Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 - 1945), a German theologian, pastor, and ecumenist

Summary: It is solely the love of Jesus Christ, who went to the cross for his enemies and prayed on the cross for them. This article lets us know what Jesus wants from us today.

Discipleship was the largest and most influential book published by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during his lifetime. Within its pages he confronts his readers time and again with his own stark challenges to their facile, less than Christlike ways of being Christian. What did it mean to declare oneself a follower of Jesus Christ? What were Christians to do about the seemingly “impossible demands” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? How effective and relevant were the Matthean Beatitudes again the materialism, militarism, and ruthless dictatorship that had come to dominate Germany in Bonhoeffer’s own time? How were Christians to act responsibly in the Church Struggle created by Hitler and Nazism?

These were issues that had disturbed Bonhoeffer during the gestation period of this book. He declares at the outset that his sole concern is to search not for new battle cries and catchwords but “for Jesus himself.” Bonhoeffer’s questions were shocking in their directness: What did Jesus want to say to us? What does he want from us today?”

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT

Matthew 5: On the “Extraordinary” of Christian Life

The Beatitudes

The Enemy—the “Extraordinary”

“Pray for those who abuse and persecute you.” That is the most extreme. In prayer we go to our enemies, to stand at their side. We are with them, near them, for them before God. Jesus does not promise us that the enemy we love, we bless, to whom we do good, will not abuse and persecute us. They will do so. But even in doing so, they cannot harm and conquer us if we take this last step to them in intercessory prayer. Now we are taking up their neediness and poverty, their being guilty and lost, and interceding for them before God. We are doing for them in vicarious representative action what they cannot do for themselves. Every insult from our enemy will only bind us closer to God and to our enemy. Every persecution can only serve to bring the enemy closer to reconciliation with God, to make love more unconquerable.

How does love become unconquerable? By never asking what the enemy is doing to it, and only asking what Jesus has done. Loving one’s enemies leads disciples to the way of the cross and into communion with the crucified one. But the more the disciples are certain to have been forced onto this path, the greater the certainty that their love remains unconquered, that love overcomes the hatred of the enemy; for it is not their own love. It is solely the love of Jesus Christ, who went to the cross for his enemies and prayed on the cross for them. Faced with the way of the cross of Jesus Christ, however, the disciples themselves recognize that they were among the enemies of Jesus who have been conquered by his love. This love makes the disciples able to see, so that they can recognize an enemy as a sister or brother and behave toward that person as they would toward a sister or brother. Why? Because they live only from the love of him who behaved toward them as toward brothers and sisters, who accepted them when they were his enemies and brought them into communion with him as his neighbors. That is how love makes disciples able to see, so that they can see the enemies included in God’s love, that they can see enemies under the cross of Jesus Christ. God did not ask me about good and evil, because before God even my good was godless. God’s love seeks the enemy who needs it, whom God considers to be worthy of it. In the enemy, God magnifies divine love. Disciples know that. They have participated in that love through Jesus. For God lets the sun shine and the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. It is not only the earth’s sun and earthly rain which descend on good and evil, but it is also the “sun of righteousness,” Jesus Christ himself and the rain of God’s word which reveal the grace of his Father in heaven toward sinners. Undivided, perfect love is the act of the Father; it is also the act of the children of their Father in heaven, just as it was the deed of God’s only begotten Son.

“The prayers of neighborly love and of nonrevenge will be especially important in the struggle fought by God toward which we are moving, and in which to some extent we have already been engaged for years. On one side, hatred is fighting, and on the other, love. Every Christian soul must seriously prepare for this. The time is coming in which everyone who confesses the living God will become, for the sake of that confession, not only an object of hatred and fury. Indeed, already we are nearly that far along now. The time is coming when Christians, for the sake of their confession, will be excluded from ‘human society,’ as it is called, hounded from place to place, subjected to physical attack, abused, and under some circumstances even killed. The time of widespread persecution of Christians is coming, and that is actually the real meaning of all the movements and struggles of our time. Those opponents intent upon destroying the Christian church and Christian faith cannot live together with us, because they see in all of our words and all of our actions that their own words and deeds are condemned, even if ours are not directed against them. And they are not wrong in seeing this and feeling that we are indifferent to their condemnation of us. They have to admit that their condemnation is completely powerless and negligible. They sense that we do not relate to them at all, as would be quite all right with them, on the basis of mutual blaming and quarreling. And how are we supposed to fight this fight? The time is approaching when we no longer as isolated individuals, but together as congregations, as the church¯shall lift our hands in prayer. The time is coming when we as crowds of people, even if they are relatively small crowds among the many thousands-times-thousands of people who have fallen away will loudly confess and praise the crucified and resurrected Lord, and his coming again. And what prayer, what confession, what song of praise is this? It is prayer of most intimate love for those who are lost, who stand around us and glare at us with eyes rolling with hatred, some of whom have already even conspired to kill us. It is a prayer for peace for these distraught and shaken, disturbed and destroyed souls, a prayer for the same love and peace that we ourselves enjoy. It is a prayer which will penetrate deeply into their souls and will tug at their hearts with a much stronger grip than they can manage to tug at our hearts, despite their strongest efforts to hate. Yes, the church which is truly waiting for its Lord, which really grasps the signs of the time of final separation, such a church must fling itself into this prayer of love, using all the powers of its soul and the total powers of its holy life” (A. F. C. Vilmar, 1880).

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4. Translated from the German Edition by Martin Kuse and Ilse Todt, English Edition Edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, Translated by Barbara Green and Reinahrd Krauss. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2001.

PPS 1,140-143. Used by permission, SCM-Canterbury Press, Co.UK

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July–September, 2007

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