Wednesday, June 10, 2015

For the Life of the World

I'm about ten pages away from finishing a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It's the story of a German pastor who opposed Nazism during the Second World War and lost his life for the sake of defending the gospel-- which to him, included defending the dignity of the Jewish people.

There are a number of posts I could write about my reaction to this story, but the one that has turned around in my mind over and over has to do with the way Bonhoeffer understood ethics, or the moral call of every Christian. Essentially, he said that Christians aren't called to be nice, "moral" people in the sense of abstaining from sinful activities or association with bad people. Rather, he saw the Christian life as one of dangerous action for the sake of good-- even if it meant making a mistake, being wrong, or getting killed in the process:

"It depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith," he wrote, "and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture." The biographer summarizes this sentiment by saying that for Bonhoeffer, "The Christian life had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believing theological notions or principles or rules or did not merely require a mind, but a body too." 

I think a lot of us who grew up in the church missed this somehow. We learned the "rules," the do's and don'ts of "moral living," and somehow internalized the notion that to "be good" is to avoid anything and everything "bad." So we became sterile, hiding in our enclaves of purity to avoid the stain of the world. And we became self-obsessed, so focused on our own sin and how much of it there was that we forgot to look around at those in need.

Bonhoeffer said, "Such people neither steal, nor murder, nor commit adultery, but do good according to their abilities. But...they must close their eyes and ears to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep their private blamelessness clean from the stain of responsible action in the world."

It's not that having a consciousness of sin is wrong. We should be concerned with personal purity. But when the main symbol of our ethics is a fence-- a boundary which exists to keep something out-- we are focusing on the wrong thing. Rather, our symbol for ethics should be a vector-- a God-directed arrow that moves us to 'responsible action' out of love for the world, whatever the cost may be. 

This is what enraged Bonhoeffer in his day. Many "good church people" disagreed with Hitler and thought Nazism and its genocide were wrong, but didn't want to get their hands dirty about it one way or another. So they just stood by while millions were murdered. But "mere waiting and looking on," Bonhoeffer said, "is not Christian behavior." 

If there's one thing that has revolutionized my own understanding of the Christian message, it is this. Jesus didn't come primarily to rescue people out of the world with its evil, its genocide, its racism, its brokenness. He came to redeem that world and everything in it. He got his own hands dirty doing it-- so much so that he was accused of blasphemy and crucified. And as His followers, our job is not to retreat from the mess in the interest of keeping ourselves clean, but to be on the front lines of the gore in the interest of those who are suffering. Even if it means we get our hands dirty. Even if it means we get crucified. 

Lord Jesus Christ, who in your perfect purity didn't avoid sin but who raged headfirst into it for our sake, would you so remake us in your image that we  take up our crosses and do the same, for the life of the world. Amen.