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I am in San Diego for one more day! Below is a picture of La Jolla Cove…
Bonhoeffer probes the seemingly “impossible demands” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount against the economic materialism, patriotic militarism, and ruthless racism to which Christians and their churches had succumbed in Nazi Germany. What Jesus was commanding his followers thus became the guideline of every chapter of this book.
(Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 129).
(The Cost of) Discipleship is a book which Bonhoeffer, using Jesus’ own words and the exhortations of the Apostle Paul, confronts readers with uncushoined challenges to all their distortions of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Chirst.
The original German title, Nachfolge, is elliptical, meaning simply “following after,” with “Jesus” being understood.
(Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 129).
Bonhoeffer’s questions, shocking in their directness, set the tone for all the disturbing passages that follow.
“What did Jesus want to say to us?”
“What does he want from us today?”
“How does he help us to be faithful Christians today?”
As a caution against what the average German was hearing in the church, Bonhoeffer concludes in this opening section, “It is not ultimately important to us what this or that church leader wants. Rather, we want to know what Jesus wants.”
(Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 129).
By Ralph Garlin Clingan
Clayton Powell (1865-1953) was one of the a very few African-American religious, cultural, and social leaders of his era to oppose what he called the “cheap grace” of racist conservative and liberal ideologies in what he called “a world come of age.” His use of what a sociologist and several philosophers called “the emotionalization of the ideal” changed his congregations, cities, and nation, as well as one German Sunday school teacher—Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ralph Garlin Clingan explores Powell’s role as a radical, progressive prophet with a well though out program of emotionalizing the ideal of the meek, universal love of Jesus Christ, the center of his life and ideal church, and raising a standard for his community and the world. Powell is discussed in the context of his sources, current Bonhoeffer scholarship, and today’s issues
* * * * *
A bum, a drunkard, a gambler, a gun-toting juvenile delinquent with brass knuckles – like so many Harlem hoods he took in off the streets and showed how to run a youth center – Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. walked away from it all to lead one of America’s largest churches. It was a frosty Sunday in December 1930. Throngs filled every seat and aisle in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, forcing an overflow of more than a thousand people to wedge themselves into the downstairs meeting room. The choir music was glorious and the organ thunderous, but the people had all come for one thing – to hear the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.’s sermon. Among them was a young, new PhD from Berlin University, a German Lutheran searching for a Word from the Lord and not the usual fundamentalist and liberal claptrap pretending to be that Word, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Before Bonhoeffer was born, Powell coined the phrase “cheap grace” to refer to the dominant forms of religion that tolerated racism, sexism, and lynching in one form or another.
Bonhoeffer later incorporated that phrase and many others that Powell invented, in his written works in Nazi Germany.
Powell addressed what the English Sociologist Benjamin Kidd, following Auguste Comte, the French father of Sociology, called “a world come of age,” another phrase prominent in Bonhoeffer’s later works.
Powell was an imposing man, six foot three, 190 pounds, with dark bushy hair and a mustache to match. His topic that week was “A Hungry God,” and with a deep, sonorous voice, he mesmerized his audience for more than 30 minutes. The topic was timely. Already at the start of that bitter winter, people by the thousands were losing their jobs, and money for food was scarce. For Powell, the imperative was clear: “To feed my sheep.” He announced that the church would provide an unemployment relief fund and a free food kitchen, and to begin, he would contribute four months of his salary. Before the sermon was finished, people were pulling money from their pockets to match Powell’s pledge. His plea was all the more effective because this was his first Sunday back from a three-month physical breakdown because he had been working 24/7 since “Black Tuesday,” 1929 to help poor Harlemites.
Powell was born in May of 1865, just two weeks after the end of the Civil War. The child of an African-Cherokee slave woman and a Southern slave owner later killed on a Civil War battlefield, Powell was raised by his stepfather, also an ex-slave, who instilled in him the religious beliefs that would drive him to the pulpit of the biggest Protestant church in the country. He bought the boy his first book of the Bible, the Gospel according to John, which Clayton read although he had never been to school!
* * * * *
A Powell Chronology
1865 Born May 5 near Franklin’s Mill near convergence of Maggotty and Soak Creeks in Franklin County, Virginia, to African-Choctaw-German mother, Sally Dunning, unknown father, probably her former owner, a German, killed in battle.
1871 Starts school, teacher Jake Bowles cites his brilliance.
1872 Ex-slave stepfather, Anthony Powell, gives him a copy of John’s Gospel, saying he will send Clayton to school when he can read it, which he does, then and there; thereafter a voracious reader; disillusionment with Fundamentalists.
1875 Family moves to Tompkin’s Farm near Colesburg, West Virginia. Meets Mattie Schaeffer at school where Addie Bowles knows not enough Math to take him beyond simple fractions. Leave school in 1878 at 13 years of age.
1884 Moves to Rendville, Ohio, away from family, works in Rend’s coal mine and emulates the hoodlum style of the lead character in pulp fiction series, Peck’s Bad Boy.
1885 Goes into church one evening during a revival preached by D. B. Houston, the pastor, who experiences a Spiritual coma which converts Powell, who becomes Sunday School Secretary, reads the Bible and other books, serves as Deputy Marshall under Mayor Tuppins, works at Rendville Academy as Janitor while a student, reads Frederick Douglass, Blanche Bruce, John Langston, John Lynch, Senator Revills and Governor Pinchback for the first time.
1887 Moves to the District of Columbia, works at Howard House, reads books 2–3 hours daily, all of Shakespeare and the Bible.
1888 A desire to preach seizes him to enters Wayland College and Seminary, founder George Merrill Prentiss King from Maine influences him, and where Mattie Schaeffer studies.
1890 Marries Mattie Fletcher Schaeffer.
1892 Completes both the college and seminary curricula at Wayland, delivers Class Oration, “The Elevation of the Masses—the Hope of the Race,” receives ordination to ministry, accepts Call to a Minneapolis church, which wants the former Pastor back, so he returns East to find that while he is away, his mother Sally dies. Serves Ebenezer Baptist Church, Philadelphia; he and Mattie work as domestics at Atlantic City, New Jersey, hotels during summer to make ends meet.
1893 Accepts Call to Immanuel Baptist Church, New Haven, Connecticut, delivers lectures throughout New England, “The Stumbling Blocks of the Race,” and “My Two Black Cats.”
1895–96 Studies as special student at Yale Divinity School, where students including William Ferris attend Immanuel and help shape his future career. Writes and publishes A Souvenir of Immanuel Baptist Church—Its Pastors and Members, at a low ebb financially, truly dedicates life to ministry. Attends Atlanta Exposition, hears fellow Franklin County Virginian Booker Washington, hailed by President Cleveland, first ex-slave to address predominantly European audience, delivers speech, “The Five Handcuffs of My Race,” after which Powell adds his version, “Broken, But Not Off.” Buys a house in New Haven with income from “My Two Black Cats.” Studies under Samuel Harris, delivers lectures to standing room only crowds in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, favorable editorial about him in California Eagle. Works with Isaac Napoleon Porter and other to wield power in New Haven politics.
1898 Blanche Powell is born in New Haven.
1900 Delegate to Christian Endeavor Convention in London, UK, travels in France, subsequent lecture, “Twelve Days in Balmy France,” sells more than all other lectures. Further study of the Abolitionists produces three more lectures, “John Brown,” “William Lloyd Garrison,” and “The Religion of Frederick Douglass.”
1902 The Colored American Magazine publishes “The Religion of Frederick Douglass.”
1904 Wayland, merged with other African schools to form Virginia University, bestows Doctor of Divinity on Powell.
1906 Preaches interdenominational unity to achieve global evangelism in “The Significance of the Hour” at dedication of First African Baptist Church, Philadelphia, delivers paper on William L. Garrison at last meeting of New Haven clergy, among whom he organizes inter-racial, interdenominational pulpit exchanges and city-wide revivals. After attending DuBois’ Niagara Conference, brings him to deliver orations and organize chapters of the NAACP. Bonhoeffer is born.
1908 After increasing Immanuel’s membership more than two-thirds, paying off all debts, freeing church from European-American rule, changing the time of worship from afternoon to morning, accepts Call to Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, and is feted three times before leaving New Haven. Abyssinian has 1600 members, is in a Red-light district and owes large debts. Cold-water apartment his family shares is in a Hotel populated by prostitutes. Adam, Jr. is born.
1909 Cleans prostitution out of neighborhood. Sermon, “Little Foxes,” against prostitution, New York Age publishes. Leads a month-long revival in Indianapolis, Christian Banner and The Indianapolis Star publish “An Awful Whirlwind,” a sermon about sin and grace. Preaches first of seven ecumenical revivals for YMCA, Baltimore, reports The Afro-American. Two sermons on race relations, “Watch Your Step” and “Some Don’ts to be Remembered,” published in Age. Serves on Boards of NAACP and Urban League.
1911 “A Model Church,” from Acts 5.4, is written and becomes his most-often delivered sermon, part of his campaign to move Abyssinian to Harlem from 40th street in Manhattan. Age Publishes “A Graceless Church,” an assault against cheap grace.
1912 Age publishes two more sermons.
1913 More of his work appears in Age.
1914 Age publishes another assault on cheap grace, “American Religion an Abomination with God, Marcus Garvey transforms Harlem, Powell, inspires new wave of radical social action by Urban League and NAACP. Urban League starts magazine, Opportunity, with his “The Church in Social Work” as lead article.
1915 Criticizes African-Americans for not patronizing African-American business and professional people. Denied political power, at least Africans can save money, engage in business and buy property (Seth Scheimer, Negro Mecca: A History of the Negro in New York City, 1865–1920, 70).
1918 Publishes first book, in the wake of the First World War, Patriotism and the Negro. Asks state of New York National Baptist Convention to help fund building of Community Center to fulfill the vision of Nannie Helen Burroughs. Rejected 92–8, he comes back, builds the Center anyway, never asks for anything from anyone again. Delivers “The Valley of Dry Bones” for the first time.
1921 Threatens to resign if church will not move to Harlem; resignation rejected, plans made to build a new church.
1922 Builds church in Harlem, calls Rev. Horatio Hill from Yale to direct Community House, organizes Highways and Hedges Society to care for every abandoned child in Harlem, sends and salaries Laura Bayne, Abyssinian Nursing School graduate as missionary to Congo (Zaire) Africa, three more women follows. School of Religious Education includes extension campuses of Columbia’s Nursing and Education departments, has four boys’ and six girls’ clubs, Thursday Community forums, Sunday Evening Community Lyceums, a Book-a-Month Club, raises money for every Church building in Harlem, builds a Medical Center, now Harlem Hospital, and National Training School for Women and Girls run by Nannie Helen Burroughs in The District of Columbia, Tuskegee-Hampton Institute, Fisk and Virginia Union Universities. Abyssinian endows the first Professorial chair established by African-Americans, at Virginia Union.
1924 Exhaustion from working three years without a break gets to him, so Powell accepts a 103-day tour of Europe, Palestine and Egypt from Abyssinian, develops lectures on each town affected by Jesus and four lectures on his travels. Howard University confers a D. D. on him.
1925 Union Seminary, New York, invites Powell to preach in chapel for the first time. Union requires B. D. students to visit Abyssinian. Lectures about his Africa trip on West Coast.
1926 Blanche dies because of misdiagnosis. Powell builds first African-American home for the elderly.
1927 Negro Pulpit Opinion publishes “The Bible More Than Literature.”
1928 Harmon Foundation honors Powell for notable achievement in religious education. Abyssinian mortgage burning. New York World, Negro Pulpit Opinion and The Pittsburgh Courier publish Powell’s “Progress—the Law of Life.”
1929 Twentieth anniversary celebration at Abyssinian. Lectures at Virginia Seminary and College, Virginian Union, North Carolina College for Negroes, West Virginian State College, Fisk, Howard and Shaw Universities, National Training School for Women and Girls, City College of New York and First of three annual lectures on race relations at Colgate, Where his son, Adam matriculates, “Mob Rule-Its Causes and Cure,” “Race Relations,” and “Rules of the Road.” Preaches the most controversial sermon of his career, the one that provokes the most death threats, “Lifting Up a Standard for the People,” published in New York Age.” Death threats include one from African-American Fundamentalists calling themselves The Black Hand, which appears in Baltimore’s The Afro-American December 21, 1929 and from an Arkansas European-American named Vandlandingham.
1930 Powell suffers nervous breakdown from overwork, sick three months. Rev. Hill leaves and Adam graduates from Colgate, becomes Business Manager at Abyssinian and preaches his father’s sermon until he returns to work in December. He meets the Great Depression with Free Food Kitchen, Unemployment Relief Fund and Relief Bureau. Repeats “A Model Church,” and new sermons, “A Naked God,” and “A Hungry God,” in December, both published in The Watchman-Examiner: a National Baptist Paper. Bonhoeffer comes to Union and Abyssinian.
1931 Responds to H. L. Mencken’s criticism of African-American clergy, “Dunghill Varieties of Christianity,” which the Urban League magazine, Opportunity, publishes February, 1931. From a sick bed, down with the flue, Powell pens “H. L. Mencken Finds Flowers in a Dunghill,” which Opportunity Publishes March, 1931. Bonhoeffer returns to Germany.
1932 New York Republicans nominate Powell to serve in the Electoral College, speaks widely in Hoover’s campaign as a Progressive Republican, American Business World publishes editorial in support of Powell, October, 1932. Junior graduates from Columbia with M. Ed. Powell joins Neighborhood Improvement Club, part of the Democratic Party, supports Franklin Roosevelt’s implementation of cousin Theodore Roosevelt’s political program, freely criticizing F. D. R.
1935 Tries to retire from Abyssinian at 70 years of age; congregation rejects resignation, so he takes the winter off, leaving Junior in charge, a bitter pill for many to swallow. The Amsterdam News publishes “The Silent Church.”
1937 The Watchman-Examiner publishes “The Negro’s Enrichment of the Church Today.” Successfully resigns from Abyssinian, which makes him Pastor Emeritus, gives him an unprecedented pension for life; the church has 14,000 members. Preaches farewell sermon, “Twenty-nine Years Ago and Today.”
1938 Publishes Against the Tide, his autobiography, fills retirement with political action to end racial discrimination, expand employment opportunities and equal rights for African-American women and men.
1939 Publishes Palestine and Saints in Caesar’s Household.
1941 The Watchman-Examiner publishes “Tolerance in Race and Religion.”
1942 Publishes Picketing Hell—A Fictitious Narrative, his theological biography.
1945 Publishes Riots and Ruins. Hitler executes Bonhoeffer.
1946 Powell marries Inez Means, a Nurse.
1949 Abyssinian publishes Powell’s history, Upon This Rock.
1951 Negro Digest publishes his last article and the only one that is not a sermon first, “Rocking the Gospel Train.”
1953 Powell dies.
From Powell, Against the Tide; Samuel Dewitte Proctor, “Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. (1865–1953)” in Rayford Logan and Michael Winston, Editors, Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 501 and “Powell, Adam Clayton, Sr. (1865–1953),” in W. Augustus Low, Editor, Encyclopedia of Black America, 702f.
Also, the Clayton Powell, Sr. article on the Schomburg Library’s Internet Website of 2002.
Clingan, Ralph Garlin • Against Cheap Grace in a World Come of Age: An Intellectual Biography of Clayton Powell, 1865–1953 • © 2002 Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York
His controversial yet Christ-centered beliefs were formed not only in the classrooms of Tübingen, but also in the cells of Tegel Prison.
John D. Godsey (from Ctlibrary)
October 1, 1991
Dietrich Bonhoeffer first became widely known not for his thought but for his actions. He was talked about as the German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis for resisting the racial and military policies of Hitler’s totalitarian regime. Only gradually did the church and world become aware of the rich theological legacy of this modern Christian martyr.
In May of 1924, Bonhoeffer had just completed a year of theological studies at Tübingen. That fall he began studies at Berlin University, including seminars under famous scholar Adolf von Harnack.
What Shaped His Theology?
Bonhoeffer’s thought cannot be divorced from his life.
Turbulent Times: He grew up in Berlin during the era of the Weimar Republic. He lost a brother in the First World War. He experienced the rise to power of Hitler’s National Socialists, and he helped establish the “Confessing Church” during the German church struggle of the 1930s. Finally, toward the end of the Second World War, he was hanged as a conspirator against Hitler. His theology was forged amid these turbulent times.
Cultured Family: Bonhoeffer’s family deeply influenced his character and thinking. He and his twin sister were the sixth and seventh of the eight children of a prominent physician and his wife. His father was a neurologist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin. Dietrich was reared in this educated, cultured family.
The Bonhoeffers embodied the best of the German liberal tradition that prized personal integrity and civic duty. Dietrich grew to combine the analytical objectivity of his father and the piety and practical realism of his mother. Nourished and supported by this loving family, he grew to love life. He valued honesty and self-discipline, rejoiced in human ties and human pleasures, and enjoyed literature, music, and art.
Varied Experiences: Often overlooked as significant influences on Bonhoeffer are certain life experiences, mainly outside Germany. A trip to Rome during university days quickened his interest in the church. He took an excursion to Islamic North Africa. He spent a year as a vicar in Barcelona and a year as a student at Union Seminary in New York. For a year and a half he served as pastor of two German-speaking congregations in London. These immersions into different cultures greatly widened his perspective on life.
For example, while at Union Seminary, Bonhoeffer encountered the black church in Harlem. Here he began to see things “from below,” from the perspective of those who suffer oppression—a perspective that would later be his own when he was imprisoned.
Concrete, “This World” Revelation
Bonhoeffer’s passion was for the concreteness of revelation—in Jesus of Nazareth, in the church. The Word became flesh, Bonhoeffer stressed, and dwelt among us: living, teaching, dying on a cross, being raised to new life, taking form in a new community. From the outset Bonhoeffer emphasized the “this world” quality of revelation.
Because God has entered human history, new relationships are engendered. Those who respond to this revelation bear a responsibility. Bonhoeffer insisted on the social intention of every Christian doctrine.
This became evident in his 1927 dissertation at the University of Berlin, The Communion of Saints. In it, Bonhoeffer used sociology and social philosophy to aid in his theological interpretation of the church. (This “social” emphasis also reflected the ongoing influence in Berlin of the liberal tradition; the same strand runs from Schleiermacher and Hegel to Troeltsch and Toennies.) Crucial to Bonhoeffer’s social analysis is the concept that the transcendence of God is moral and social. Thus, it is not an abstract idea. God is as close as the nearest neighbor in need!
Christ and the Church
For Bonhoeffer, all true theology begins in prayer and is centered on Jesus Christ. Like Luther, Bonhoeffer could point to this one who was born in a crib and died on a cross, and say, “This man is God for me.” Bonhoeffer, unlike prevailing liberal theologians, refused to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.
We meet the risen Christ who is present in the church’s proclamation, he insisted. But the present Christ is none other than the historical Jesus who taught and healed, forgave sinners, and died on a cross.
As the incarnate One, Christ demonstrates God’s love for the world. As the crucified One, Christ discloses God’s judgment upon humanity’s sin. As the risen One, Christ reveals God’s will for the renewal of humanity. Like spokes that go out from the hub of a wheel, everything in Bonhoeffer’s theology radiates from Christ the center. He is the center of human existence, of history, and even of nature.
In Bonhoeffer’s theology, there is an intimate relationship between Jesus Christ and the church. In his letters from prison Bonhoeffer spoke of Jesus as “the man for others.” And in parallel fashion he wrote that the church is truly the church only when it exists for others. Just as Jesus lived his life completely for others (even unto death on the cross), so the church is to serve God by serving the world of need.
The church represents that gracious realm of God where sinners are welcomed, the wounded are healed, the oppressed are set free, and the poor receive the good news of the gospel. In The Communion of Saints, Bonhoeffer defined the church as “Christ existing as community.” He believed that through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christ actually takes form in this community as it lives for others. Christ is revealed not just through the preached Word and the administered sacraments, but through the Christian community itself.
Faith and Obedience
Lutheran theologians generally center their attention on the New Testament writings of Paul. The apostle champions their doctrine of justification by grace, through faith alone, and not by works of the law.
Bonhoeffer, however, loved the Old Testament (especially the Psalms) and its focus on the law (Torah). He drew upon its demand for righteous living within the realm of God.
In addition, already in the early 1930s Bonhoeffer was attracted to the Gospels—especially to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Bonhoeffer read this as his own serious call to discipleship as a follower of Jesus. He took to heart the claims that Jesus’ teachings made on his life. The demands of the kingdom of God were to be obeyed. To Bonhoeffer, they were not given, as many Lutherans supposed, to show the impossibility of their fulfillment.
At the Finkenwalde seminary, where Bonhoeffer trained ministerial candidates for the “Confessing Church” during the Nazi period, he lectured on the Sermon on the Mount. These lectures became the heart of the book he published in 1937, The Cost of Discipleship. In the book he warned against “cheap grace,” which is the grace we bestow on ourselves in order to live the Christian life as effortlessly as possible. Bonhoeffer called people to the costly grace of following Jesus and obeying his commands. He put his theological perspective into this sentence: “Only the one who obeys believes, and only the one who believes obeys.” Although theologically, faith comes before obedience, faith and obedience can never be separated.
Christian Living and Ethics
After the Gestapo closed his “illegal” seminary in 1937, Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together. In it, he presented one example of how a group of Christians had tried to live “under the Word of God.” The seminarians’ life incorporated regular spiritual disciplines surrounding the day of work—and usually evenings of play! Bonhoeffer, an excellent pianist, would accompany their singing, or he would play records of Negro spirituals he had brought from New York. He insisted that Christian life together is always life in and through Christ, and it necessitates a rhythm of both “being together” and “being alone.”
Bonhoeffer taught his students that self-justification and judging others go together. On the other hand, justification by grace and serving others also go together. He proposed to his students the ministries of holding one’s tongue, meekness, listening to others, active helpfulness, bearing the burdens of others, and when timely, speaking God’s Word to another. He also advocated oral confession in preparation for the Lord’s Supper—not to a priest or minister, but to any Christian who lives under the Cross.
Following Life Together, Bonhoeffer joined the underground resistance against Hitler and became a civilian employee of the Abwehr (the German military intelligence service, whose officers were at the heart of the resistance). He began working on Ethics, an unfinished book that, along with Letters and Papers from Prison, was published posthumously. Basically, he considered Christian ethics to be an ethics of responsibility. Since the Incarnation, God and the world have been “polemically” united. A person cannot relate to the one without the other. This means that ethical thinking can no longer be done in terms of two spheres, one sacred and one secular. In their lives in the world, Christians are called to live responsibly by fulfilling certain divinely imposed and interrelated “mandates”—those of marriage and family, government, labor (or culture), and church. No mandate, wrote Bonhoeffer, is more “divine” than another. Now a Christian must make ethical decisions in the face of various demands that come from being a member of a family, a citizen, a worker, and a member of the church.
His Most Controversial Ideas
In 1943 Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. In uncensored letters from prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer raised the burning question of “who Christ is for us today—really.” How is Christ related to a world that has become more and more secular and that does not look to God for answers to its unsolved problems? Is there a “non-religious” understanding of Christian faith that fits a “world come of age”?
“Religious” people, contended Bonhoeffer, tend toward individualism (concern for saving one’s own soul for another world), metaphysics (using a concept of “God” to fill gaps in knowledge or to solve personal problems), parochialism (relegating God to only a part of life), or arrogance (thinking God favors them over others). These “religious” views, wrote Bonhoeffer, are anachronistic in a modern, “religionless” world. And they do not accord with the Bible: In Jesus Christ, God lives and suffers with humans in the midst of everyday life. God becomes weak in the world in order that we might become strong and mature. Like Jesus, we are to be there for others in the joys and sorrows of mundane life.
Bonhoeffer’s idea of “religionless Christianity” has been controversial (as has his statement, “Before God and with God we live without God”). By it, Bonhoeffer intended that all Christian doctrines be reinterpreted in “this world” terms. For example, the Resurrection is not only the answer to life after death; it sends us back into the world to live in a renewed way.
If the church cannot interpret Christian faith in language meaningful for the ordinary person in our secular world, then, Bonhoeffer believed, it must limit itself to two things: prayer and righteous action. Out of that it might be born again and discover a new language that would impress the world with its freshness and power.
The only way to find God, then, is to live fully in the midst of this world. Christians must participate in Jesus’ living for others. They share in God’s suffering on behalf of the poor, the helpless, and the oppressed.
Despite his sometimes jarring, controversial statements, Bonhoeffer has elicited a positive response from all types of Christians—liberals and conservatives—and from non-Christians as well. All these people find in Bonhoeffer’s life and thought a challenging faith that is worth living for, and dying for.
Dr. John D. Godsey is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and author of The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Westminster, 1960).
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History magazine.
|Waiting for Rescue||Wednesday, December 23, 2009|
The story is one that fills hearers with anxiety even as we imagine it (its dramatic ending is all the more vivid with mining stories in mind that did not end the same). I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to be freed after such an ordeal.
Over seventy years ago from a pulpit in London, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the image of a man trapped after a mining disaster: Deep in the earth, dark as night, the man is cut off and alone. The supply of oxygen is limited. Food, water, and options are scarce; silence and fear are not. He knows his situation, and he can do nothing but wait. “He knows that up there, the people are moving about, the women and children are crying—but the way to them is blocked. There is no hope.”(2) But what if just then, in the distance, the sounds of tapping are heard—the sound of knocking, the sound of friends, the sound of deliverance?
This, said Bonhoeffer in December of 1933, is the hope of Advent: the coming of a deliverer, the drawing near of God to humankind, the arrival of Christ our rescuer. Those who are caught in darkness will see a great light. Those struggling in silence will stand up and hear the knocking. A voice is crying out of the wilderness: Who will have ears to hear it?
Advent teaches us how to wait. “Can and should there be anything else more important for us than the hammers and blows of Jesus Christ coming into our lives?”(3) In our waiting, should we not cry out as the first believers did, Come, Lord Jesus! This is the ancient cry of palpable hope—Maranatha!—Lord, come quickly! Advent teaches us to wait and to watch, and to live expectantly, though we sit in the dark, though we find ourselves impatient. “When these things begin to take place,” instructs Christ, “stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).
In the days of Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the people of Israel were living in a period of silence. It had been over 400 years since God had spoken of a coming Redeemer and his forerunner through the prophet Malachi. Malachi called the people again to anticipate and to be prepared for the day that was coming. Of course, in the quiet nights of 400 years, in the difficult silence of disease or war or sorrow, even the most faithful stumble and doubt.
But listen. In the distance there is knocking. There is the sound of hope drawing near, the sounds of God’s reign in unexpected places. There are the sounds of saints who have gone before us and who proclaim their rescuer even in death. There is the sound of a promise: “Because I live, you shall live also” (John 14:19).
The world is still dark and lonely. But in it every day a quiet voice calls out, “I stand at the door and knock.” Christ has come. Christ is here. Christ will come again. Our moment of rescue draws near.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
© 2008 Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. All Rights Reserved.
At the outset of (The Cost of) Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer declares that he wants to get behind the battle cries and catch words of the church struggle and to turn to the one person who ought to be the center of their concerns, Jesus Christ.