Bonhoeffer, in the Ethics manuscript entitled, Ultimate and Penultimate Things, discusses what it means to prepare the way for Jesus in another’s life. This task, according to Bonhoeffer, is a responsibility with which all who know about the coming of Jesus Christ must come to terms. What Bonhoeffer says next is worth quoting at length:
The condition which grace meets us is not irrelevant, even though it is always only by grace that grace comes to us. We can make it hard for ourselves and others to come to faith. It is hard for those thrust into extreme disgrace, desolation, poverty, and helplessness to believe in God’s justice and goodness. It becomes hard for those whose lives have fallen into disorder and lack of discipline to hear the commandments of God in faith. It is hard for the well-fed and the powerful to comprehend God’s judgment and God’s grace. It is hard for those who are disappointed by a false faith and who have lost self-control to find the simplicity of surrendering their hearts to Jesus Christ. This is not to excuse or discourage those to whom this applies. Instead, they must learn all the more that in Jesus Christ God comes down into the very depths of the human fall, of guilt, and of need, that the justice and grace of God is especially close to the very people who are deprived of rights, humiliated, and exploited, that the help and strength of Jesus Christ are offered to the undisciplined, and that the truth will lead the erring and despairing onto firm ground again.
None of this excludes the task of preparing the way. It is, instead, a commission of immeasurable responsibility given to all who know about the coming of Jesus Christ. The hungry person needs bread, the homeless person needs shelter, the one deprived of rights needs justice, the lonely person needs community, the undisciplined one needs order, and the slave needs freedom. It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need. We break bread with the hungry and share our home with them for the sake of Christ’s love, which belongs to the hungry as much as it does to us. If the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread. To bring bread to the hungry is preparing the way for the coming of grace (163, emphasis mine).
There are two particular points, in this passage, that I think Bonhoeffer gets right. These words were not only appropriate when Bonhoeffer penned them, they are words that we desperately need to hear today. First, Bonhoeffer speaks to the fact that Christians can, and often do, make the gospel message difficult–or nearly impossible–to hear and accept. Often, in our rejection of others (whether documented immigrants, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ persons, transgender teens, the homeless, etc…) we alienate those we are called to love; effectively pushing them further and further away from Jesus Christ.
Yet, we must not forget that in pushing away those on the margins of society we push Jesus away as well (Matt 25). In Life Together, Bonhoeffer makes precisely this point.“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community” Bonhoeffer argues, “may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door. We must, therefore, be very careful at this point.” I am sad to say, this exclusion of the other (and of Christ) is far too common in our society.
Maybe, if we get down to the heart of the matter, the difference between embracing actions and rhetoric that alienate the other and embracing love of the other comes down to two very different understandings of freedom. A negative view of freedom supposes that each individual is free from all other individual selves. This is a particularly common understanding of freedom in the West. On this account of freedom we are free to pursue our own autonomous needs, wants, and desires regardless of, and in spite of, others (especially those who are unlike us). In contrast, Bonhoeffer posits a view of Christian freedom wherein one is only free if they are free for others. In speaking about responsible action for the other, Bonhoeffer notes that “a human being necessarily lives in encounter with other human beings and that this encounter entails being charged, in ever so many ways, with responsibility… To act out of concrete responsibility means to act in freedom”. As Bonhoeffer often does, he looks to Christ to ground this understanding of freedom. Christ was free for humanity. His freedom did not consist in autonomous concern for self, but rather, in freedom, he bore the weight of human sin and guilt. It seems to me that when the concern for personal freedom (whether that freedom is used to ensure personal safety, wealth, or happiness) trumps love for others, we ultimately reject the freedom for others that Christ exemplifies.
Now back to the opening quote of this post. The second point that I think Bonhoeffer gets right is his statement that “if the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread.” This is a particularly harsh statement and one that immediately challenges our assumptions of individual responsibility for one’s own action. “How”, we might ask, “am I guilty if another person willingly chooses to reject the gospel?” I think Bonhoeffer would respond by saying that if we have failed in our calling to prepare the way for the coming of grace in another’s life (or have actively hindered the coming of grace), then we bear guilt for that individual’s subsequent rejection of the gospel. If I was going to take Bonhoeffer’s statement and apply it to today, I would think it would go something like this:
If LGBTQ persons do not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them community.
If the homeless do not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them dignity.
If the refugee does not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them safety.
If the emotionally wounded do not come to faith, guilt falls on Christians who denied them stability
… and the list could go on.
All this is to say, we are called to be a people who live responsibly, in freedom for others, and who prepare the way for the coming of grace in other’s lives. If our rhetoric and/or our actions are contrary to this way of life, then Bonhoeffer reminds us that we may be guilty of far more than it might seem at first glance. This is true for me… it is true for you… and it is true for those in leadership (of churches and nations). As we listen to the rhetoric during this election season, may we be ever conscious of how what we say and what we do can affect how others may or may not receive the gospel of Jesus Christ; especially if the title “Christian” is one which we openly embrace and proclaim.