Editor’s Note: The following is a piece by a guest contributor.
I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say “in brotherliness.” While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people - because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when other start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable - to people with no religion I can on occasion mention God by name quite calmly and as a matter of course).
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tegel Prison, 1944 (Testament to Freedom, p. 502.)
The sense of ideological homelessness that the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced in the Tegel Prison just under a year before the end of the Second World War and his own execution is a familiar one to many of us. The Christianity we grew up believing, the Christian leaders and elders we grew up admiring - and to a large degree idolizing - seems to have gone completely off the rails. Where is the care for the poor? Where is the solidarity with the suffering? Where is the clear-eyed opposition to plainly evil institutions like prisons, the Pentagon and policing?
In the past few months we’ve seen prominent Evangelical theologians (These are my people) spend all of their capital condemning everything from Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory and intersectionality to Howard Zinn, Vice President Kamala Harris (Two days into the new administration she was called a “Jezebel” by Evangelical leader Tom Buck) and anyone they come across who would advocate for the rights of LGBTQ folks, a woman’s right over her own body, the rights of immigrants and the voice of the poor.
That last one might be the most telling. While there has been an unrelenting culture war that religious folks on the right are conscripted into, being fed lie after lie that would prop up any notion that the current Evangelical worldview is rooted in historical Christianity. One only needs to read the Bible itself to understand that those who are in the business of culture war have not begun to wrestle with the moral mess that is the biblical narrative. From the patriarchal polygamy to the invocation for holy war to the murderous adulterers who wrote the vast majority of Scripture, it is impossible to engage God on God’s own terms and come away ready to fight a culture war on behalf of those in power.
As Bonhoeffer writes a letter to his friend, Eberhard Bethge, he has already watched his nominally Christian Germany largely capitulate to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party. Bonhoeffer himself was a part of resistance, from participating in the Barmen Declaration to running an illegal seminary to finally being implicated in an assassination plot. All this has resulted in very little concrete change. As his prison time went on, Bonhoeffer had to know that he would never be free in this life again. So he reflects on the life that he has to live. The relationships he has made in prison. And even there he finds it easier to talk to people outside his own faith about what is most dear to him, his faith in Christ.
Bonhoeffer, at this time, is constructing what would be known as a “religionless Christianity”, for many, his largest theological contribution. The instinct towards religionless Christianity comes from his own experience, that an empty phraseology and a lack of willingness to risk on behalf of others, has left the church with nothing more than an empty whisper. Where was the prophetic witness? Where was the voice of solidarity with the poor? Where was the witness of compassion among the vulnerable?
The familiarity with and lust for power that the religious elites exhibited in Bonhoeffer’s day carries striking similarities to here and now. We are called to be more than talking heads, creating and recreating our own shibboleths that leave us prey to the capitalistic vultures inside and outside the four walls of the church. We are called to bear prophetic witness that we are in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed.
Our political praxis as socialists, as communists, as anarchists, may be rooted in a theory that derives from Marx and may be an imperfect answer to the challenges we face. As a human answer to the evils we see brought down upon our neighbors, by itself it will always be open for critique.
And as Christians, we have a source for solidarity in the charge to “love one another.” Our faith explicitly gives us not only the call but also the source of endurance, “because love is from God.” This love, this is our revolutionary power. In his earlier classic The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer spoke of the peculiar nature of Christian love: “It is unreserved love for our enemies, for the unloving and the unloved, love for our religious, political and personal adversaries” (Bonhoeffer. Cost of Discipleship, p. 153).
So if it seems strange to find more in common with our fellow comrades than with our fellow congregants, we can at least know that we are not alone. For Bonhoeffer, this solidarity with the world took on a radical nature that would cost him his life. For us, today, the call is the same radical, revolutionary call of the gospel. After all, was it not Jesus who told us that whoever would save his life must lose it first? This is not a call for recklessness, for resistance as a lifestyle or for flippant contrarianism.
This is instead a call to, with clear eyes, to jump into the fray. To join arms with our brothers and sisters who have been working towards prison abolition for generations. To join with our coworkers and form a union. Putting our skin in the game for the sake of justice is never in tension with living out our identity as God’s people. Indeed, it is deep within our calling and tradition as Christians to stand with anyone who will for the sake or our neighbor.
The question is relevant each day for us, just as it was for Bonhoeffer nearly a century ago. Where can you use your unique voice - your embodied witness - as a force for good in your world today?
Casey is host of the Public Theologians podcast. You can connect with him on Twitter here!
Excellent piece of writing. Thank you for this.
Thanks for this reflection!