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The Cost of Moral Leadership probes the spirituality of this modern Christian martyr and shows how his spiritual life formed him into an exceptional moral leader in a period known for grievous immorality. Geffrey Kelly and ...
The Cost of Moral Leadership probes the spirituality of this modern Christian martyr and shows how his spiritual life formed him into an exceptional moral leader in a period known for grievous immorality. Geffrey Kelly and F. Burton Nelson explore Bonhoeffer's spirituality in the context of his life story, his work for social justice, his Christocentric theology, his emphasis on discipleship, his preaching, and his prolific writing.
Strength for Moral Leadership
The church-community is so structured that wherever one of its members is, there too is the church community in its power, which means in the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit.... Whoever lives in love is Christ in relation to the neighbor.... Christians can and ought to act like Christ; ought to bear the burdens and sufferings of the neighbor.... It must come to the point that the weaknesses, needs, and sins of my neighbor afflict me as if they were my own, in the same way as Christ was afflicted by our sins.
One of the main reasons why readers find Bonhoeffer's writings so compelling lies in the inner strength and intensity of his relationship with Jesus Christ developed in the practical everyday life of a Christian community. When he wrote his account of his community-sustained spiritual life in the Finkenwalde seminary, he was not reminiscing about an agreeable, idyllic experience of a like-minded group of dedicated seminarians. He intended to share with others this experience, with its joys and trials, its mutual support and enduring friendships, that it might serve as a model for forming moral leaders and for the creation of new forms of churchcommunity throughout Germany. With vivid memories of how he and his seminarians were able to form a supportive community for each other in Finkenwalde, he wrote that what they accomplished could become a possibility for the church as a whole. In fact, it was entirely possible, he said, for the creation of communities like these to become a bona fide "mission entrusted to the church." In depicting that community in Life Together, Bonhoeffer also acknowledged the urgent need for the church to discover new and different ways to be the church. He thus emphasized the courageous following of Jesus Christ within a genuine community formed along the lines of the gospel, not the typical kind of church gatherings where strangers met and remained strangers, and whose dull blandness offered little resistance to the political ideology that had successfully gained the allegiance of most churchgoers. In Bonhoeffer's spirituality, effective moral leadership and one's personality strengths are supported in and through the sharing of convictions that takes place in genuine Christian communities where the teachings of Jesus Christ, not political ideology, should inspire believers.
Early Attempts to Form Community
From his biographer we learn that Bonhoeffer harbored a desire to live in and help shape a Christian community from his first days as a student at Berlin University. He was intrigued then, as he was in the years that ensued, by the mystery of how God in Jesus Christ becomes present in and among those who gather to profess their faith together and celebrate through Word and sacrament their oneness in the Lord. His earliest attempts to put into practice his ideas on Christian community, however, began in the circle of his admiring students. At Berlin University his seminars, evening discussions, and country excursions brought him into closer contact with likeminded students, some of whom later became his colleagues in the church struggle. Several would enter the seminary to study under him. Together with these students of theology he organized frequent weekend trips to a rented cottage in the hilly countryside well beyond the outskirts of Berlin, where they could discuss theology, work into their day some spiritual exercises, and enjoy long walks and pleasant hours of listening to Bonhoeffer's collection of the spirituals that had so enthralled him during his pastoral ministry at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. During these times apart from the hubbub of university life, these young men thought seriously about how to form enduring Christian communities through a structured spiritual life and assist people in need. Though these beginnings in community life were informal and spontaneous, they provided some of the sparks for the creation of the kind of community life that Bonhoeffer presented in Life Together with a view to reanimate the Christian churches in Germany and withstand the lure of Nazism.
The events of the church struggle that began in earnest in 1933 were to hinder Bonhoeffer from developing this early, more casual experience of community with his students into something more permanent. Yet by the end of 1932, most of the conceptual underpinnings of the community life he would develop in detail in Life Together were already in place. Aside from his analysis of Christian church community in his Berlin dissertations, there are additional declarations in his lectures on the nature of the church and in the conferences of that period that show how the idea of belonging to a genuine Christian community continued to dominate his thinking. Bonhoeffer was interested not in merely theologizing about church, but in being part of a church community committed to God's Word in service of others, particularly society's unfortunates, and willing to make the sacrifices embodied in truthfully following Jesus Christ, even though that way might lead to the cross. He left no doubt about his desire to enter into a community life that, with the courage of Jesus Christ and in obedience to Jesus' teachings, could live out the gospel more intensely and thus cope more courageously with the crises then overwhelming the German people and their churches. In hindsight, one wonders whether the slaughter that took place in the war and the death camps could have been avoided had the Christians of Germany professed their faith in truly Christian communities like that directed by Bonhoeffer.
In his lectures on "The Nature of the Church" presented during the summer semester of 1932, Bonhoeffer succeeded in developing along more practical lines the finely honed analyses of church that one reads in Sanctorum Communio. The language of his lectures is obviously trimmed of the heaviness of his doctoral dissertation, though he speaks essentially of the same reality. The church, he argued in these lectures, is not called to be a tiny, sacred haven from secular turmoil, but like Jesus himself it has to be a visible presence in the midst of the world. Everyday life, not some heavenly realm, is the only locus of church life for Bonhoeffer, even though this way of understanding its mission could propel the church into controversial areas of conflict with government. The church required visibility for the carrying out of its Christ-given mandate to be salt and light for the world. To his audience of university students Bonhoeffer excoriated the church for its tendency to seek out the privileged places while trying to be everywhere and ending up "being nowhere," neglecting the very ones that the church was called to serve. This church was to be neither a church clamoring for its privileges nor a church totally absorbed into the secularisms of the day. It was called instead to be the community of Jesus Christ serving the world, yet being free enough from the world to oppose its secular idolatries and to be engaged in practical deeds to protect the vulnerable and to defend the victims of harsh governmental policies. It is not surprising that students of Bonhoeffer's thought today see so many parallels in his challenges to the churches of Germany and their own churches' efforts to promote, peace, justice, and liberation among the people they represent and among those who have no one to speak up for them.
In his lectures at the university one can see formulated, even before Bonhoeffer's experiences of community life at Finkenwalde, his conviction that the church had to be thoroughly involved in and for the world, and not given over to forms of ecclesiastical escapism from the problems that bedevil ordinary people. Fortified with the Word of Jesus Christ, this same church was likewise obligated never to yield to the popular ideologies that paraded themselves as wholly congruent with Christian faith. He told his students that this was not an "ideal church, but a reality in the world, a bit of the world reality." Adding that this church can never be reduced to a domesticated abstraction, he went on to say, "this means that it is subjected to all the weakness and suffering of the world. The church can, at times, like Christ himself, be without a roof over its head.... Real worldliness consists in the church's being able to renounce all privileges and all its property but never Christ's Word and the forgiveness of sins. With Christ and the forgiveness of sins to fall back on, the church is free to give up everything else." These words to his students in 1932 would find their echo in one of his last writings from prison, the "Outline for a Book" that promised to be a "stocktaking of Christianity" with an exploration of "the real meaning of Christian faith." There, in the last year of his life, he dared the church to be like Jesus Christ and to peg its existence solely to the service of others. The church, he said, should make a start by giving away "all its property to those in need." The renunciation of privileges, the liberating Word of Jesus Christ, and the forbearance needed to forgive sins would also be in the forefront of Bonhoeffer's concerns for his community of seminarians. His words on the self-sacrifices required of the churches continued to reverberate in his seminary lectures on following Jesus Christ, whom he regarded as the binding force that held the Christian community together in fidelity to the gospel and in mutual service to the Word of God.
Most of Bonhoeffer's theological reflections on Christian community focused on the question of how God's gift of faith to individual believers assumes concrete form in a world of astounding diversity. He also pondered the question of how the individuals whose personalities shape their communities undergo a spiritual growth through the sharing of their faith and through their mutual service and forbearance. One's faith in Jesus Christ expressed through the bonding of Christians with each other was more than an abstract, rationalized theory to Bonhoeffer the young student, and later to Bonhoeffer the mature theologian drawn into a bitter struggle over whether the churches of Germany were truly representing Jesus Christ in the Hitler era. Hitler's popularity with the masses generated a dilemma for the churches. Afraid to contradict what the people so enthusiastically applauded, in spite of their own misgivings, most of the churches went along with the popular mood. Bonhoeffer was convinced that the failure of the churches to become prophetic communities contributed to the perverse attractiveness of National Socialism. He criticized the churches for being turned in on themselves, lost in a kind of sanctimonious narcissism. When composing his doctoral dissertation he complained of a very obvious example of that self-centeredness, namely, that the churches had disdained the poor working class. He warned that any renewal of the church would succeed only if it could win over these workers who were then drifting into the camp of Bolshevism with nowhere else to turn. These same workers would later fall into the ideological clutches of National Socialism. Those in the working class, he argued, dreaded only their isolation, and longed only for community. He believed the churches had, with disastrous consequences, failed to extend their compassionate outreach to those at the lowest level of German society.
Community in and through the Person of Jesus Christ
It comes as no surprise that Bonhoeffer's reflections on community converge on the person of Jesus Christ, whom he depicts as gracing people in their common humanity with dignity and a sense of purpose. He was endlessly trying to understand where the present reality of Jesus Christ could be found and invoked in that turbulent world. In Bonhoeffer's theology, the human person always exists in some form of relationship, whether with itself, with others who become part of an individual's personal growth, or with the communities and associations that become integrated into one's social life. He does not hesitate to claim that the moral demands of Jesus define all relationships.
Bonhoeffer's unwavering Christocentrism moved him further to assert that what may be the strength of all other forms of community becomes qualitatively different in communion with Jesus Christ within the Christian church community. His most extensive study of the Christian church community roams widely around his claims that human life itself can be understood only through one's social relations with others in those communities which shape one's personal world of meaning. In like manner he sees God's revelation, the ultimate source of that meaning, reaching people only through their corporeal and communal reality. In Jesus Christ, God not only entered human history, but in a striking way God has directed that history by becoming inextricably bound up with human beings in all their concreteness. Bonhoeffer asserts his conviction that Christ's role in human history lies in the divinely enabled integration of our personal and social existence by standing as our vicarious representative at the point where human community has been disrupted by sin and healed through redemptive forgiveness. Jesus, in Bonhoeffer's theology of the "communion of saints," is the Lord through whom God's love, the foundation and binding force of all humanizing community, overcomes sin and brings about the reconciliation of individuals with themselves and with others, even those at the farthest reaches of one's personal existence: one's enemies.
If, as Bonhoeffer insists in his analysis of the church, Christ's presence does indeed transform communities into spiritual centers for God's healing power in the world, then through Christ God's Word for the world assumes not mere hazy visibility but incarnate nearness within the church. God's otherness is not, he contends, that of an eternal being aloof in a distant heaven. Rather, God has become in Jesus a Father God for people in the context of their social existence as followers of Jesus Christ. Christians in church communities are called to reflect in their brotherly and sisterly love for others the everlasting relationship of God to God's people in the course of human history. In turn, Christian communities become the stories of how God in Jesus Christ has entered into a unique solidarity with human beings. That is the immediate context for Bonhoeffer's claim that to be truly the church, those who claim to follow Jesus Christ must become themselves "Christ existing as the church community."
Bonhoeffer writes glowingly of Christ's vicarious action as the soul of that community of believers whose oneness would be structured by unconditional, other-centered love, their living and acting for others rather than for themselves. It is this self-sacrificing love that shapes the community into concrete resemblance to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer's distinction between being with and being for the others in community is apropos here. The churches of Germany were filled with parishioners who were merely occupying pews in proximity one to another; very few were there in any real sense to form a genuine community in love and service for the others. It has been said that in American churches, people come together without knowing each other, they live without loving each other, and they die without grieving for one another. A cynical statement, to be sure, but with an element of truth if the sole extent of parish life is simply to be bodily present during the Sunday services. For Bonhoeffer, the Christian community must proceed to the next stage, where the believers are there in order to be with Christ as they become Christ for others. He writes of that stage with an evident passion: "Whoever lives in love is Christ in relation to the neighbor. ... Christians can and ought to act like Christ; ought to bear the burdens and sufferings of the neighbor.... It must come to the point that the weaknesses, needs, and sins of my neighbor afflict me as if they were my own, in the same way as Christ was afflicted by our sins." His later statements on the necessity of forbearance have their foundation in this powerful exhortation to act like Christ toward one's fellow Christians.
In Bonhoeffer's analysis of the "communion of saints" we see too his laying of the groundwork for advocating actions on behalf of the oppressed. Bonhoeffer writes glowingly of Christ's vicarious action as the basis of that communion of people whose oneness would be structured by unconditional love, living and acting for others rather than for themselves. The attitude of giving the Christlike service he idealizes here can never be restricted to one's own circle of like-minded believers. Bonhoeffer sees the Christian community more as the vortex of that new existence in which sociality would be delivered from the evil of those human introversions that destroy community. As we will see, he returns to this theme time and again in Life Together.
Excerpted from The Cost of Moral Leadership by Geffrey B. Kelly F. Burton Nelson Copyright © 2002 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
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|1||The Life and Martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Chapter from the Modern Acts of the Apostles||1|
|2||Compassion and Action for Justice: Bonhoeffer's Christocentric Spirituality||36|
|3||The Holy Spirit and Christian Discipleship: The Prophetic Dimension of Moral Leadership||51|
|4||Bonhoeffer's Spirituality of Liberation: Solidarity with the Oppressed||83|
|5||The Spirituality That Dares Peace: The Great Venture in Moral Leadership||100|
|6||Discipleship and the Cross: Following Christ in Bonhoeffer's Spirituality||129|
|7||Christian Community: Strength for Moral Leadership||145|
|8||Bonhoeffer's Spirituality and God's Vulnerability: Compassion for Those in Suffering and Sorrow||173|
|9||Preaching the Spiritual Life: Bonhoeffer's Sermons and Insights on Moral Leadership||187|
|10||Glimpses into the Soul of a Moral Leader: Bonhoeffer's Prayers and Poems||226|
|Index of Names||292|
|Index of Subjects||296|
|Index of Scripture References||299|