Listen To Article
I inherited my mother’s copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and read it while traveling out West last month. It’s not an easy read. I’ve been trying to digest it ever since.
There’s a section where Bonhoeffer minimizes the value of the church, at least as an institution. This caught my attention because I and many others like me are witnessing the demise of the denominations in which we were born and bred. Bonhoeffer suggests that it’s OK to let them go. Human institutions, he argues, tend to codify the original disunity with God. They institutionalize the temptation to discern between good and evil, to play the role of ultimate authority, the role of creator.
Bonhoeffer observes that when we act within these faulty human parameters, we experience anxiety. In order to quell our anxious hearts, we double down on these codes and their application. As is the case with all addictions, we become increasingly severe in our judgments and our severity serves to hide our own emptiness. We say to ourselves and the world: “Surely there are no problems here, look how orderly and discerning we are!”
To my ears, this sounds much like what’s happening in my denomination, the Reformed Church in America and the white American evangelical church at large. We have become a place that never really puts the sin and salvation narrative to rest. We’re characterized by a lack of joy. There can be no peace for those of us who, no matter how sincere, are caught up in a constant search for guilt and a constant application of judgment.
Bonhoeffer points out that Jesus wasn’t the least bit interested in playing this game. He says in effect, “I’m not going to entertain your nonsense.” The Kingdom of God is entirely elsewhere. There is a way that leads to life and a way that leads to death. Choose life. My ways are not your ways.
Everything leads back to creation and God’s original intent. Only in a restored creation can we commune with God and be at rest. Discerning good and evil is a fatiguing and guaranteed-to-fail enterprise. Anything which is not anchored to the ultimate foundation of reality — creation in and through Jesus — has no option except to fail.
In all this, Bonhoeffer places a strong emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, on Jesus being fully accountable for human failures and simultaneously fully transcending them. His humanity wasn’t just a transactional necessity in meeting the requirements of a cosmic legal system. Jesus wasn’t a victim. He was the manifestation of love and the foundation of reality.
Bottom line: Jesus’ humanity is an endorsement of everything related to human experience. The notion of leaving the body behind as having little value and escaping to heaven is not the truth of the Gospel. This premise is, rather, a sophisticated variation on the discerning good and evil narrative. It’s a rejection of who Jesus is. God’s love is originally, and only, manifest in a concrete place and in real, concrete human societies.