Friday, 1 June 2012

Bonhoeffer's discipleship - both personal and social

“When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die”  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

The writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and pastor of the Confessing Church who was executed by the Nazis at the end of the Second World War, appeal to a wide cross-section of Christians. Those of a more conservative leaning generally tend to prefer his earlier books related to church community and discipleship which is captured in books like Act and Being and Discipleship which reflect the personal nature of our commitment to following Christ. Those of a more liberal leaning, on the other hand, prefer his later writings which reflect his thoughts while imprisoned by the Nazis in Tegel prison in Berlin collated in the book Letters and Papers from Prison which reflect a more social and philosophical response to the Christian call to discipleship.

Whilst Bonhoeffer himself conceded that he would have written Discipleship differently in one of his letters from prison, the dichotomy between the personal and social dimensions of discipleship (which still persists in the church today) is completely alien to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of following Christ.  The call and summons to personal obedience and commitment to Christ is both a call to ‘come and die’ (the only response to overcome the dominating power of the ego) and to follow Christ into a suffering world to proclaim the good news of God’s reign and to engage in acts of mercy and compassion.  The development in his Christology and Anthropology over this period from the strong to the weak Christ (whose sufferings we are called to share in a world come of age) is also important and reflects much of his own biography during a period of absolute crisis in Germany and Europe.  

Above all though, it is Bonhoeffer’s personal shift from what can be described as an academic (or phraseological) to a real faith based on his response to Jesus’ call for single-minded obedience that enables him to live out his Christian convictions in the contested and diminished public space of  Nazi Germany. Hence his criticism of ‘cheap grace’ and call to costly obedience in following Christ in the real world of politics and power disequilibria! Commenting on Bonhoeffer’s understanding of faith and discipleship as obedience leads Clifford Green in his informative book on Bonhoeffer to state:

‘This radical interpretation of faith as obedience to the command of Christ had an obvious social impact, and it is no wonder that Bonhoeffer was known during his lifetime as the author of Discipleship. In the context of Kirchenkampf and the life and death struggle with Nazism, it called Christians out of ersatz religious mythology and into a critical engagement with the demonic powers of that time. It was an uncompromising challenge to the church. Bonhoeffer surely would have agreed with Albert Camus’ formulation: “Christians should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and pay up personally.”’[1]

Someone else has referred to discipleship as the long road of obedience and we urgently need to recapture an understanding of both the personal and social dimensions of our call to be Christ followers in the real world of UK culture and politics today!

[1] Green, C., Bonhoeffer – A Theology of Sociality, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Rev Ed. 1999, p. 161