Bonhoeffer: Against Abstraction

[Jesus Christ’s] word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole life of man. {Dietrich Bonhoeffer}

I’m taking a course at the University of Virginia on “Peace and Resistance: Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr.” So, of course, I’ve been reading a good bit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer lately.

As you know, Dietrich was a German pastor and theologian instrumental in the German Resistance during World War II. Dietrich was imprisoned for subversive activity, and (though complicated by the fact that he was a principled pacifist) later charges were added for his association with the infamous July 20 Plot to assassinate the F├╝hrer (the oft popularized story of the plot was the center-piece of Tom Cruise’s 2008 film Valkyrie).

As the SS grew more suspicious of Bonhoeffer’s entrenchment in the Resistance, they passed Bonhoeffer from prison to prison until he finally landed at Flossenburg concentration camp. This was his final stop. He was hung (asphyxiated actually) by a thin steel wire on April 9th, 1945 – only 14 days before the camp was liberated. Bonhoeffer was 39.

Bonhoeffer opposed not only the Nazi regime but the religious movement that swept through Germany, the “German Christian” movement. Attempting to re-frame Christian witness so it could harmonize with the Third Reich, the “German Christian” movement ultimately viewed their first allegiance to the State and their second allegiance to God. One bishop fielded a question: “What is one first — a Christian or a national socialist?” The bishop replied, “A National Socialist.” In public worship, they would go so far as to sing hymns to Hitler.

Against this moment, Bonhoeffer wrote his most challenging and enduring work, The Cost of Discpleship. His plain assertion was this: To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to say that God rules over everything. As such, you can not be a disciple of Jesus if you are unwilling to obey Jesus above every other person, claim or passion. You can imagine how that landed in 1944 Germany.

Dietrich believed that the proclamation of Jesus as Lord was always enfleshed in (and evidenced by) the lived realities of our life, the choices we make, the allegiances we declare, the principles and ideas that we obey (or disobey). Christianity is concrete, not abstract.

To be a Christian was not merely to affirm religious facts but to be gripped by the reality that Jesus Christ has come to resurrect us to an entirely new kind of life – a lived life. Equating Christian faith with any particular political movement is idolatry (and this is a lesson we best learn). However, being Christian will always have political (public, lived) implications. Obeying the way of Jesus means saying yes to some things and saying no to others.

The work of the Christian is not to redress faith so that it can be squeezed within another ideology but rather to live Christianly amid, within, over or against every other competing claim. If Jesus is Lord, then this assertion defines reality. Everything else must fix itself to that bare truth.

3 responses to Bonhoeffer: Against Abstraction

  1. Scott J. Pearson February 21, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    I hope you enjoy the course. I've never studied Bonhoeffer in detail, though ever since I found out about him, I've admired him.

    I reflect upon these themes in the midst of our current political debates –> Do we put Jesus above being conservative or liberal?

    Another comes closer to home –> Do I trust Jesus above my medical obligations?

    I hope you enjoy the course, and I look forward to reading your reflections.

  2. I love the idea of a course holding these two men, Bonhoffer and King, up beside one another. I hope it's a wonderful course and cant wait to hear more. And Scott – I resonate with your questions. We are at a crossroads of negotiating what is truly most important in our lives – in thought & theory – but more importantly in practice.

  3. Scott, I am enjoying it, and I think the questions you are asking are exactly the sort Bonhoeffer hoped we would ask.

    Dayna, I pray the crossroads provide clarity.

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