I confess a fascination with and devotion to the theological works and innovations of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (DB). His writings from the mid-20th Century are stubbornly prescient for the present day. Among his most popular writings, Life Together, Cost of Discipleship, and Ethics (all pre-imprisonment) are influenced heavily by his observation of the growth of National Socialism in post-WWI Germany. His Letters and Papers from Prison is fully informed by the extremes of Nazi political and social actions. DB is challenging in his work. In his time, he engaged theological questions in new and complex ways. Even some of his most ardent admirers in the Protestant theological tradition knew he was plowing radically new turf in sometimes disruptive ways (see https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-32/barth-and-bonhoeffer.html for an overview). Because his life was cut short by martyrdom, DB’s writings have an incomplete quality about them. It is as if he was outlining his theologoumenon in advance of a more finished effort at a comprehensive theological contribution to prevailing Protestant orthodoxy. Consequently, through his existing writings, we must consider his evolving ideas, coalesce his disparate thoughts, and anticipate the trajectory of his ethics and theology. Luckily, despite the restrictions placed on him by historic circumstances, DB left much for us to work through.
In an essay written in 1942, a few months before his arrest, DB shared with his family a summary of his life’s journey. In part, he wrote, “We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.” It cannot be stressed enough the impact of his perspective, “We have . . . learned to see the great events of history from below, from the perspective of . . . those who suffer.” It is his view from the underside (a perspective we might understand as oppositional to privilege or advantaged in today’s lexicon), that is essential to understanding DB’s ethical and theological development. Moreover, it is important to understand DB’s social critique was leveled at both sacred and secular. As Kelly writes in the article above, “The church (for DB) is neither an ideal society with no need of reform, nor a gathering of the gifted elite. Rather, it is as much a communion of sinners capable of being untrue to the gospel, as it is a communion of saints for whom serving one another should be a joy.” Still, from his earliest writings, DB, following Pauline imagery, declares the church should be the incarnational body of Christ in the world. Moreover, DB remained clear the church is most the church when it is the church for those experiencing the world from the underside. He was concerned most when the church failed to stand against persecution and victimization of marginalized people. The church, DB declared, should “jam the spokes of the wheel of state” if such persecution and victimization existed.
DB’s concern for the view from the underside is relevant for all times. In times of broad and undeterred violence against the persecuted, victimized, and marginalized, it is DB’s most powerful and challenging proclamation to the church. It is the basis for everything he writes as he lives through a time of confusion, discord, and violence. His lesson in perspective is one the incarnational Body of Christ today–the Church–must embrace. We must be prepared to assess honestly the actions of those who govern and be prepared to incarnate the Gospel in ways that “jam the spokes.” In the final collection of his works, Letters and Papers from Prison, DB writes, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others . . . not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men (sic) of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.” Today we must embrace DB’s challenge and live our faith, viewing the world from the perspective of the underside.