This article in Sojourners magazine — “Is Today a Bonhoeffer Moment?” — appeared last year in February, but I never got around to reading it. Then it popped up today on my Facebook timeline. I’m excerpting it and parking here for future reference.
(Something I may want to keep in mind, also for future reference: Why did it catch my attention on FB when it didn’t in ink-on-paper format? Why do I wax so nostalgic for print?)
Then, while I was looking up a German term that Bonhoeffer used — Stellvertretung, which has to do with vicarious, or substitutionary action and is related to words that describe everything from substitute teachers to the Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement — I found a 2017 thesis by MTheol candidate Jonathan Rova at Luther Seminary that sealed the deal. The title: “A Monk, a Martyr and a Finn Walk into a Bar: the Earthy Resonance Between Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Stellvertretung and Tuomo Mannermaa’s Theosis.” Catchy, huh?
Let’s unpack that a little. The monk is Luther. (Who else?) The martyr is Bonhoeffer. And the Finn is Tuomo Mannermaa of the University of Helsinki, who maintained Luther had a mystical side that looks a lot like what the Orthodox call theosis, or indwelling of God. He developed the idea in ecumenical discussions with Russian Orthodox scholars in Finland.
I’ve been powerfully attracted to Mannermaa’s idea, and I wanted to know more. Especially how it might relate to Bonhoeffer. So I saved a link to that master’s thesis with the wonderful title, too. Says Rova, who got his master’s in 2017:
Considering Christology in terms of conversations in a bar is more appropriate than one might think. Placing Christology in such an earthly context removes it from the metaphysical and theoretical worlds and situates it in concrete reality. It is appropriate because for all three theologians, such concrete reality is the only place to find the person of Christ. The location of this common has rarely been considered.
Welp, I can’t argue with that. In fact, I used to have Christological conversations (although I didn’t call them that) in off-campus bars when I was a grad student.
Excerpts from Sojourners article (verbatim)
In opposition to the German Christians, the Confessing Church movement was animated by pastors and church members who rejected Hitler as a figure of church authority. They believed certain matters to be of such importance as to be considered a status confessionis—that is, a situation in which only one position is in accord with the confession of Christ.
Bonhoeffer was a member of the Confessing Church movement. While many members of this movement emphasized the separation of church and state as a status confessionis, Bonhoeffer was more radical than his peers. He saw Nazi racism in this light, as a Christian problem, a status confessionis, and a defining moment for the church. His thinking on this point is explicit in his 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which he wrote in response to the government adoption of the so-called Aryan paragraph, which restricted those with Jewish heritage from holding public office.
A long history of Lutheran understandings of church and state authority underlie Bonhoeffer’s essay; his support of the Jews was not simply based on a humanitarian ideal. Something confessional was at stake for him, though, in the end, his work in solidarity with and on behalf of others had humanitarian, theological, and political implications.
Bonhoeffer’s earliest theology, found in his dissertation, posits the idea that the ongoing incarnation of Christ happens in community; the church is “Christ existing as community.” Not only does this idea contain the notion that social interaction is the point of departure for understanding Christian faithfulness, it means when I encounter another, I encounter Christ, and that other places an ethical demand on me.
Bonhoeffer’s fellowship to Union Theological Seminary in New York in the 1930-31 academic year added social and racial sensitivities to that theological insight. Friendships with fellow students, including French pacifist Jean Lasserre and African American Albert Fisher, offered conversations and lived experiences that shaped Bonhoeffer’s thinking in socially and politically radical ways.
After returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer co-authored a Lutheran catechism in which he declared that German “ethnic pride” was a sin. His reference to ethnic pride spoke to the German Völkisch tradition that the Nazis exploited with their white nationalist declarations of blood and soil. In the catechism, Bonhoeffer extended the conversation about race that became familiar to him at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He quoted from Acts: “God has arranged it so that all races of humanity of the earth come from one blood” (17:26). White nationalism is an affront to this God-given reality.
In that same catechism Bonhoeffer argued, “As much as the Christian would like to remain distant from political struggle, nonetheless, even here the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for his neighbor.” He continued, “His faith and love must know whether the dictates of the state may lead him against his conscience.” He had no idea that he would soon be pressed to act upon this line of thought.
One of Bonhoeffer’s most important theological ideas might shed additional light; it is his understanding of Stellvertretung, or vicarious representative action. Christians understand the death of Christ as a vicarious act on behalf of humanity. Bonhoeffer says that to be disciples of Christ, to follow after Christ, we are called to act vicariously on behalf of others.
This idea has both a theological component and a moral one. In other words, it is not limited to the work of a Christian in the church community but refers to a way of being and acting in the world that is applicable to all people; it is a way of living that defines one’s humanity. In a beautiful twist on the classical theological dictum that God became human so that humans might become divine, Bonhoeffer argues that God became human so that humans could become truly human, and humane.
In Bonhoeffer’s case, acting on behalf of the neighbor took the form of protecting his Jewish neighbors from suffering and dying in concentration camps. And that required him to work, conspiratorially, toward a regime change, as a double agent and traitor to the state. But this work would not have been necessary if Christians had seen the evil of white nationalism and anti-Semitism as antithetical to their faith. Nazis gained power with Christian support.
Bonhoeffer’s life and work and death require us, especially Christians, to ask: Who is Christ for us today? That is a question that honors Bonhoeffer’s legacy.
It forces us to ask ourselves if we recognize Christ in the other. Do we recognize Christ in everyone othered by political structures in ways that push minoritized people to the margins and crush them against walls? Do we acknowledge that God has made from one blood all people that dwell on the Earth? Are we attempting to make ourselves into “good people,” defined by our weekly Sunday morning communities, ones that draw the boundaries of our social responsibilities quite narrowly, or are we looking to serve the Christ we meet in social encounters with real humans every day?
Bonhoeffer’s life and work and death require the church to ask these questions. In the midst of this current political maelstrom, do you individually or collectively want to be a perpetrator, bystander, or resister? Everything is at stake.
Lori Brandt Hale and Reggie L. Williams, “Is This a Bonhoeffer Moment?” Sojourners, February 2018 https://sojo.net/magazine/february-2018/bonhoeffer-moment
Jonathan Rova. A Monk, a Martyr and a Finn Walk into a Bar: the Earthy Resonance Between Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Stellvertretung and Tuomo Mannermaa’s Theosis, MTheol thesis, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, 2017 https://www.academia.edu/33624715/A_Monk_a_Martyr_and_a_Finn_Walk_into_a_Bar_the_Earthy_resonance_between_Dietrich_Bonhoeffers_Stellvertretung_and_Tuomo_Mannermaas_Theosis