Category Archives: Ethics

The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics

Prior to Christmas, a copy of Jennifer Moberly’s book The Virtue of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics arrived in the mail. In the first chapter, Moberly makes a claim that will inform her study of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and, in doing so, set her apart from many others who have endeavored to do the same. Moberly states in her study she “shall not attempt to give a detailed exegesis and interpretation of the manuscripts of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics,” which up to this point, given her examination of Bonhoeffer’s work with regard to the specific understanding of “virtue ethics,” is to be expected. She continues her statement by saying, “nor will I seek to demonstrate my interpretation by appeals to his biography.” It is this second part of the sentence on which I wish to focus.

Upon first reading, I found myself nodding along in agreement as I read her justification for such a stance, as such an appeal to a biography “must rely on a degree of speculation that is dangerous if not unwarranted.” How many times have Bonhoeffer’s various claims, ranging from his earlier works to those written in Ethics, been brought into question due to Bonhoeffer’s practical response to particular situations? In addition, how many have sought to explain what they perceive to be contradictions in Bonhoeffer’s works by citing, not his works themselves, but various biographies?

Granted, the ease by which one may bring Bonhoeffer into one’s camp on a specific issue by appeal to his life eliminates the need for thorough examination of his writings or the perceived contradictions or changes over time. This in turn allows for nearly any ideology to claim the theological authority of having Bonhoeffer on one’s side. Of course, this will not necessarily offer the world a true glimpse of Bonhoeffer or his theology, but rather a caricature that, by virtue of the false claims made in his name, negates the authority originally desired.

Having read for myself several accounts where just such a claim has been made, I express my admiration for Moberly and her ability to avoid the temptation to let Bonhoeffer’s life and the specific time in which he lived dictate her interpretation of his work. How many individuals have argued for their own stance (e.g. regarding pacifism or retributive violence), citing a section in Ethics (e.g. “Natural Life” (p171-218)) in which Bonhoeffer appears to claim an opposing position, only to justify the reader’s interpretation by recalling Bonhoeffer’s biography? Rather than letting Bonhoeffer’s work speak in conversation with his biography, the side that agrees with the reader is victorious, especially where Bonhoeffer apparently behaved, to some extent, to the contrary of his writings. The insights and the challenges of being faithful in a fallen world are lost when Bonhoeffer is used to support one’s preconceived arguments, bordering on “hero-worship” rather than recognizing the struggle he endured wrestling with Scripture, theology, and the world around him.

For those outside the academy, the appeal of Bonhoeffer is that he was a man who acted according to his faith. I would argue that Bonhoeffer’s biography brings more people to know him than his theology (which, if this is where one stops, is a shame). If this is the case—especially if Bonhoeffer’s biography does not truly represent the man—how might this influence those who later read his writing? Do the man’s actions negate or compromise the ethic espoused? Does one bear more weight than the other, thus enabling the reader to draw conclusions on Bonhoeffer’s character contrary to what he himself may have written? In short, Moberly seeks to avoid the problematic slippery slope that has led some in the past decades to claim Bonhoeffer’s name and authority belong to their interpretation of a given situation or espoused ideology.

It is, however, upon greater reflection I arrived at the rub. With regard to ethics in general, is an author above his or her own prescribed ethic? I yield to Jennifer Moberly’s expertise in virtue ethics, and her argument for reading Bonhoeffer’s ethic as virtue ethics versus situational ethics appears solid. Yet, as Moberly points out, Bonhoeffer’s is not a universal ethic so much as a Christ-centered ethic. Thus, there is a call to action for those who take not only Bonhoeffer’s writing seriously and not as mere theoretical pondering, but also the teachings of Scripture. In addition, I ask, how can one take seriously the espoused ethic if the author himself is unable to live up to that which he asks of others?

This is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of ethics, that one must adhere to that which is prescribed. Yet, it is this very prescribed behavior that emerges from ethics that is of such great importance. This is why so many philosophers and theologians have sought to address the practical aspects of humanity via ethics. How fitting that Bonhoeffer’s Ethics be built upon a similar foundation. In essence, Bonhoeffer’s entire life, not simply his writing, become the extended finger of John the Baptist in Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, pointing toward the crucified Christ. If this is the case, how much more important is it for Bonhoeffer scholars to ensure that the ethic represented is one based not simply on Bonhoeffer’s writing alone, but his embodiment of said ethic as well as its adherence to Scripture? Similarly, if those outside the academy are primarily exposed to Bonhoeffer’s biography, the importance of incorporating his writings and offering a true representation of the theologian and pastor—opposed to a spokesman for particular ideals—becomes paramount.

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed, detail of Crucifixion)
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed, detail of Crucifixion)

I admire Moberly’s attempt to convey a study of Bonhoeffer’s ethic void of the misinterpretations of Bonhoeffer’s activities that might compromise the true message of his writings. The near “hero-worship” of some who wish to elevate particular events in Bonhoeffer’s life cannot outweigh these important ethical teachings directed toward believers. I do, however, wonder if this approach neglects an important aspect of Bonhoeffer’s ethical writings, which is his own ability to adhere to behavioral expectations he addresses—those rooted in Scripture and a world at war. Is there a way to bring both together and convey a true representation of that which Bonhoeffer wrote? Surely Bonhoeffer’s biography plays a part in our understanding of how practical his ethical writings appear. Bonhoeffer’s writing read in the context of his life allows a reader a greater understanding of his theology—as long as the Bonhoeffer being represented is true to the source.

On Being Human

ethicsWhat does it mean to “be human”? Have we given sufficiently careful consideration to this topic? Or have we simply made the assumption that it is whatever we are doing? Is it to be rooted only in description of how “we” are or prescriptive of how “we” ought to be? Or is it yet some other thing?

I taught an adult Sunday school class a few years ago where I was asked to address the subject of “being human.” In the course of the conversations, a discussion of holiness was brought up. Someone mentioned that “we know we will sin, because we are all humans after all”. This struck me in light of Bonhoeffer’s statement that popped into my mind at that moment: “While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings” (D. Bonhoeffer, Ethics [Vol. 6; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005], p. 84, emphasis added). While this statement assumes that we strive to be more than human (because we believe our being human is something to be overcome), I wonder if this is not the basis for the excuse echoed in my Sunday school that day.

We blame our humanity for our sinfulness. It struck me that Paul never does this, John never does this, and Peter never does this. The Scriptures blame our sinful or “fleshly” nature (the language of Paul). And, perhaps surprisingly for many, I don’t believe this should be confused with “being human”, truly human. The reason being that Jesus is True Man and all else is but a pale image of the true, being marred by sin. I would actually contend that our sinfulness deprives us of our humanity, because it is only in obedience to the Father that one is truly human in the fullest sense. And this can only come about by the regenerating work of God’s Spirit (the spirit of adoption crying “Abba, Father!”) conforming us into the image of the Son, who Himself is the true image of God.

So what are some potential outcomes of this change of perspective which seems to follow the trajectory proposed by Bonhoeffer?

(1) To be human is to be taken up into Christ. It is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God which is acceptable and pleasing. It is the humanity of God in Christ taking up our sinful humanity and glorifying God through the obedience of redemption. To be truly human is to be counted as those who are in Christ: the righteousness of God and the First Adam.

(2) To be human is to set aside excuses for sinning. We can no longer say that we will continue to sin because “we are just human after all”. NO! We have been delivered from death to life. The Spirit of Christ Jesus now lives in us. We have been baptized with Christ and our sins have been once for all dealt with. We are not the children of the devil, but the children of God who no longer are slaves to sin and death. We are slaves of Christ Jesus our Lord and have been delivered from death to life! Therefore, to be “real human beings” is to live by the power of the Spirit! To live free! Free of the bonds of sin.

(3) To be human is to live free for the other and free for God. There is no constraint, but the one to love. This is the greatest commandment and all it entails: humanity unleashed from the bonds of self-serving, self-loving rebellion against God and God’s will for creation. The true human is the one who lives for the other because of being made in God’s image. Therefore, the other who is made in God’s image becomes the one by which we grow into the image of God in communion as those created and purchased by God.  As those bearing God’s image, by God’s Spirit we reflect the ineffable God in Christ. Unbounded love for God and for the other: this is being truly human…to be in Christ Jesus.

So I would charge you fully to embrace your humanity; God did!

Bonhoeffer and Reality on the Edges

Thousands of religious scholars descended upon Atlanta, Georgia this weekend for the American Academy of Religions/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. To say that the joint meeting is large would be an understatement. In the midst of the hundreds of possible paper sessions, the Bonhoeffer and Social Analysis group put forward a series of thoughtful and fruitful paper panels.

Many of these papers responded to or touched upon current areas of social engagement (as would be keeping with the name of the group). Over the meeting hung the cloud of current events, and as I left the final panel this morning, my mind could not help but reflect on the larger, cohesive question permeating through the sessions with our current reality.

The recurrence of the intersection of Bonhoeffer and the reality of experience of those on the edge of a fully integrated society is something that ought to cause us pause. Where do we consider ourselves to be in the world? Are we on the edges or in the center? My guess (and I speculate based on the demographics of those I saw at the conference and have met doing Bonhoeffer research) is that most individuals reading this blog are white and of European descent. A plurality are men. A large number are American, my own residential context, and likely to be Protestant or Evangelical Christians.

At least in the American context, we are scholars of Bonhoeffer in a very privileged center of society. Yet, Bonhoeffer beckons us away from the center. In their responses to Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus (Baylor, 2015) both James Cameron Carter and Jenny McBride offered challenges to the audience to repent of their whiteness. While Carter and McBride approached this in very distinct and rich ways, their papers highlighted that Bonhoeffer’s works offer critiques of our own appropriation of identity and theology. But there are two other papers I wish to highlight as well. The first is Joe McGarry’s piece on Bonhoeffer and Don Quixote. McGarry proposed that Cervantes’ novel is key to understanding Bonhoeffer’s transition from Sanctorum Communio’s description of the “real” to a deeper ethic of reality as that which inhabits our world, demands our attention, and locates Christ in our midst. The second paper was by Ryan Tafilowski at the Global Luther and Genocide co-sponsored section. Tafilowski drew upon Paul Althaus (a Lutheran contemporary of Bonhoeffer in the Erlangen school) and Althaus’s construction of the “volk” as a category in Lutheran theology. This volkish theology posits that my existence and creation by God is inseparable from the blood of my people/nation.

While in Barcelona, Bonhoeffer gave a now, rather infamous sermon that expounded the virtues of nationalism and dying for his country. By many regards, in this sermon Bonhoeffer and Althaus appear eerily similar. It is a volkish reality interposed on Christianity. Yet, after Barcelona (and Don Quixote) and his experience in both Harlem and Latin America, Bonhoeffer’s devotion to the volk has notably shifted a greater call to see the world as it is and see Christ in the midst, suffering. Christ calls the Christian to bear responsibility for his neighbor. This remains a speculative exercise unless we are willing to move to the margins with our neighbor.

Alongside these papers are the news reports, particularly in America, where Christians (although by no means all Christians) have thrown support behind laws and politicians banning Syrian refugees from states, requiring Muslims to register (because that obviously didn’t have terrible consequences in Nazi Germany), and what can only be described as a rise of volkish theology. The Bible rather explicitly states that Christians are called to welcome and care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien,

This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3, among many others)

I have heard the rhetoric that those welcoming refugees are naïve, but I want to argue that the greater fear isn’t of the other but rather that in welcoming the other we strip our Christianity of its volkish veneer. We risk being in the margins with the other. We risk no longer identifying the other as “other” but as “brother.” We repent of our sins of placing security over the command of Christ.

Bonhoeffer tells us that to follow Christ means choosing to see our former identity fall away. In 1941 he writes,

I pray for the defeat of my Fatherland. Only through a defeat can we atone for the terrible crimes which we committed against Europe and the world.

This is not the language of Barcelona. It is of one that has realized that reality for Christians is radically different and much harder than we believe it to be. It is from one that was arrested for trying to help Jews escape. Bonhoeffer’s legacy continually calls us to question what we have put upon our Gospel- whether our race, our national identity, or our fear of the “other.” It is the uncomfortable call to Christ on the edge and in the margins.