Thursday, April 21, 2005

A Little Bonhoeffer

I have just finished a six-week course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (It was offered by Luther Seminary's Lay School of Theology, which offers a wonderful array of -- inexpensive -- courses for those of us within driving distance of the Sem who are either disinclined or uninterested in a more formal way of continuing our theology education.) While the course was not completely satisfying to me (I think I'm the point of wanting a tutorial rather than a class), it gave me new insights and information -- and it left me with one huge question: What would (Lutheran) theology be like today if Bonhoeffer had lived through World War II? (I know that seeks pure speculation, but perhaps it's a way of continuing to mourn his loss.)

So far as I have been able to learn, Bonhoeffer never did get an "ecclesiology" into print in a form that we ordinary folks can grasp. (Sanctorum Communio, I am told, is virtually impenetrable by any by the philosophically sophisticated -- among whom I am not.) His understanding of the Church, however, is foundational to his theology, and I'd like to see some dissertations on that -- teased out from his more accessible works. Discipleship should be required reading by all Lutheran seminarians -- and discussions should not be led by pietists! Letters and Papers from Prison, arguably his most familiar book, is also arguably his worst (one friend makes that point) and leads to more confusion, I think, than insight on many points (viz., e.g., "religionless Christianity").

The existential realism of his thought is perhaps the most impressive aspect of his writing for me. That we take the ministry and words and example of Jesus into our every hour (not seeking to diminish them or to explain them away or to "grace" away their requirements) seems so correct -- and seems so to jibe with the cry of many who are on "spiritual quests." (It is no accident that so many people are converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, given their seriousness about mystery, order, transcendence, and the like.)

I'm not to the point of wanting to buy the new authoritative edition of Ethics until it is released in paperback (and I can afford it), but in reading some short passages from it, I have been struck by what a great corrective Bonhoeffer provides to contemporary Lutheranism (a fact which doesn't leave me untroubled -- how many double and triple negatives can I get into one phrase, I wonder). He dislikes so-called "classical Lutheran" talk about the orders of creation because of the tendency inherent in such a classification to isolate the orders from one another and to place them in hierarchy -- neither which is legitimate, per Bonhoeffer. He speaks, instead of "mandates" -- four of them, which I can't quite bring to mind right now. These mandates are "tasks" written into the structure of life and all of them are sort of interdependent: So, for example, family life is a mandate. Government, another mandate, exists in order to preserve order in the world, which helps assure (inter alia) the well-being of the other mandates. If, as was the case under Nazi rule, children are encouraged to "rat out" their parents, thus destroying family cohesion, government has traduced its task and faithful people are required to correct or overthrow that government.

I very much prefer that reading of the "two kingdoms" to what we often get. (I intend soon to undertake a study of the "two kingdoms" teaching of the Reformation, so while I don't encourage you to hold your breath, I do encourage you to check in once in a while to help me stay on track.) The subservience of either government or church to the other does not seem to jibe with either the scriptural evidence or the experience of history. While they have different spheres of operation, I think you might say, they are sisters -- complementary -- in the stewardship of the creation. (I'll let y'all comment on the implications of that for the current USAmerican political situation.)

Obviously, I don't know what I'm talking about here, so I'll break off abruptly until I can speak with more salience. (I confess that my brain is still mushy from too much glorious Mexican sun -- not to mention Corona and margueritas! I apologize for the failure of continuity in this post.)

One thing that remains very much a question for me is that of Bonhoeffer's pacifism. He very clearly advocates such a principled stance with respect to violence. But his involvement in the Abwehr plot really complicates any straightforward explication of his views, I think. At this point, I'm inclined to think that Bonhoeffer was not a "principled pacifist" (to quote Gary Simpson of Luther Sem, who strongly disagrees with such a posture) who refuses to use or to consider violence in any situation. (Clearly he didn't live that way, and Bonhoeffer was not one to separate his thought and writing from the way he lived his life.) But I think it's too easy to dismiss his views as allowing violence in extreme cases.

I wonder whether Bonhoeffer did not fear losing his soul by his involvement in the Abwehr plot but thought it necessary to sacrifice himself (body and soul) for the sake of overcoming the blatant evil that was Hitler and National Socialism. It would be very good Lutheranism for him to "sin boldly" -- to act in a way even clearly contrary to the will of God for the sake of the Gospel. (Such stuff as Jesus' "violation" of the Sabbath, his associating with outcasts, and the like model such action.) But the point is not to justify such sinning; sinning cannot be justified. (I just realized that that is a paraphrase of a point in Discipleship! This stuff may be working itself into my subconscious!) The point is that the correct life may have to be abandoned in certain circumstances in order to be true to the Gospel.

That would mean that we preach, teach, model, and extol non-violence, even pacifism -- not as a "principle," but as the way Jesus lived and, consequently, as the way we live. We also recognize that there may be times when to live that is either impossible or immoral in a certain circumstance. Contrary to Joe Fletcher, Bonhoeffer was not a situational ethics proponent, though. Life is contingent, lived out in a most real, concrete context. That is not to deny any of the demands of Jesus. They are not "ideals" or "idealistic" or "reserved for heaven" or anything of the sort. (Discipleship makes that very clear. See also Stassen and Gushee on the Sermon on the Mount, here.) We do not make war; we do not cheat our neighbors; we provide aid to the needy. But there are occasions imaginable in which we will not always fulfill or be true to the gospel. So on occasion we may fight back or kill.

That exception doesn't become the new standard (which it has in the so-called "just war" thinking of modern times). It remains an exception, a sin, a failure of the intentions of God. That exception is a risk of salvation. But it may nevertheless be necessary.

So may one "justifiably" be a soldier? The early church said, "no," and I think that is the correct answer. For one thing, to become a soldier is to commit oneself to an authority different from or at least in tandem with Christ -- the "state" or the command structure. (That is why military chaplaincy practiced by commissioned officers is such a travesty -- and works so little good, from the overall impressions at the VA.) To commit to violence is, in the overall schema, to doubt the promises of God and to set out to thwart his purposes. (Somewhere in Discipleship, Bonhoeffer muses that no one has ever tried to meet warlike aggression with suffering-servant humility. He suggests that it might be faithful to try.) The Church must stand against it resolutely.

But that is not to say that there might not be circumstances (and this, as I understand it, was the original point of "just war" thinking) when the use of force is lamentably considered to be necessary and is (not "may be") undertaken. It is, however, to understand that such circumstances are not a part of our ordinary proclamation.

At base, and here I'll stop this bleating that has gone on much longer than I intended, it is as Bonhoeffer said: The call of Christ leads to death (the death of self as perceived over-against Christ). If the Gospel is true, and God has won the final victory over the powers of evil, then it is either all true or false. If true, then we ignore it at our peril.

I want to get into my wife's new craze: She has been taught by my teacher-from-afar, Stanley Hauerwas, to say that ethical reflection beings not with "what would Jesus do?" or "what should we do?" but with "Who is Jesus and as a consequence who are we?" I think that's bang-on (although I'm a little jealous at how quickly she apprehended the point). But that's another day.

1 comment:

Dwight P. said...

Sister Camassia has offered a compliment and complaint about this post at her blog. Check it out -- along with the responses. As usual, she hits the nail on the head in focussing on my befuddlement about some of Bonhoeffer's teaching.

It's hear (I don't know how to place a link into the comments: