This weekend several of us from SCM went to Project Bonhoeffer's Conference where we spent the day exploring and discussing the ideas of German theologian and Nazi resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is Project Bonhoeffer that works with SCM on the Faith in Action project, and it was really interesting to spend the day learning more about the theologian who has inspired such an amazing project. Bonhoeffer was one of the founding members of the Confessing Church which opposed the nazification of the Church in Germany, and wrote out of his experience in Flossenburg Concentration Camp where he was finally executed just days before it was liberated.
In his chapter on single- minded obedience to Christ in The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer challenges the way in which ‘interpreting’ the commands of Jesus can become a means for avoiding them all together. He suggests that if Jesus were to command us to ‘get out of it’, we could evade total obedience by interpreting it as ‘stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment’, and that if Jesus calls us to ‘sell thy goods’, we could justify our unwillingness to do so by interpreting this as, ‘do not let it be a matter of consequence to you that you have outward prosperity; rather keep your goods quietly, having them as if you had them not. ’ (p. 36, SCM Press, 1959).
Reading The Cost of Discipleship is challenging me to think about what my faith actually costs me- is there any element of self-sacrifice to what I do? Do I ever put what God asks me to do above what I really do or do not want to do? Moreover, I am challenged to think about my motivation to work for social justice in the first place-is that actually also mainly self- orientated? I am beginning to realise that it is my own pursuit of healing and redemption that has drawn me to this work in the first place because there are parts of me that are broken and often I’m not too sure how to go about dealing with that. I find myself pursuing the healing and restoration of others as a way of redeeming, and sometimes avoiding, my own pain. To see others transformed speaks to me hope about my own brokenness and understanding that is helping me to understand why working with destitute asylum seekers has been so emotionally challenging- it is hard to see very much of the hope or transformation that I am seeking when these people have had all government support withdrawn, have no right to work and are trapped in this way of life because returning to their home country is too dangerous. That is a tough reality to face because there are no easy answers. What is this costing me? Not nearly as much as it is costing others, but it is challenging me to keep on trusting in healing for myself and for others even when a situation feels pretty hopeless.
Bonhoeffer clarifies that it’s not the specific act, such as giving up all our possessions, that verifies one’s ‘obedience’ because it may not actually be what Christ is asking of an individual, but more just a Christian ideal of poverty that that puffs up our own sense of self. Instead Bonhoeffer looks to answer the question, ‘who is Christ for us today’ and what does obedience to His call mean for us right now. For Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany that meant standing up against a racist and oppressive regime.
Over sixty years after Bonhoeffer’s execution, what might Christ be calling us to respond to in Britain today? One thing that immediately comes to mind for me is the economic crisis that is currently leaving so many people unemployed, homeless or struggling to find opportunities to flourish. So many organisations and services that greatly benefit our communities are suffering brutal cuts as a direct result of the recession, including ASSIST (Asylum Seeker Support Initiative Short Term) who has not only had to reduce the number of asylum seekers it takes on, but also its weekly financial support for clients from £20 a week to £15. It is hard to welcome asylum seekers, or help the homeless, or support development projects both in Britain and overseas when so many are struggling to find jobs, get set up in life, support their families or pay bills themselves. How can we respond to this, and how much are we willing for it to cost us as Christians, as a Church and as a nation?
I finish with one of the poems by Bonhoeffer that I found useful at the Conference which speaks of Bonhoeffer’s own inner conflict as he tried to live out his faith in the most remarkable way.
As always, any comments are very welcome.
Who Am I?
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from the my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my wardens
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of the birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible, woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Though knowest, O God, I am thine!