Lessons Learned in Prison — Part 4

Community, as Bonhoeffer describes it, requires Jesus as mediator, discipleship, and participation in the incarnation.  Today, we’ll conclude with a brief look at the benefits and challenges of community as well as how Bonhoeffer’s theology relates to holistic body theology.

Challenges: pride and disillusionment

Bonhoeffer criticizes those who live apart for their pride, which separates them from living in a right relationship to God and to others. “The wish to be independent in everything is false pride,” he writes in one of his prison letters and continues, “Even what we owe to others belongs to ourselves and is a part of our own lives, and any attempt to calculate what we have ‘earned’ for ourselves and what we owe to other people is certainly not Christian.”

Bonhoeffer recognizes the difficulty of this kind of intentional Christian life and takes great pains to acknowledge that sin happens.  He warns against idealizing community life by glossing over sin: “In Christian brotherhood, everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.”  The greatest harm to a community comes through disillusionment when sin enters in (as it inevitably will) and is revealed or is kept hidden.

Shame is a deeply crippling issue universal to the human experience.  Christian or not, we deal with shame because of our fallen nature.  Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics: “Man perceives himself in his disunion with God and with men…Shame is man’s ineffaceable recollection of his estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement, and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin.”  Shame requires hiding (i.e., we were ashamed because we were naked), and hiding creates an environment of isolation and loneliness within the community, exactly that which community is designed to eradicate.  When sin comes out, disillusionment sets in and the community rarely survives.

Benefits: freedom from shame and loneliness

For Christians, however, there is hope: community.  Bonhoeffer urges “brotherly confession and absolution” to correct this tendency toward shame.  “Lying destroys community,” Bonhoeffer observes, “but truth rends false community and founds genuine fellowship.”  It is this truth spoken to one another in community that keeps accountable for the sin that cannot be avoided completely.

Confession and intercession are essential for a healthy community life. Bonhoeffer encourages his readers to confess to one another when he writes, “If a Christian is in the fellowship of confession with a brother he will never be alone again, anywhere.” When we confess sin in a safe space to a safe person, that sin no longer has power to shame and isolate us from the rest of the community.  “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses,” Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, ” I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.” When we pray for someone, it is infinitely more difficult to remain distant from that person.  Prayer brings us together, whether we are praying with or for one another, because we are looking to Christ who mediates between us all. Church, like the home, should be a safe environment to make mistakes and be encouraged.

Bonhoeffer suggests in Life Together that the “fellowship of the Lord’s Supper is the superlative fulfillment of Christian fellowship.”  However, the imprisoned Bonhoeffer feels the lack of community on a much more human level: “I very much miss meal-time fellowship…So may not this be an essential part of life, because it is a reality of the Kingdom of God?”

Living and acting out the spiritual disciplines within the community are certainly essential, but Bonhoeffer realizes while he is in prison that we most feel the lack of simple coming together, sharing life together; not just the Lord’s Supper but any supper.  Not just confession but communication.  Not just the visible church-community but daily and freely communing with fellow believers.  It is the sense of togetherness that Bonhoeffer suggests as the greatest benefit of community.  After all, where two or three are gathered, there is Christ among them.

Holistic Body Theology: The Body of Christ and the Body of Christ

Part of holistic body theology is engaging in healthy community as the body of Christ.  We are the community of God, and through Christ we interact with one another to build each other up as we seek to live fully into our identity as the image of God. Likewise, another part of holistic body theology is engaging in healthy interaction with the world, both as individuals and together with the community of God.  This is the body of Christ, the activity and impact of the community of God as we participate in the incarnation of Jesus.

As we learned from our tour of Bonhoeffer’s writings this week, community and Christian fellowship are infinitely vital to the Christian life. Equally vital, however, is the role of the visible church-community in the world and the impact it should have through participation in the incarnation of Jesus.

Bonhoeffer writes, “A man’s attitude to the world does not correspond with reality if he sees in the world a good or an evil which is good or evil in itself…and if he acts in accordance with this view,” that is, idealistic interaction with the world is lacking in the reality of the call of Christ to the action of the disciples.  Rather, “his attitude accords with reality only if he lives and acts in limited responsibility and thereby allows the world ever anew to disclose its essential character to him.”  (This is what Richard Niebuhr would call Christ transforming culture.)

We are called to be a city on a hill, but we’re not supposed to be a gated community, inaccessible if you don’t know the secret code. Jesus entered into the context of his day, and so should we. The role of the Christian in the world is to think and act according to the ever-changing reality of events in the world.    Bonhoeffer makes community life seem so apparent and logical, so clear in scripture, so necessary a part of the live of the disciple who is participating in the incarnation and acting on behalf of those who need justice.

Let’s take our cue from Bonhoeffer and follow his example into a community that has Jesus as the mediator, is made up of costly disciples, and is determined to participate both individually and communally in the incarnation as the body of Christ.

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About Laura K. Cavanaugh

I'm a writer, spiritual director, and advocate of holistic body theology.

Posted on February 9, 2012, in Body of CHRIST, BODY of Christ, Community, Identity, Incarnation of Christ, Service and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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