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