I finished the Memoir and Introduction sections of The Cost of Discipleship yesterday morning. I half-expected something to jump out at me to discuss with you droogs, but what I find instead is a need to discuss the context in which Bonhoeffer operated. Here’s why…
The introduction to TCOD discusses the fact that much of what the church makes of grace isn’t, in fact, grace (more on this in chapter one). The church makes much of dogma and doctrine; too much, in Bonhoeffer’s eyes, and without a doubt I find myself agreeing. For Bonhoeffer, a revival of discipleship points the disciple to Christ, to an overwhelming joy and rest from the weight of one’s burdens. It comforts the soul to return to Christ, yet, to listen to the critics of the church, the exact opposite happens when walking through the sanctuary doors (and all the jaded ex-churchgoers say Amen!). We spend so much time heaping dogma and right belief and theology on the shoulders of the broken and weary that it becomes no wonder that solace is nowhere to be found in the pews. Christ is REST for the weary, MENDING for the broken, and HOPE to the hopeless, a living liberator to whom the oppressed run to, not a textbook full of checklists of right beliefs one must subscribe to.
Here’s where the context comes in: Bonhoeffer operated in Germany during the rise and heights of Nazism, battling a government that spread its sickness into every facet of German society, including the churches. In the early days of Hitler’s regime, Bonhoeffer took to the airwaves to denounce the new government, and struggled against the regime every single day until his death at their hands in a concentration camp. For Bonhoeffer, there was no time to quibble over doctrine or theology; the very lives of the German people and those persecuted by the Nazis were at stake. When people suffer, theology will NOT save them; the hands and feet of Christ will, and Bonhoeffer preached this with great fervor to the Confessing Church which, unfortunately, seemed to care more about “her own existence and inherited rights rather than preaching against the war and saving the persecuted and oppressed.”
This is the key to understanding TCOD: Bonhoeffer wrote this book for a church that cared more about not looking like Nazis than it did fighting their actions. It wanted to enjoy the consolations of forgiveness without the utter dedication to the cause of Christ. Bonhoeffer’s not here to say theology has no meaning (the man earned two doctorates of theology by age 24, for Pete’s sake), or that we all need to pray the sinners prayer and start reading our Bible’s more; he’s saying that to dedicate one’s life to Christ is to lose it entirely to the poor and oppressed, championing their cause against the powers that threaten their lives and humanity. This book is not for the weary and broken, but for the comfortable and complacent, calling those in the pews out of their consolation into a broken world that needs them and needs Jesus.
What this sets the stage for, in my opinion, is to paint a picture of Bonhoeffer as a sort-of proto-liberation theologian of sorts. Though liberation theology terms such as the “preferential option for the poor” would have been alien to Bonhoeffer’s thinking, it fits very much with his experiences at Union Theological Seminary in New York. While not very impressed with his studies there (He once commented “there is no theology here”), he gained much experience from friends he made, as well as time spent at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem under Adam Clayton Powell Sr., a big proponent of social justice. It was here that Bonhoeffer said he began to see things “from below,” or from the perspective of the oppressed. No doubt the sermons Powell preached inspired Bonhoeffer’s disappointment with the church’s failure to act in times of oppression and inequality in society, issues very personal to him during his time in Germany.
In my opinion, this is the best context in which to understand Bonhoeffer: that of a person deeply dedicated to Christ and to those whom Christ was dedicated to. He wasn’t out to promote people accepting Jesus as their savior so they could get into Heaven so much as he was to get the church to actually act as Jesus taught them to. Matters of theology were important to him, no doubt, and the Scriptures were his lifeblood, but it seems to me that he was more concerned with the church acting on the teachings of Jesus and less so with talking about them.
BTW, here’s the edition of The Cost of Discipleship I’m using.