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by Steven Rodriguez
I’ve been reading some letters of theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They are a fascinating window into a friendship at a pivotal moment in the history of the church.
It’s 2313, the world is about to explode in global war, and here are two bookish Germans talking about things like church polity and their personal feelings. The contrasts between them are striking. Bonhoeffer is respectful and deferential to Barth’s expertise. Barth is overbearing and arrogant. Bonhoeffer bares his soul, showing admirable depth of self-awareness. Barth plows ahead, ignoring all that feely stuff, speaking in forceful, detached military-inflected language. They have a shared set of theological commitments, but little consensus on how to work out their ideals in the messy quagmire of church politics. In short, they are two broken people trying to follow Jesus together as friends.
In one letter, Bonhoeffer confesses that he did not tell Barth about his inner turmoil over whether he should flee to England or not. Bonhoeffer had a choice: should he stay lecturing in Germany, embroiled in dangerous controversy, or take a call as a pastor of German expats in London, far removed from danger? He did not inform Barth of his decision until after the fact. In a remarkably honest confession, he tells Barth, “I knew that I would have to do what you told me and I wanted to remain free; so I simply withdrew myself.”
It’s so much safer to withdraw, to stay at a distance where all of our thoughts, emotions and actions are inscrutable. It’s so much safer to avoid hurting others and avoid being hurt. It’s so much safer to see our lives as a tragic solitary fate rather than a comedy of community.
In the same letter, Bonhoeffer laments that he had to leave Germany because otherwise all of his friends would have discovered just how radical his views really were. As he says, “I felt that I was incomprehensibly in radical opposition to all my friends, that my views of matters were taking me more and more into isolation, although I was and remained in the closest personal relationship with these people.”
Bonhoeffer saw that he was doing this, realized that he was withdrawing himself, and he confessed it to Barth. He decided to take the more difficult path, the path of being known, critiqued, and corrected. He followed the way of spiritual friendship. In spiritual friendship, we no longer try to “remain free.” Instead, we bind ourselves to each other in rich ecosystems of mutual faithfulness. Bonhoeffer decided to take the more difficult path, the path of being (even in Barth’s broken way) loved.
One of my great temptations in life is to isolate myself. I am so grateful that I have had friends to whom I can confess this, to whom I can open myself up. And some of them, it turns out, can be as punchy and pushy as Barth, calling me out and challenging me to change.
I need friends like that. You probably do too.
Steven Rodriguez is pastor of Lakeview Community Church in Greece, New York.