November 29, 2011 at 7:09 am, by Carl

I was recently reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.  Here is the writing of a man who moves from hope of release to slow realization that he will die for his faith, for his belief.  This man was determined to do what was right for Germany, even if that meant attempting to overthrow the government, even participate in some way in the death of the elected leader.  It is a shocking concept, to see one’s faith in the light of doing what is best for the society, even if that “best for the society” in some way is extreme.


In America, average citizens have largely abandoned any real concept that faith should have such an active role in real life.  From the time of the development of the idea of some separation of church and state, the old roles of the church as the “Social Glue” of society, first seen for Christendom in the 5th century with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, have largely been subsumed by the state itself.  Morals moved from the concept of stated by the Church and enforced by the state to being stated by the State and obeyed by the citizens (and the Church).   In this guise, Christianity (indeed all religious groups in the USA) has been largely marginalized in a way that provides two realms for religious people—a spiritual realm and a secular realm.  For many religious people, the spiritual realm is very small.  Many non-religious people would hope that the idea of a spiritual realm would fade in total.


Yet, those same non-religious people would miss the fact that all of the former power and social purpose of the church is still active in the world, only now through the state.  Often one hears non-religious people demanding, “don’t try to legislate morality” when some religious group or person attempts to bring an opinion about a moral issue like abortion.  Such a lament misses the point that ALL law legislates morality.


For Bonhoeffer, the Christian’s role is to be what Jesus demanded—salt and light in the world, leaven in the dough, a sweet aroma in the place where they live.  There can’t be any spiritual realm vs. secular realm in a Biblical worldview.  To be a Christian is to be active in the world.  Late in his life July 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote about this challenge in a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge:


“During the last year of so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity….I don’t mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection….I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith.  One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint or a converted sinner, or a churchman, a righteous man or an unrighteous man, a sick man or a healthy on.  By this-worldliness, I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.  In so doing we throw ourselves completely in the arms of God, taking seriously, no our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane.  That, I think, is faith.”


One month later, he created an outline for a book that obviously never was written (he was executed 8 months later) about Bonhoeffer’s view of Christianity, of the church.  In it, he continues the theme he had come to in his letter of July.  He is calling out to a German church that, in his mind, has hid its eyes from the excess evil of the government itself.  But, in his charge to his fellow Germans, the pastor has spoken powerfully to all Christians.


“The church is the church only when it exists for others.  To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need.  The clergy must live solely on free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling.  The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.  It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.  In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil.  It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty….it is not abstract argument, but [human] example that gives [the Church’s] word emphasis and power.”


Powerful words that need no extra commentary from me.  Let us pray that Christians and Christian churches become the kind of believers that Bonhoeffer urged.