Tuesday, September 01, 2009

An Introduction to Bonhoeffer's Life Together

“Life Together”
A Chapel Address by Brian T. Hartley
Greenville College
August 31, 2009

Will Willimon, who served for many years as Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, relates the story of a student who came to visit him in his office after a life-changing experience in Philadelphia under the direction of Dr. Tony Campolo. The young man told Willimon that Campolo had gotten everyone fired up about Jesus, herded them onto several buses and proceeded to drive them deep into the heart of the urban core. What had once been a raucous, hand-clapping, back-slapping group degenerated into a bunch of quiet, scared, college students. When the bus pulled up in front of one of the worst-looking housing projects in Phily, Tony jumped on the bus, opened the door, and called out, “Alright gang, get out there and tell ‘em about Jesus. I’ll be back at five o’clock.”

“We made our hesitant way off the bus,” the student said, “stood there on the corner and had prayer, then spread out. I walked down the sidewalk and stopped before a huge tenement house. I gulped, said a prayer, and ventured inside. There was a terrible odor. Windows were out. No lights in the hall. I walked up one flight of stairs toward the door where I heard a baby crying. I knocked on the door.”

“’Who is it?’ said a loud voice inside. Then the door opened a crack and a woman holding a naked baby peered out at me. ‘What you want?’ she asked in a harsh, mean voice. I told her that I wanted to tell her about Jesus. With that she swung the door open and began cursing all the way down the hall, down the flight of steps, backing me onto the sidewalk. I felt terrible. ‘Look at me,’ I said to myself. Some Mr. Christian I am. How in the world could somebody like me think that I could tell about Jesus?

I sat down on the curb and cried. Then I looked up and noticed a store on the corner, windows all boarded up, bars over the door. I went to that store, walked in, looked around and remembered: the baby had no diapers and the mother was smoking. I bought a box of disposable diapers and a pack of cigarettes. I walked back to the tenement house, said a prayer, walked in, walked up the flight of stairs, gulped, stood before the door and knocked.

“’Who is it?’ said the voice inside. When she opened the door I slid that box of diapers and those cigarettes in. She looked at them, looked at me, and said, ‘Come in.’ I stepped into the dingy apartment. ‘Sit down,’ she commanded. I sat down on the old sofa and began to play with the baby. I put a diaper on the baby, even though I have never put one on before. When the woman offered me a cigarette, even though I don’t smoke, I smoked. I stayed there all afternoon, talking, playing with the baby, listening to the woman.

About four o’clock, the woman looked at me and said, ‘Let me ask you something. What’s a nice college boy like you doing in a place like this?’ So I told her everything I knew about Jesus. It took me maybe five minutes. Then she said, ‘Pray for me and my baby that we can make it out of here alive.’ So I prayed. That evening, after we were all back on the bus, Tony asked, ‘Well, gang, did any of you get to tell ‘em about Jesus. And I said, ‘I not only got to tell ‘em about Jesus, I met Jesus. I went out to save somebody, and I ended up getting saved. I became a disciple (The Intrusive Word, 75-77).

Like the young man in Willimon’s story, many of us may believe that we wield the keys to the kingdom—that God has somehow seen fit to bestow upon us special knowledge with which we must somehow save the world. In that same vein, we believe in an individualistic, lone-ranger Christianity where, having once whispered a prayer we have now become God’s gift to humanity. As such, we march off confidently like the soldiers in World War I, only to find ourselves dispirited in the trenches of the real world—trying to make sense of what could have possibly gone wrong. What has gone wrong is that we have a misconception of what the Christian faith is all about and we have confused the kingdom of our Lord with our own petty empire-building. We, who have gone out in an attempt to convert others, are greatly in need of conversion ourselves.

In the first of a planned five-book series, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, Eugene Peterson claims that, “Getting saved is easy; becoming a community is difficult—damnably difficult,” (250). Having just come off a lifetime’s project of translating the entirety of the Bible, perhaps no one has a better insight into this theme than does Peterson. For, it is clear as one reads through the story of both the people of Israel and the emerging Christian community that our call to be “little Christ’s” as Martin Luther suggested, is oftentimes thwarted by our own misperception and misunderstanding. Those of us who use the lectionary on a regular basis, are all too aware of this in the readings this year from Mark’s gospel where the disciples appear, all-too-often, to bear more resemblance to the Three Stooges squabbling amongst themselves than to the saintly alabaster figurines with which they are portrayed in medieval cathedral art.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose book, Life Together, forms the basis for our thinking this semester, came to understand this difference between some kind of initial encounter with the gospel and the necessity of being converted into a Christian community. A classically-trained, brilliant, young German theologian, Bonhoeffer did his academic work in the wake of the destruction of the modern optimism which had characterized life in Europe prior to the Great War. That war resulted in millions of deaths and the loss of an entire generation—mostly men who were just slightly older than he. While we rightly mourn the loss of lives on 9/11 or in the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the casualties in both were miniscule compared to what Europe lost in the first quarter of the last century. This unprecedented slaughter by those who called themselves “Christian nations,” led to a severe crisis of faith from which the church in Europe has never fully recovered.

The young Bonhoeffer knew that the tired clichés of the past, the old paradigm for living one’s life, would no longer work. So, in the early 1930’s he began to beckon several of his more serious students at the University of Berlin to a seminary community in Finkenwalde. I picture the young Bonhoeffer as being someone like my colleagues Kent Dunnington, Lesley Allen, or Christina Smerick, who seem to ooze a kind of charisma that is attractive to impressionable students. Bonhoeffer’s seminars, his open-ended evening discussions, and field trips, all attracted a number of students, many of whom became his closest colleagues in the nascent church struggle. In 1932, these young theology students began to organize frequent weekend trips to a rented cottage in the country to “talk theology,” to engage in rudimentary spiritual exercises, to take long walks in the woods, and to listen to Bonhoeffer’s record collection. The young professor was absolutely enthralled with two forms of classic Americana: the emerging jazz scene and the old African American spirituals. In fact, he had been tempted a few years earlier to accept a post at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he had stood out like a sore thumb at Sunday worship in predominantly black churches where segregation was still deeply imbedded in American culture.

As Bonhoeffer and his younger charges listened to records, cavorted through the countryside, and joined together for prayer and reflection, they began to think seriously about how to form authentic Christian communities through a structured spiritual life into which would be integrated appropriate forms of service to people in need. Though these beginnings in community life were informal and spontaneous, they provided the earliest sparks for the creation of the sense of community which was to be front and center on his agenda for the next decade or so. Bonhoeffer had grown restless with those who spoke of Christianity only from their academic ivory towers, but he was also concerned about the “no-nothingism” that was allowing groups like the Nazis to make inroads into the national church. From this point on, he was interested not merely in reflecting upon the church but in being a part of a church-setting committed to God’s Word, accepting the self-sacrifice embodied in the cross of Jesus Christ. His longing for a type of community that was both courageous and obedient would prove fortuitous in the emergence of the crises which came to face the German nation and the world at large over the next ten to fifteen years.

As one reads through Bonhoeffer’s opening chapter, it is clear that he believed that uniting with others for a life together under the Word of God was not an option for some (that is, a kind of self-selected monastic model), but was a necessity for all who called themselves by the name of Christ. This community of Jesus Christ, according to his work, contains three essential requirements for life together.

First, Christians need one another because they represent and authenticate the origin of salvation outside of ourselves, as those who are given to us and yet are not under our control. That is, our brothers and sisters in Christ become the objective bearers and proclaimers of the divine Word of forgiveness and grace. This flies in the face of some of the methodologies which are popular today in both evangelism and discipleship which smack of both prideful hubris and manipulation. If we see each human being as made in the image of God, we come to realize that ours is not necessarily the task to deliver the Word to them and walk away, but to learn to listen carefully and thoughtfully for God in and through the other.

Sometimes those of us who are something of control freaks recognize this need only when all of the familiar props are torn away from us. I have with me today a major league baseball signed by a group of theologians with whom I was ensconced at Wheaton College a few summers ago. I was at that point where I was beginning to write my dissertation and felt totally overwhelmed by the task before me. That night, several of us caught the train into the city and made our way over to watch the White Sox do battle with my favorite team, the Toronto Blue Jays. There we sat, a group of up-tight theologians of every denominational brand and stripe, in the midst of a drunken crowd in south Chicago, waiting and hoping for a foul ball to come our way. The only home run hit that night was by Jose Cruz, #23 for the Blue Jays, who just so happened to foul one off in our direction. While a big bad Southern Baptist brother blocked those to the right, Jeff Kisner, my Presbyterian friend held off a horde of evil-smelling Brewskies to the left. Diving under the seats, I retrieved the ball for our fearless leader, the late Dr. Robert Webber, as a token of our esteem. On the last day of the conference, Bob and my friend, Steve Moroney, who teaches at Taylor, proudly pulled out that ball, signed by one and all as a sign of encouragement to me as I did research and wrote over the next three summers. If you read the dedication at the front of my dissertation, you will see a whole host of names of brothers and sisters without whom I could never have finished that task.

Second, just as salvation comes to us from Christ alone, so community with God and with one another is restored only through Christ. As the origin and source of all community, Christ remains the mediator between God and human beings. In that capacity, Christ is also the mediator between human beings themselves. When we try and establish community on our own, we discover nothing but abject failure. If you take a course with my colleague, Theresa Holden Blue, you will find that there were many attempts at community in 19th century America. In fact, one such utopian community, New Harmony, is just across the border from us in Indiana as you traverse Interstate 64. Reading the records of these communities is a reminder of how difficult it is for people to simply learn to get along unless there is a point of reference. The early church discovered such a point of reference in Christ as they devoted themselves to prayer, the Eucharist, and to the mutual sharing of their goods. If one attempts to establish community based only on human energy, the result is always failure.

Third, the nature of the church as community is encountered in the Bible under the metaphor of the “body of Christ.” This presupposes that all Christians are chosen and called to community with God in and through Jesus Christ, the one who initiates and represents the new humanity. Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us,” (25). This means that the one who wants more than what Christ offers is looking for some kind of extraordinary spiritual experience grounded, not in the reality of the crucified Christ as he is made known in the community, but in some ideal, what Bonhoeffer calls “psychic,” reality.

This leads Bonhoeffer on a rather lengthy excursus through the second half of the first chapter where he continues to maintain that, Christian brotherhood is not a human ideal, but a spiritual reality. At the heart of his argument is the fact that this community is one brought together by Christ and grounded in Christ; as such, it includes what I oftentimes refer to as a motley band of rejects. One of my favorite illustrations of this is the classic 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz,” where four unlikely characters are brought together in order to accomplish a task. Individually, each has a fatal flaw which threatens to undo him or her; but, collectively, this almost comical group is able to do what none of them individually could accomplish. As they learn to trust one another’s gifts, to employ their strengths—not for themselves, but for the good of the group—they become not a random group of improbable friends, but a divine “communitas.”

Likewise, this year, you may find yourself thrown together with other individuals not of your own choosing. Whether it is that guy lined up next to you on the football field or that pesky girl who lives across from you, you do not have the human power within yourself to build community with him or her. As Bonhoeffer points out: “Human love lives by uncontrolled and uncontrollable dark desires; spiritual love lives in the clear light of service ordered by the truth,” (37). Our human inclination will always propel us in the direction of sectarianism, not fellowship and forgiveness. In contrast, spiritual love does everything in and through the cross of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take pleasure, as Bonhoeffer says, “in pious, human fervor and excitement,” but, “it will rather meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to leave him alone with this Word (the living Christ) for a long time, willing to release him again in order that Christ may deal with him,” (36).

Bonhoeffer’s writings reveal that his understanding of Life Together was not some pie-in-the-sky seclusion of the cloistered life or some miraculous super-spiritual highly-charged assembly for worship. The experiment which he put forth was one that would have to ring true in everyday life, not just with the ones who are like us, but even in the midst of our enemies. He was especially cautious of those who developed a false sense of community through retreats of short duration. “Nothing is easier,” he said, “than to stimulate the glow of fellowship in a few days of life together, but nothing is more fatal to the sound, sober brotherly fellowship of everyday life,” (39). In this respect, his warning is analogous to what I oftentimes say to engaged couples. To play a bit on Peterson’s words: Getting married is easy, building a marriage of mutual love and support is hard—damnably hard.

In the Exodus story narrated in our Bibles, there are 14 references to the people’s incapacity for community in the first three months of their salvation. Quarrels and arguments were the order of the day. I find great comfort in discovering that “these saved people don’t know the first thing about getting along with each other,” (Peterson, 251). Throughout this coming year, whether it is your first or your last, I hope that you will remember Peterson’s words and begin to embrace your calling to the cruciform journey. I pray that you will discover at Greenville College a home, a safe place, where you will be valued for who and whose you are. This can be a reality if you understand that this requires learning to die to self and live to Christ. And, this “life together,” this grace gift from God, can and will transform your understanding of the God we serve and the challenge to be peace-makers and kingdom-builders in the restoration of all of Creation.