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Bonhoeffer and The Heart of Christian Living

Bonhoeffer and The Heart of Christian Living

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

One of the greatest challenges facing our nation, and facing American Christianity right now, is the struggle over how to deal with the anger, hatred, and violence claimed as a birthright by a substantial portion of the population. We witnessed this anger forcefully on January 6. Within Christianity, there is a perceived strengthening of Christian nationalism that makes a mockery of the word “Christian.” Yet. for too many people, this is the face of Christianity that is shown to the world, not the face of a Savior, healer, teacher, and redeemer. 

As I wept watching the ceremony honoring Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick in the Capitol Rotunda yesterday morning, I felt a wave of grief sweep over me, and I know I was not alone.  Even as he was being laid to rest, the initial shock of that January 6 has seemingly begun to wear off, with even some Congresspersons claiming that the assault really wasn’t as bad as all that, and some people who claim to be Christians espousing the right to spill innocent blood in the name of a country that they claim to have been founded on their version of “Christian principles.” Some of these same people claim to be “pro-life.”

It is at this time that we are called to remember the life and witness of the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose birth we celebrate on February 4 in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints. His willingness to live alongside the oppressed and to give up his life rather than turn a blind eye to fascist ideology that threatened to engulf the German Church mark him as a modern martyr.

Bonhoeffer wrote one of his greatest works on Matthew’s sermon on the Mount. In Chapters 9-11 of The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer addresses Jesus’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount that hatred for another person is the equivalent of murder. Bonhoeffer says this:

When we come before God with hearts full of contempt and unreconciled with our neighbors, we are, both individually and as a congregation, worshiping an idol. So long as we refused to love and serve our brothers and sisters and make them an object of contempt and let them harbor a grudge against me or the congregation, our worship and sacrifice will be acceptable to God. Not just the fact that I am angry, but the fact that there is somebody who is been hurt, damaged and disgraced by me, who ‘has a cause against me’, erects a barrier between me and God. Let us therefore as a Church examine ourselves, and see whether we have not often enough wronged our neighbors. Let us see whether we have tried to win popularity by falling in with the world’s hatred, its contempt and its [insulting treatment]. For if we do that we are murderers. (Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 144).

Bearing contempt for others cannot be made right just by offering a gift at the altar. No, that’s too easy, and avoids the very real work of reconciliation. The entire point of covenants and commandments is that we live in RELATIONSHIP with God and with each other. Relationships are holy things but also sacramental—for they help us evaluate how strong our commitment to living as God’s children really is. We show our commitment to God by how we treat others—even those to whom we are strangers, or those who are difficult to love. God knows sometimes WE can be difficult to love—but God loves us anyway. That’s called “grace,” and like the song says, it’s amazing.

Now at the same time, loving our neighbor can and must also include holding them accountable. Indeed, people who ask forgiveness and yet refuse to own up to and name the harm they have done are not penitent. They are, instead, self-serving. This calls to “unity” are hollow unless they are accompanied by honesty, humility, and repentance.

We must stop leaving unchallenged speech which denigrates others and seeks to divide. Yet it can never be repeated enough: one of the greatest blessings of Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian theology is our repeated emphasis on the importance of the concept of the incarnation—of how, in Jesus, God comes to take on our human nature and live as one of us, thereby hallowing our frail flesh and giving us the example of a truly enlightened, joy-filled, purposeful life. The emphasis on breaking bread together here on earth, humbly in awe at the spark of divine light that shines for the face of each and every one of us, of offering, blessing, and giving, is the heart of Christian life.

Our incarnational theology, proclaimed, embraced, and celebrated in our weekly observance of the Eucharist, reinforces the sacredness of the image of God that resides within all humanity, and indeed is shot throughout all of creation. That’s why anger, fear, jealousy, or prejudice that leads us to discount anyone’s life—no matter how much we may disagree with them or their actions—as less sacred and worthy of protection than our own lives or the lives of our family and friends is equivalent to the breaking of our covenant with God.

When we choose contempt rather than seeing the holiness and sacredness of any of our kindred people, we are choosing to let death and destruction reign in our hearts, rather than choosing life and love. God calls us step back from hurting other people through our own anger—even those who have hurt us. Whether they are worthy or not is not our concern. God also calls us to worship God alone, not some idol of individualism and base prejudices.

And that’s hard. But all real transformation—the choice of life over death—is of course not going to be easy. It WILL be worthwhile, and will bless us ourselves as much as it blesses those around us.

The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO.  She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.

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