Bonhoeffer & Discipleship

April 10, 2013

Yesterday there was a peace rally in the center of Bogota. It reminds me that Colombia is still trying to come out from under over 50 years of armed conflict. It also reminds me of why so many people have asked me, “Why Colombia?”march

Coming to Colombia was not the first time I’ve been asked the “Why?” question. I think the first time was when I was en route to Nicaragua in the 1980s during the period of the Sandinista Revolution. I have subsequently been asked that question many more times. Why East Africa? Why the West Bank? Why Haiti (before and after the earthquake)? And now the recent question, “Why Colombia?”

As part of my morning prayer and reflection, I often read from books on the saints. Recently, I’ve been using a book by Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses For Our Time, which came to me along with a number of other books through a Boston College friend and colleague. The books were part of a library owned by a Jesuit faculty member who passed away several years ago. The listing for April 9 is about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you are not familiar with Bonhoeffer or his writings, I commend him, and them, to you.

Bonhoeffer was a leader in the Confessing Church in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Regime. He had many friends in the U.S. who were worried about his safety. In 1939, they arranged for him to serve as a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. To everyone’s surprise, however, he only stayed three weeks. In explanation, he wrote, “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the tribulations of this time with my people.” Though some suspected otherwise, he did not deliberately pursue a course toward martyrdom. Although he consistently worked against the Nazis, he managed to stay alive until the final year of the war. As a member of a group that pursued an assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler, he was eventually picked up by the Gestapo and found his way to Buchenwald. He was then taken to Flossenburg prison camp. On April 9 he conducted a prayer service for his fellow prisoners. The following day he was hanged with five other members of the resistance group.

What I think Bonhoeffer was raising when he told his friends he needed to go back to Germany was a recognition of his own potential privilege and sense of entitlement, and also a sense of the cost of discipleship (which he later wrote about in a book aptly entitled, The Cost of Discipleship). I think for Bonhoeffer it would be an act of privilege to think he could sit out the war in the relative security of New York City, when his relatives, friends, and colleagues were all fighting for a cause in Germany. In a sense, to even consider remaining in the U.S. would have reflected a kind of sense of entitlement, like somehow he didn’t deserve to have to go through the tribulations of war in Europe or endure the civil oppression of the Nazis.

To reflect back on the question asked of me regarding “Why Colombia?,” or, frankly, the question asked of any number of us, “Why … this or that … country?,” in light of Bonhoeffer’s work, raises a number of important questions. The first and most obvious for me is, “Why not?” While I, too, don’t court martyrdom (nor, to be clear, would I compare myself to Bonhoeffer), there is a part of me that feels that we are called through our baptism to touch, encounter, experience, and truly feel the realities of the rest of the world. I don’t find it any more appealing than anyone else to live amongst poverty, to experience the social and cultural impact of on-going military conflict, to be amongst children suffering from the devastation of HIV/AIDS, to work in locations devastated by an earthquake, to live among refugees, to lay awake at night worrying about theft, to live among malnourished children, … and the list could go on.  At the same time, however, to not do so, is to somehow put myself above those things … to somehow accept/believe that I shouldn’t have to face them … shouldn’t have to smell the smoke of burning trash, hear a dying child cry, see a handicapped widow begging on the street corner for pennies that she can use to buy food for her family, shouldn’t have to experience the heartache and discomfort of knowing there is little I can do to ease a person’s burden, or face the reality that I have so much in a world where the majority have so little. I find myself asking “Why shouldn’t I experience those things?” Why should I be so privileged as to not have to touch the realities of the world, or so entitled that I think I somehow I shouldn’t have to touch those realities?

We in the church talk about accompaniment. Isn’t part of accompaniment being willing to be in the midst of another person’s reality? How can we accompany if we’re not willing to experience what others experience? And when bad things happen, like having something stolen, some people asking the “Why Colombia?” question might feel justified and might feel that I don’t “deserve” to have those things happen to me. And while that’s a nice, supportive sentiment, I still find myself asking, “Why shouldn’t those things happen to me, too?” If that’s the reality of Colombia, why shouldn’t I experience the same things as everyone else? Am I any different than anyone else?

I give thanks for people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who were, and are, willing to live into their faith. Who accept the cost of discipleship, and challenge the rest of us to struggle with our own understanding of discipleship. Their model of discipleship is inspiring, and in my case, helps me remain grounded in what really matters to me in my relationship with Christ.

Bonhoeffer was clear that our theology is nothing if it isn’t integrated into the everyday. A recognition of that perspective, understandably leads to the types of questions I’ve started to raise about our sense of discipleship, the way we live our lives, the ways in which we encounter and experience others in the world, and ultimately, our relationship with God.

I leave you with the following words by Bonhoeffer for your own reflection:

I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength, and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the midst of the village.

5 Responses to “Bonhoeffer & Discipleship”

  1. Dianne Smith Says:

    Amen and amen, dear soul mate!


  2. Chuck Hornberger Says:

    What a powerful, awe-inspiring post! I am SO proud of you and the work you are doing!


  3. Karen Says:

    Beautiful, Ted. Thanks for this – I needed to hear it today.


  4. Jeff Wick Says:

    Ted, What you have to say on this topic inspires me. Am I so elevated and separate or can I begin to participate and empathize? Are there boundaries to my compassion? I’ll hold these questions in front of me.



  5. Melody Rockwell Says:

    Hey Ted — Thank you for this meaningful reflection with its uplifting challenges encouraging us to be with others… really be with others. Thank you for living this message. I see the theme of ‘wrestling with entitlement’ has emerged in this reflection, as it did in your sermon at Todd Hall. Entitlement, privilege… so impregnated a part of each of us that it is difficult to recognize it within ourselves. Thank you for once again pricking that awareness in me… and for many others. In the quote from Bonhoeffer, I wish he would have said… the church should stand, not at the boundary where human power gives out, but in the midst of the village. …because that’s where the church is at its best, but I could not boldly or monolithically state that the church does stand in the midst of the village, as you eloquently pointed out in your reflection. Listen to me! Critiquing Bonhoeffer! O, my. Best to you on this cool, rainy day in Iowa, Melody


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