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Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Reclamation of a Christian Vision and Practice
"Forgiving doesn't mean risk your life." This is the headline in a recent column written by Andrew M. Greeley for Religious News Service. Greeley's focus is domestic violence, more specifically the dangers of Christians telling women that they ought always to forgive their abusers. Greeley writes, "Sure, forgive him because he is not in full control of his own actions. But forgiveness does not require you to risk your own life or that of your children. Quite the contrary, self-esteem and concern for your own selfhood (a gift of God) constrains you to send him on his way before it is too late."
Greeley's advice offers an important corrective to rhetoric about forgiveness that perpetuates and exacerbates problems rather than addresses them. People caught in situations of extreme violence, including abuse, do not need to be told, indeed should not be told, that they should be willing to die, even if this is couched in abstract ideals of forgiveness or of sacrifice or of self-denial. Such observations and injunctions, often grounded in Christians' misreadings of their own Scripture, perpetuate the suffering and prevent the sufferers from being able to respond appropriately.
At the same time, however, Greeley's advice too easily invites continued misunderstandings about forgiveness. For in important ways, Christian forgiveness does require our "death." To be sure, not just any death is required, nor should that requirement result in collusion with those who diminish and destroy human life. But Christian forgiveness requires our death, understood in the specific form and shape of Jesus Christ's dying — and rising. For as we participate in Christ's dying and rising, we die to our old selves and find a future not bound by the past. The focus of this dying and rising is the Christian practice of baptism, and it also involves a lifelong practice of living into that baptism, of daily dying to old selves and living into the promise of an embodied new life. This, at least, is the claim Paul makes in his letter to the Romans (6:1-11).
Paul's focus in this passage is not on forgiveness per se. Even so, the larger horizon of his argument in Romans suggests that the practice of forgiveness receives its primary intelligibility from Christ's death and resurrection and that Christians learn to embody forgiveness as a baptismal community — indeed, as the Body of Christ. According to Paul, those who have been baptized have entered into the community defined by whomever or whatever they are baptized into; to have been baptized into Christ, as Paul characterizes it in Romans 6:3, is to have entered into the community ruled and defined by Christ — more specifically, by Christ's death and resurrection. According to Paul, baptism is a training in dying — specifically to sin, to the old self — so that people may be raised to newness of life. Further, this new life is given its shape by the Kingdom that Jesus announced and enacted.
That is, as they are initiated into the practices of God's Kingdom, the forgiving grace of Jesus Christ gives people a new perspective on their histories of sin and evil, of their betrayals and their being betrayed, of their vicious cycles of being caught as victimizers and victims, so that they can bear to remember the past well in hope for a new future. But this is not simply a release from the past; it is also freedom for holiness, a holiness that requires prophetic protest and action directed at any situations where people's lives are being diminished or destroyed. Paradigmatically, such forgiveness in the pursuit of holiness is embodied through the practices of Christian community. That is, the new life of holiness signified by baptism is found and lived in communities of God's Kingdom: People learn to embody forgiveness by becoming part of Christ's Body.
The danger in Greeley's advice is that he dissociates forgiveness from any sense of death and new life, specifically that found in the practice of baptism. Consequently, he diminishes the cost of Christ's forgiveness as well as the hope that is entailed thereby. By situating forgiveness as a largely symbolic gesture (done because "he is not in full control of his own actions"), Greeley fails to grapple with the ways in which Christian forgiveness might provide a more radical critique of situations of abuse and a more radical hope for the future than his perspective allows. It can be so as people embody forgiveness in the specific practices and friendships of God's inbreaking reign.
This suggests that people are mistaken if they think of Christian forgiveness primarily as absolution from guilt; the purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of communion, the reconciliation of brokenness. Neither should forgiveness be confined to a word to be spoken, a feeling to be felt, or an isolated action to be done; rather, it involves a way of life to be lived in fidelity to God's Kingdom. Baptism provides the initiation into God's story of forgiving and reconciling love, definitively embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In response, people are called to embody that forgiveness by unlearning patterns of sin and struggling for reconciliation wherever there is brokenness.
That is, forgiveness is at once an expression of a commitment to a way of life, the cruciform life of holiness in which people cast off their "old" selves and learn to live in communion with God and with one another, and a means of seeking reconciliation in the midst of particular sins, specific instances of brokenness. In its broadest context, forgiveness is the way in which God's love moves to reconciliation in the face of sin. This priority of forgiveness is a sign of the peace of God's original Creation as well as the promised eschatological consummation of that Creation in the Kingdom, and also a sign of the costliness by which such forgiveness is achieved. In this sense, then, forgiveness indicates the ongoing priority of the Church's task to offer the endlessly creative and gratuitous gift of new life in the face of sin and brokenness.
Christian forgiveness involves a high cost, both for God and for those who embody it. It requires the disciplines of dying and rising with Christ, disciplines for which there are no shortcuts, no handy techniques to replace the risk and vulnerability of giving up "possession" of one's self, which is done through the practices of forgiveness and repentance. This does not involve self-denial, nor the "death" of selves through annihilation. Rather, it is learning to see one's self and one's life in the context of communion.
Those who embody forgiveness discover that one of the chief obstacles to overcome is the tendency to see one's own life as something to be either possessed or simply given over to another's possession; too often, the result is that people cling to their power or even their powerlessness. Greeley's formulation of forgiveness presupposes this sense of "possession" of the self; by contrast, baptism shows that our selves are given over to God through the Church, and in so doing we receive new life.
That is, the claim that selves are not to be "possessed" receives its shape and focus from a very specific claim about the Triune God, whose character is found in self-giving (and hence self-receiving) communion, and whose Creation and promised Kingdom are also characterized by communion. However, in the face of sin and evil, Christ's costly forgiveness is necessary if communion is to be restored, love realized, reconciliation achieved. For, after all, at the heart of the Christian doctrine of God is the conviction that human beings are created for such communion, for relations of friendship with one another and, most determinatively, with the Other who is God.
Unfortunately, the cost of forgiveness is too high for many people. Consequently, they invent and turn to cheaper versions of forgiveness, ones that will enable them to "feel" or "think" better about themselves — or simply to "cope" with their situation — without having to engage in struggles to change or transform the patterns of their relationships. Such versions of cheap, "therapeutic" forgiveness create the illusion of caring about the quality of human relations while simultaneously masking the ways in which people's lives are enmeshed in patterns of destructiveness. Indeed, such versions of forgiveness often exacerbate human destructiveness precisely because their illusions and masking create a moral and political vacuum.
Conversely, others are convinced that the cost of forgiveness cannot be high enough, because forgiveness is at best ineffective and at worst immoral. That is, human sin and evil are such that there can be no effective forgiveness; human beings are enmeshed in violence, and the exercise of violence is the only effective means of coping with life as people experience it. On such a view, the necessity of violence can be either celebrated or mourned; further, people can respond either by seeking to dominate through the deployment of violence, or they can seek to foster community by minimizing the force and effects of violence. But in either case, it is assumed that forgiveness cannot effectively respond to the pervasive darkness that characterizes the world. At most, forgiveness can offer private, personal consolation amid the more pervasive and public necessity of force and violence; any significant politics of forgiveness has been eclipsed by the darkness of the world.
Ironically, these attempts to evade or deny the cost of forgiveness end up incurring other, more deadly costs. They are the costs that animated Greeley's commentary, costs of diminished and annihilated selves, of people afflicting and/or suffering untold physical and emotional violence and destruction. Even so, we do not avoid death by trivializing or denying the cost of forgiveness; rather, the furies of death are thereby unleashed in horrifying ways. We need the schooling provided by the Triune God so that we can learn to envision and to embody costly forgiveness.
Thus far the focus here has been on baptismal death as the context for describing the vocation of dying to old selves and rising to newness of life; however, Christian forgiveness may also require of us our death in other ways. Insofar as baptism is a training in dying, it sets us on the course of the discipleship of the cross. In some situations, the struggle to embody Christian forgiveness may cost us our life.
Such was the case with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who struggled against the twin dangers of cheapened forgiveness and the eclipse of forgiveness in the midst of the Nazi terror and the anemic responses to that terror offered by Christians in Germany. His struggles came to mark his life, his thought, and eventually his tragic death at the hands of the Nazis.
Bonhoeffer provided a powerful witness to the cost of forgiveness. He also reclaimed the theological significance of a Christian vision and practice of forgiveness, though his own conceptions were neither fully developed nor wholly adequate. Even so, his witness and reclamation resisted both the false light of a therapeutic forgiveness and also the frightening possibility that pervasive violence and oppression had created a darkness that simply overwhelms.
Given his family background and the time and culture into which he was born, however, it could hardly have been predicted that Bonhoeffer would provide such a powerful witness to the cost of forgiveness. After all, Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 into a comfortable middle-class German family. The family was composed primarily of diverse types of professionals; it was urbane, cultured, and nominally religious. Bonhoeffer's father was a noted psychiatrist and professor at the University of Berlin.
Bonhoeffer was born into a Germany that had been profoundly influenced by the Reformation, by the Enlightenment, and by the liberal Protestant theology of the nineteenth century. Indeed, Adolf von Harnack, one of the primary exponents of liberal theology, was a family friend and neighbor and one of Bonhoeffer's earliest theology teachers. Further, Christian practices and understandings of forgiveness had been fragmented and transmuted by the legacy of the medieval period, the debates of the Reformation, the intellectual challenges of the Enlightenment, and the reformulations of liberal theology. The dawn of the twentieth century was hardly a propitious time for sustaining a coherent Christian account of forgiveness.
Yet Bonhoeffer resisted, and sought to transform, the legacies that he inherited. The man who at the time of Hitler's seizure of power in 1932-33 was seen by many as a bright hope for academic theology was martyred by the Nazis shortly before the collapse of the Third Reich in 1945. Many people know Bonhoeffer best for Life Together, his "devotional" book on Christian community, for his polemic against "cheap grace" in The Cost of Discipleship, and for his personal martyrdom. Even so, though these books are theologically important and his death is an illuminating example, Bonhoeffer's theological legacy and personal testimony to the cost of Christian forgiveness are not limited to those writings or to the details of his death.
Bonhoeffer sought to reclaim the theological centrality of forgiveness in a world where cheap grace and privatized forgiveness had too often become the norm. As he confronted the Nazis in his life and in his death, he had to face the challenge that forgiveness is ineffective — that only force, and more particularly violence, is effective. So Bonhoeffer also sought to affirm the theological possibility of forgiveness in a world where God's grace had seemingly been eclipsed.
In what follows I neither examine exhaustively Bonhoeffer's theological arguments nor summarize the details of his life. Rather I describe aspects of Bonhoeffer's life and thought in a way that displays his reclamation of a Christian vision and practice of forgiveness, and specifically the costliness of forgiveness, in the face of daunting challenges. To be sure, Bonhoeffer's own life and thought are inextricably linked to his Protestant heritage and commitments; yet they are of ecumenical significance in pointing toward the tasks that face us in reconstructing the full theological significance of Christian forgiveness. That is, while Bonhoeffer's struggles, criticisms, and constructive proposals must be understood in the context of his own historical, ecclesial, and political situations, they also point us toward crucial themes and issues that will need to be more fully explicated in the rest of this book.
Excerpted from Embodying Forgiveness by L. Gregory Jones Copyright © 1995 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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