in Berlin to his student Eberhard Bethge. It was written July 21, 1944, a day after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler of July 20 and about nine months before Bonhoeffer’s execution in April 1945.
“I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life or something like it. I suppose I wrote Discipleship as the end of that path. TODAY I CAN SEE THE DANGERS OF THAT BOOK, though I still stand by what I wrote.”
Bonhoeffer perceived grace had been secularized to the modern age and, in the process, cheapened. So discipleship for him was a call to the costly grace of discipleship modeled especially in monastic community — even if qualified by the Reformation discovery of bringing monasticism out of the monastery and into the world.
But within a few years, Bonhoeffer had moved to a new center, a new this-worldly spirituality he recognized as somehow different from the theology of Discipleship. He became a co-conspirator in the resistance against Hitler. Rather than a retreat into monasticism — or a retreat to New York City to teach — he stayed in Germany, involved himself in the world and so was implicated and ultimately arrested.
It leaves you wondering, how could he change? And how could he change while continuing to stand by that which he had written before?
A long quote from his lecture to the young illegal theologians helps us understand:
“One now looks to justify our paths, not for the past but for the future. We expect from Scripture such concrete directives that we are released from acting on faith — one wants to see the path before walking on it. One demands the certainty that the path will certainly be pleasing to God before starting the journey. One says: If we could be absolutely certain on the basis of Scripture that the path of the Council of Brethren is pleasing to God, then we would follow it. Demonstrate this from Scripture, and we will follow. Thus I want to have the scriptural evidence in my pocket as the guarantee for my path.
But the Bible can never fulfill this kind of request either because it is not intended to be an insurance policy for our paths, which may become dangerous. The Bible does only one thing: It calls us to faith and obedience in the truth that we know in Jesus Christ. Scripture points not to our paths, but to the truth of God. Let no one among you think after this meeting today that he can go home armed with scriptural evidence that justifies his decision for the Council of Brethren. If so, he misunderstands both the Scripture and the essence of faith.
The scriptural evidence does not spare us from faith, but actually leads us into the venture of faith and obedience to God’s word and it strengthens us in this. According to Scripture, we do not first know and comprehend the way and then decide to follow it. It is rather, then, one who is on the journey who knows that he is on the right way. Knowledge comes only in action and decision. Only he who is in truth will recognize the truth.
Jesus says: ‘Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God’ (John 7:17). For this reason, scriptural evidence can be provided only along the way, that is, for the one who believes.
(Lecture on the Path of the Young Illegal Theologians; mimeographed version of Bonhoeffer’s lecture on October 26, 1938, an extraordinary meeting of the Confession Church Council of Brethren in Pomerania).
Bonhoeffer found himself in the unimaginable position of having to oppose the very church in which he had been raised and oppose the country of his birth and allegiance. By staying faithful, he was displaced. By pursuing the truth, he became illegal. However, speaking to this group of theologians, he could only show them the way by his own example. He could recognize the truth by being in the truth, and say, “I’m going this way and not that way.”
But he couldn’t offer them certainty. Solidarity, yes. Certainty, no. This is especially difficult for a group of faithful who wonder why they should take the radical step of going down this path (Confessing) when there are clearly so many risks, and when the majority German Christians were criticizing, ostracizing and threatening them. In such a situation, it would be especially nice to be offered certainty.
Instead, Bonhoeffer offers them the cross. And rather than the pious focus on the cross as an object of veneration or worship, even at this time, Bonhoeffer was preaching the more difficult and costly way. “Yes, dear congregation, there is still one word to be said … Whether we have truly found the peace of God will be proven by the way we deal with the afflictions that come upon us.
There are many Christians who certainly bend their knees before the cross of Jesus Christ, but who refuse and struggle against any affliction in their own lives. They think they love the cross of Christ, but they hate the cross in their own lives. Thus in truth, they also hate the cross of Jesus Christ. In truth, they who try to escape the cross by all means possible, are despisers of the cross …
Therefore, whoever hates affliction, renunciation, crisis, slander and imprisonment in their life might otherwise talk about the cross with big words, but nonetheless hates the cross of Jesus and has no peace with God. But whoever loves the cross of Jesus Christ, whoever has found peace in his cross, also begins to love the affliction in their own life. And finally, they will be able to speak with Scripture: ‘But we also boast in afflictions’” (Sermon on Romans 5:1-5).
We can draw many parallels today to the American Church.
Or more generally, the comparison can and should be made between establishment Christianity in the United States and its proximity to the regime. How comfortable establishment Christianity is with its power and how ready to perceive even the slightest loss of power as persecution. Much of American Christianity has been so co-opted by the various regimes of power (the market, the state, etc.) that it does not even know where God is to be found in God’s suffering. It has thoroughly confused the cross with glory and vice versa.
This is why Bonhoeffer’s elusive proposal of this-worldly Christianity intrigues all of us who come after him: First, because he only hints at it in his letters, and we have no longer treatise to work from to understand what he meant.
But also because his this-worldly Christianity might only be “understood along the way.” We might only understand it when we find ourselves like Bonhoeffer, in extremis: in prison, excluded, marginalized, sharing in God’s sufferings in the world.
Or as Paul writes, when we become, “and are still the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:13).
The Rev. Clint Schnekloth is lead pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville. He. blogs at lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com .