Dietrich Bonhoeffer, cheap grace and hero worship

April 8th, 2016

Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and allegiance to God — the responsible man, who makes his who life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?  

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

April 9 will mark 71 years since Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis for his role in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. The quotation above is from “After Ten Years,” a letter he wrote to to Eberhard Bethge and to at least one of his co-conspirators at Christmas 1943. He admits, “The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts.” He then surveys possible responses he might have chosen to the Nazi cataclysm. He names and dismisses several: the reasonable people, the fanatics, the people of conscience, the duty-bound and people of virtue. He declares that the only course of action is to make one’s life an answer to the call of God and asks, “Where are these responsible people?”

Although I had read “After Ten Years,” before, it recently struck me with incredible force. In it he both defends his participation in the plot and questions its validity. What I most admire about Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that he acted on what he believed God was calling him to do. I can't resist the conclusion that his role in the plot was integrally related to his discipleship. This will shock those who believe God could not countenance such an action. As dangerous a conclusion as this is, there is an even more dangerous one — that he acted without connecting his actions to his life with God. Bonhoeffer spoke of “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely in the arms of God, taking seriously not only our sufferings, but those of God in the world.” He concluded, “How can a man wax arrogant, if in this-sided life, he shares the sufferings of God?”

Heroes raise the bar on our lives. As we reflect upon the lives of heroes, however, our task is not to admire them but to let them question us — our courage, our motivations and our integrity. It is not enough, however, to gaze admiringly at their statue or portrait, or even to observe a moment of silence in their memory. Heroes require more than the “cheap grace” of hero worship. We honor heroes by living as responsible men and women, living unreservedly and sharing the sufferings of God in this life.

With this in mind, Saturday April 9 will find me remembering the day of Bonhoeffer’s death in Cairo, Egypt. I will be part of a group seeking to learn a new paradigm for living out our faith.

We want to discover how Christians live as a minority religion and why their number increases in spite of the hardships they face. We will meet with both Christians and Muslims, including a visit to a mosque. We will visit a clinic jointly operated by Christians and Muslims who have laid aside their theological differences in order to heal the hurts of others. We will visit Garbage City, where 30,000 Christians make their living by collecting the garbage of Cairo. We will see the spectacular Cave Church where their worship witnesses to the way God’s glory outshines the surrounding squalor. We will gather with Christian leaders across the Middle East, hearing their stories of heroic sacrifice and humble service. We want to gain a vision of how Christians can faithfully share the good news while respecting the faith of Muslims in this country and around the world.

We have been chosen to live in challenging times. Our country is currently awash in a toxic soup of hatred and anger. Finger-pointing and trash-talking may well become Olympic sports. Fixing the blame has replaced fixing problems as a leadership trait. Christians have an opportunity to show how the cross offers light in this darkness. Many Muslims came here to escape the harsh conditions created by extremists fomenting terror. If the only Christian voices they hear are those of judgment, we will miss a wonderful opportunity to share the grace of God. No, we must not be radicalized by radical people. Instead, we must be people responsible to the call of God upon our lives. We can be responsible by speaking quietly in the face of shouting, letting no one mistake our calm demeanor for a lack of conviction.

Christians must not allow themselves to be sucked into the maelstrom of angry voices dominating our public discourse. Neither can we stand above the fray as if we have no accountability in this turbulent time. We must step outside our comfortable Christian enclaves to the hard places where people unlike us live. We must demonstrate our belief in the gospel by sharing it with those whose lives are filled with fear and anger.

May God give each of us the courage to step up and to answer Bonhoeffer’s haunting question, saying “We are the responsible people.” 

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