Violence demands a response, and those who must respond hastily assume that the proper response to violence is more violence. But as followers of the Crucified One we respond to violence by nonviolently pointing to the One who bore the ultimate consequence of the wretchedness of humanity. We testify in word and deed to a radical nonviolence that is to be the new ethos of the created order.

In Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts that the “retribution” Jesus speaks about in Matthew 5:28-32 is a “just retribution” that takes place “only in not resisting it.”[1]  Leviticus 24:20, the Old Testament law behind this teaching, assumes a divine retaliation, not a human one.[2]  As human agents we react to injustice against us not by assuming that it is our responsibility to right wrongs but God’s. “For the community of disciples, which makes no national or legal claims for itself, retribution means patiently bearing the blow, so that evil is not added to evil.”[3]  Nonviolent reaction to evil committed serves to show the ultimate allegiance of the church to Christ: “Our voluntary renunciation of counterviolence confirms and proclaims our unconditional allegiance to Jesus and his followers, our freedom, our detachment from our own egos.”[4]  The ethic of the church is Jesus.  This is not a rejection of cultural and political contexts but a grasping of Christ.  The church is not running away from politics but running toward Christ.  This is what the church is and must be to the world.

Bonhoeffer’s thesis is strengthened when considered in relation to Miroslav Volf’s work on memory. For Volf, the heart of the Christian faith lies not in the insistence that wrongs committed always deserve a response but in embracing the “risky territory marked by the commitment to love one’s enemies.”[5]  This happens not through remembering wrongdoing or forgetting about wrongdoing but remembering correctly with a desire that is fueled neither by hate or disregard but by love for the wrongdoer. This is not wishful thinking or neglect of justice; rather, “the obligation to remember is an extension of the obligation to attend to the wrongs committed.”[6]  Remembering rightly the wrong suffered by loving the wrongdoer and letting God be the one who enacts retribution is the Christian way of justice.

The ultimate act of violence has already been committed at the cross; Christians can remember correctly the wrongdoing of the other because God has made peace through violence.[7]  The gruesome killing of the Son of God is the epitome of violence, for it was against both God and man.  And the very fact that Christ was resurrected from the dead and vindicated by God means that violence is defeated because life is the new reality of the cosmos.  Violence became something that God did, once and for all.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. Dietrich Bonheoffer Works. Vol. 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 132-33.  Bonhoeffer is not rejecting political and national ties here as such.  The bowing of the church in Germany to the Third Reich confused the religious and political allegiances of much of Germany.  Bonhoeffer is careful to not tie the church to any particular nation or culture but to Christ alone.

[4] Ibid., 133.

[5] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

[6] Ibid., 204.

[7] Hauerwas, War and the American Difference, xi.

Inadequacy and the theological task

The task of theology is ultimately the task of speaking about God after God. Attempting to do so is wrought with difficulties. Readers of this blog will find other, more eloquent posts detailing the problem of theological speech; human contingency and “violent” metaphysical systems are some of the endless curveballs sent our way today. In response to these difficulties, at least one natural response is to lament and adandon theological speech altogether.

Further, the immensity of the theological task is always rendered heavily on those who seek to pursue the discipline. I (hope I) am not alone in feeling woefully deficient in “doing” theology. Graduate school daily reminds me that the more I learn, the more I learn I do not know anything. Pressure is mounting to position myself for post-graduate work. Peers seem to grasp the specifics of medieval and modern thinkers much better than I.

In his magisterial book Barth’s Earlier Theology John Webster notes Barth’s utter lack of confidence in his intellectual ability as he taught through Zwingli’s theology at Münster,

 The pressure was rendered more acute by Barth’s sense of intellectual inadequacy: in another circular letter in late January of the next year [1923], he speaks with dismay of his lack of scholarly agility, his unsatisfactory knowledge of Latin and his poor memory.[1]

Despite his difficulty early on, Barth is widely acknowledged as the most important theologian of the twentieth century. Obviously he developed as a thinker, and perhaps he was undercutting what a first-rate mind he really had. But as I read Webster’s description certain thoughts I have been wrestling through crystallized. True theological speech is one that flows from an always already acknowledged understand of our inability to do so. But in this inability we find ourselves able. We speak because God has and continues to speak to us. We speak imperfectly as those encountered by the Word of God. The command of God encounters us and reaffirms out creatureliness by redefining it in relational terms, providing us with material means of proclamation: “Man has the character of responsibility… man is, and is human, as he performs this act of responsibility, offering himself as the response to the word of God, and conducting, shaping and expressing himself as an answer to it.”[2] Obedience “is the precise creaturely counterpart of the grace of God.”[3]

We speak because the Word has spoken. This does not make the task easy. An ever-changing world requires various modes of witness to the one God. The jury is still out on just what the next dominant expression of doctrine will look like. I take solace in imperfect proclamation of the Word, something always both possessed and unable to be possessed by the church, the divine Subject and Object we continually bear witness to in inadequate yet faithful ways.

[1] John Webster, Barth’s Earlier Theology.

[2] Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, 174, 175

[3] CD, III/2, 207

Embracing the guilt of the neighbor

What responsibility do I have to my neighbor?  How am I to act toward them? With love. That is what the Bible tells me. That is what I believe. But I have been struggling through this question a lot in the last few years, lacking the necessary words to convey my thoughts. What must the church, the believer, be in its relation to the other? Even more, how do we, when wronged, love the one who wronged us?

How am I to forgive and love the man who slammed his 60,000 lb. cement truck into our family van, killing two girls under the age of 5 in the car behind us? How am I to be a Christ to the one whose actions drove my mother into alcoholism and caused me to be diagnosed with depression? How am I to love him? I profess Christ.  I have experienced the reality of grace. How do I, how does the church, love the other, especially when they are guilty?

I think this is a live question. It must be the church, the bride of Christ who, in her imperfection, witnesses to the perfection of her Bridegroom. In our brokenness, we love the neighbor because Christ has done the same thing with regard to humanity.

What I want to do in this post is to briefly place Luther and Bonhoeffer along side one another on the place of the neighbor in the life of the Christian. I don’t pretend to be an authority on either thinker or to have fully thought out every possible implication these extended quotations have for this or that particular issue. This post is at once a meditation on the necessity of the neighbor and a challenge to those who read this think through the shape and intensity of your external love toward the other.

In The Freedom of the Christian (1520), Luther writes the following,

“Everyone should ‘put on’ the neighbor and act toward him or her as if we were in the neighbor’s place. The good that flowed from Christ flows into us. Christ has ‘put on’ us and acted for us as if he had been what we are. The good we received from Christ flows from us toward those who have need of it. As a result, I should lay before God my faith and righteousness so that they may cover and intercede for the sins of my neighbor. I take these sins upon myself, and labor and serve in them, as if they were my very own. This is exactly what Christ did for us. This is true and sincere love and the rule of a Christian life.” [1]

Divine mercy has been dispensed to the church through faith in the event of Christ. In his assumption of human nature he has taken human reality up in to the divine life. Because of this reality (one that is simultaneously past, present, and future) I am to put on the neighbor. The church as it witnesses to the reality of Christ is the conduit of divine mercy.  The love of God flows through me to my neighbor. Instead of hindering it or quietly seeking to discern whether my neighbor is worthy of love, I love freely, for Christ loved freely. My love for the neighbor means bearing all that the neighbor is in love. For Luther, this meant even taking their sin and treating it as if they were my very own. To bear the other is stand in loving solidarity. The church has tasted the divine, and its witness to the world to come and taste this flowing fountain works itself out in bearing the weight of your neighbor’s very existence.

Like Luther, Bonhoeffer places the ethical action of the human agent squarely within the reality of what Christ has done,

“Jesus does not want to be considered the only perfect one at the expense of human beings, nor, as the only guiltless one, to look down on humanity perishing under its guilt. He does not want some idea of a new human being to triumph over the wreckage of a humanity defeated by its guilt. He does not want to acquit himself of the guilt by which human beings die. A love that would abandon human beings to their guilt would not be a love for real human beings. As one who acts responsibly within the historical existence of human beings, Jesus becomes guilty. It is his love alone, mind you, that leads him to become guilty. Out of his selfless love, out of his sinlessness, Jesus enters into human guilt, taking it upon himself.” [2]

Christ embraced the guilt of the world in assuming humanity. His love was such that he did not value his intrinsic righteousness while the world perished under the weight of sin and guilt. In assuming this alien guilt, Jesus acted responsibly. Our parents teach us that true responsibility is owning up to our obligations. Here, however, responsibility is radically redefined in light of the Christ event. The sin and guilt of all humanity, a byproduct of idolatry, pride, and rebellion, is taken into the divine life in the God-man Jesus Christ. In so doing, a rubric for truly responsible action is supplied to us,

“Because Jesus took the guilt of all human beings upon himself, everyone who acts responsibly becomes guilty. Those who, in acting responsibly, seek to avoid becoming guilty divorce themselves from the ultimate reality of human existence; but in so doing they also divorce themselves from the redeeming mystery of the sinless bearing of guilt by Jesus Christ, and have no part in the divine justification that attends this event.” [3]

With Christ as my example, when I freely assume my neighbor’s guilt I become guilty. True responsibility means embracing the guilt of the world in love. Indeed, this is the requirement of all those justified by Christ. Those who seek to avoid the guilt associated with putting on the neighbor show themselves to be outside the bounds of the justified sphere in which Christ has acted. It is only in this engagement with the world that I found myself fully in the scope of God’s redeeming purposes, for in doing so I mirror Christ.

* Author’s Note – For a thorough treatment of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of accepting guilt, see Christine Schliesser’s Everyone Who Acts Responsibly Becomes Guilty: Bonhoeffer’s Concept of Accepting Guilt

[1] Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd ed, 423
[2] Ethics, 275
[3] Ibid., 275-76