Bonhoeffer and the Relative Importance of Life Together

I recently had a conversation with our priest about small groups in our church.  During the meeting, I made a brief remark that Bonhoeffer, in _Life Together_, begins his description of communal life by discounting the value of it.  I decided I should write out what I meant.  What follows is taken from a longer paper I wrote yesterday.  After the section posted here, the paper turns to “Life Together and Small Group Structures” to defend the value of small group multiplication as a way to remind ourselves that our communities are not ends in themselves but means for Christ to encounter (and means submitted to his work for his glory).  I should also note that I haven’t really edited the paper.  But it’s been over a month since my last post, so I thought I should add something.


Bonhoeffer begins his little book on Christian community, Life Together, with an attack on, of all things, the celebration of communal life.  After announcing his intention to examine “our life together under the Word,” Bonhoeffer states, “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.  Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies” (17).  He then quotes Luther, who more provocatively asserts, “The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies.  And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people.  O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ!  If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared” (17-18).  The Church does not exist to stay together, to cling to its own kind.  On the contrary, Christians are called to “dwell in far countries among the unbelievers” (18).  Christian life, even life together, is life under the Word, which means life submitted to Christ, the one who obediently went into the “far country” (Barth) to dwell with those who were not like him but were instead rebellious sinners.  


Bonhoeffer’s subordination of community to Christ corrects an overemphasis on community.  Christian community can only be praised after it has been devalued.  Community is not our mission.  It is not essential but a privilege, a gracious gift (18), and one which not all Christians have (or have continually).  It is subordinated to Christ, the one who died alone (17), in the far country, for the sake of us sinners.  Its value, therefore, never rests in itself but only in the one it worships, Jesus Christ.  Finally, Christian community is composed of sinners (23), and therefore it is a community that can never be placed in opposition to (or closed off from) “the sinful world.”  The community that shuts out the unbeliever or the stranger, the weak or the useless, may actually shut out Christ (see p. 38).  To isolate the community from the world–or to place the church in opposition to the world, which amounts to the same thing–undercuts our mission, ignores our present existence as sinners justified only by grace, and risks shutting out the source of all grace, Jesus, the righteous one who dwells with sinners.  All of these conclusions follow from the words of Luther placed by Bonhoeffer in the second paragraph.  Life Together begins, therefore, with the stark but realistic (and necessary) reminder that our communal life is, strictly speaking, only a means and never the end, and hence, only of value insofar as it points us to our end, Jesus Christ.  


This denial of the inherent value of community does not lead Bonhoeffer to assert the superiority of individual life–the book after all, is still about community.  Bonhoeffer refuses to make any form–whether communal or individual, or some blend of the two–essential for Christian life.  There is no right way because every step, every supposed path, exists only under the lordship of Christ.  All attempts to find the right form miss Bonhoeffer’s main point:  no form can guarantee that Christ is present, and therefore, all forms must be continually questioned and continually brought back into submission to Christ.  


By placing communal life in service to Christ, Bonhoeffer forces us to allow Jesus to stand between us and every relationship:  “we belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ” (21).  All relationships have the meaning in fulfillment insofar as they point us to Christ; therefore, Christ is at the center of all relationships.  As the center, Jesus Christ stands between me and my neighbor, me and my enemy, me and my friend, me and my lover.  Christ even stands between myself and me.  As Augustine famously puts it, Christ “is closer to me than I am to myself.”  No relationship escapes Christ’s mediation, and any relationship that tries to bypass Christ’s mediation is a sinful one.  We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.  Only through Jesus.  We can never belong to each other directly.


Jesus’ position as mediator between myself and all others destroys any attempt of heroic individualism.  To assert that one can go it alone–just me and Jesus–is often an arrogant denial of Christ’s presence in and through others.  We think we are strong enough, smart enough, holy enough to sustain our lives with Christ alone.  But we can never be certain of our own resources; we never can rely on our strength.  The one on whom we rely, Jesus, has told us where he is to be found:  in our neighbor.  God “has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man” (23).  Jesus tells us to rely on the words of our brothers and sisters, and therefore, as people dependent on Jesus, we obey.  We seek Jesus in community.  We trust that Jesus will speak through the mouths and lives of those around us. 


Nevertheless, we do not seek others to fill our needs, we seek Jesus in and through others.  Communal life often functions as an extension of individualism.  To return to the introduction, individualism is just a certain form of communal life (and hence a communal form that cannot be ended by advocating people join a community).  Aware that we are finite, limited, weak, and insecure, we seek to draw others into our own “sphere of power” (33).  We seek to sustain our lives–our individual, self-possessed lives–through others.  Community functions as “human absorption” (ibid).  Here “one soul operates directly upon another soul” (ibid).  No longer does Jesus meet us through the other–and hence place himself between us and another.  The other person directly satisfies our needs.  They are attached to us, as extensions of ourselves, as members of our body (the original definition of a slave).  We function through them; they sustain us.  


This direct contact often takes the form of love but it is in fact simply the other side of domination.  The other cannot be released because the other serves my needs. I need them, and that need determines our interaction.  The other person is simply an extension of my own body, my own life.  Love as direct contact–what Bonhoeffer calls “human love” (34)–is the desire for a community of slaves; it is the desire for a community to serve me.  Whether this desire is expressed directly (“oppression”) or more subtly and coercively (“love”), the result is the same:  the other person is brought under my control so as to serve and meet my needs.  


Christ, as the mediator of all relationships, destroys any hope of “direct contact,” and therefore undermines all coercive relationships and communal forms.  Since Christ stands between me and every other person, I “must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him [or her] with my love” (36).  For Christ’s sake, we release the ones we love.  We do not hold onto them, as if they were tools for the satisfaction of our own desires.  We see other people as what they truly are–persons for whom Christ died.  We see them as they already are “in Christ’s eyes” (ibid).   This means that we lose the ability to judge others, for they are ones judged by Christ.  We are willing to let go of others–to not try to influence them, but merely to “meet [them] with the clear Word of God” and let them be “alone with this Word for a long time” (ibid).  Knowing that it is only through Christ that my needs are met in another person, we are free to let go of that person (or that group of people), trusting that the same Christ will continue to satisfy our desires.  Forgoing all attempts at direct contact, we place our faith not in the relationship with the person but in the one who mediates–and hence controls and orders–that relationship.  The relationship is never “an end itself” (35); it exists in order to serve Jesus Christ.  


In Jesus Christ, all our relationships are eternally secure, for we know that we will be with our Christian community through all eternity (25).  We are free to let go of our community because we trust that Christ holds all things together, and therefore, in and through Christ, we are still united to those we love.  Knowing that we do not live by the experience of community but only through Christ (39), we are free to love each other truthfully, to honor one another’s freedom, and to sacrificial serve those in, and those outside of, our present community.

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6 Responses to Bonhoeffer and the Relative Importance of Life Together

  1. If all this is so, the US Anglican Church's decision to 'release' itself from the Episcopal Church would seem counter to your understanding of life 'under the Word'.

  2. Hank Tarlton says:

    It is interesting that Bonhoeffer, being a Lutheran, doesn't talk about the Eucharist in reference to Christ being the mediator between ourselves and others….at least I do not recollect a discussion like that in Life Together (its been awhile since I read that book). What are your thoughts? Also, may I put a link to your paper on my facebook page? Peace, Hank

  3. Hank–feel free. Bonhoeffer ends the book with the sentence, "The life of Christians together under the Word has reached its perfection in the sacrament [of the Lord's Supper]." His discussion of communion is pretty brief though (you could also look at his discussion of communion and the body of Christ in __Discipleship__, ch. 10 and ch. 11, The Body of Christ, and The Visible Church-Community). Peach–it seems one could take Bonhoeffer to imply the exact opposite, depending on how one evaluates the Episcopal church's submission to Christ and what is being accomplished through the "release." Which simply means that pointing to Bonhoeffer–or to what I take Bonhoeffer to have written–isn't going to settle these debates one way or the other.

  4. Drew says:

    Timbo, very interesting ideas. However I was struck by a lack of "ecclesiology" i.e. The Church as community, the ultimate community, and in Heaven, the expression of our union to Christ through communal feast. On a related note this idea seems to lack a reflecting the Spirit's role in leading us to Christ Jesus through community e.g. the Church at Pentacost. Also does Bonhoeffer consider Christ's coming as part of a family as well as his going among sinners? Remember I'm just an economist!-drew

  5. Drew–Those are great questions. To be as brief as possible. 1) It does describe an ecclessiology–it is as Christ's body that the community learns to see all "members" as existing in light of the "head." However, because the ecclesia is defined by and subordinated to this head, the ecclesia can never be bound "over against" the world since its head, Jesus, is the one who is free to be present with sinners (us!). Thus, the Church is never separate from the world but is simply the part of the world that accepts and testifies to the world's reconciliation in Christ (e.g., 2 Cor 5–all died in Christ; Church has ministry of proclamation). 2) The community leads a person to Christ through the Spirit, which means it is the Spirit's work that draws people to Christ (no one can confess Christ without the Spirit). The church is therefore dependent on the Spirit, who witnesses to Christ, for its own witness (Acts 2). But the Spirit goes where the Spirit pleases, and often has to work hard to get us to acknowledge its movement outside of our empirical gathering (Acts 8). 3) Christ's family are sinners!

  6. Hank,One other thought about the eucharist:The Eucharist can itself be brought to function within communal structures of domination when the Eucharist becomes separated from the "form" of the one it makes present, Christ, the one in the form of a slave (e.g., the problem of communion in 1 Corinthians 11). When the form of Christ becomes abstracted from his presence in the Eucharist, the one who is made present (Christ) can then be sinfully enlisted as the justification of our own communal projects (and since the concrete figure of Christ is not present in these projects, these projects, even if done in Christ's name, are projects of domination). Thus, the question of the Eucharist should not be–and this J. Kameron Carter finally succeeded in beating into my head–whether or how Christ is present but who is this Christ who is present. It is not an abstract Christ but Christ-the-servant who meets us in the Eucharist and mediates all our relationships.

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