Christ’s Body: Bonhoeffer revisited

Christ’s Body: Bonhoeffer revisited

Glynn Cardy

Sun 23 Feb

There is an important distinction made in theology between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith; or in the words of Marcus Borg: the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus.  Most of the New Testament talks about the latter, for the texts were written decades after Jesus’ death and reflect the faith of the writers and the needs/aspirations of their communities.  But within those texts we gain glimpses of the historical pre-Easter Jesus.

In brief the historical Jesus was a Jewish peasant who was a profound counter-cultural wisdom teacher, mystic, and healer.  He told stories about banquets where everyone, no matter what class, or illness, or race, or gender, was welcome and ate together.  And he lived like that: eating, meeting, and touching people whom the boundary-keepers said he shouldn’t.  He practiced and promoted a radical inclusion and egalitarianism.  Those who were marginalized in society experienced this as healing, and were encouraged to likewise heal others. 

Jesus deliberately tried not to accumulate power.  And he did this by moving around the countryside and resisting relationships of obligation.  He covertly resisted the Roman occupation, and he was overtly critical of his own religion’s practices that led to marginalization, and particularly was critical of the Jerusalem Temple.  It was probably his disruptive protest in the Temple during the politically volatile Passover period that led to his arrest and then execution by the Romans.

After Jesus’ death his followers slowly, over a number of years, came together again in Galilee.  They struggled with the death of the messianic hopes they had in him.  They struggled with the feeling of being abandoned by their God.  They searched their Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) to find understanding.  Importantly they continued eating together, practising the radical inclusion and egalitarianism, and in doing so came to talk about the spirit of Jesus (the post-Easter Jesus) living on in their midst.  They remembered the stories he’d told and in time, when literate people joined their movement, these stories came to written, discussed, and re-written.  

One of those literate people to join the movement was the Apostle Paul.  He wrote letters to a number of Jesus communities who by that time had sprung up in towns across the Mediterranean world.  Paul said that followers of Jesus – those who formed communities practicing inclusion across boundaries of sex, class, race, and illness by eating together and welcoming outsiders – were the body of Christ.  The dead Jesus had come to life again in the practice of the communities he had inspired.  When they were kind to a stranger, for example, Christ in a poetic sense came alive in that act.  When they lived the Jesus Way they were the body of Christ.  This counter-cultural egalitarian community was the embodiment of his Spirit, they were the body of Christ. 

The mission of that body of Christ (which we now call the church) was to communally live out the vision and practice of this radical Jesus.

However, almost from the beginning, an alternate understanding of the body of Christ was developed by those who like order and boundaries and the prerogatives of gender; which necessitated a contrary view of leadership and hierarchy.  For an egalitarian community, where women or Samaritans for example might have and exercise the gifts of leadership, to be the body of Christ was a threat (as it had been in Jesus’ day) to those liked the power the culture of privilege gave them.

So an understanding of a god-like invisible-bodied being called “The Christ” developed.  This was the male Jesus come back to life for a short time before being elevated to the heavens (where God was said to dwell and reign from).  This celestial Jesus the Christ was now King Jesus the head of the Church, and 12 male apostles were his ‘princes’ – his visible authority on earth.  And even amongst those 12 males a hierarchy was developed, with Peter at the top.

This off-the-earth men-in-charge Christ theology got woven into the texts of the New Testament just as the on-the-earth body-of-believers Christ theology was too.  And as time went on the off-the-earth Christ theology became dominant and built a powerful hierarchical Church that reflected the privileges of gender, culture, and wealth.  Its mission was to promote the caring spiritual message of Jesus without disrupting the economy and politics of entitlement.

I want to talk now about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He is chiefly remembered for his determined opposition to the Nazis and their theology, and for his courageous suffering and death at the hands of the Gestapo in 1945.  But to understand Dietrich one needs to understand a little about the Confessing Church of which he was a part and a critic, and the German Evangelical Church from which the Confessing Church departed.  One also needs to understand a little about Nazi theology, and its attempt to create Christian theology.  And importantly what this context of critical resistance that he and others engaged in taught him in terms of God, Christ, and the Church.

In 1933 a pressure group of Christians within the large German Evangelical Church Confederation of 28 Protestant denominations/churches succeeded in installing Ludwig Muller, a Nazi sympathiser, to its highest office.  The formidable propaganda apparatus of the Nazi state was deployed to help Muller’s supporters win presbytery and synodical elections.  For example on the night before the elections, Hitler made a personal appeal to Protestants by radio.  And Muller’s supporters won 70–80% of all seats.

If this involvement of Hitler in church affairs seems strange to us remember that Hitler like other powerful figures in history have professed to be Christian.  In 1928 Hitler said, “We tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity.  Our movement is Christian.” 

His sympathisers in the Church were explicit about their ideas including the removal of all pastors unsympathetic with National Socialism, the expulsion of ministers and members of Jewish descent (the Aryan Paragraph), the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible, and the adoption of a more “heroic” and “positive” interpretation of Jesus, who in pro-Aryan fashion should be portrayed to be battling mightily against corrupt Jewish influences.

Although only in office for two years, Muller succeeded in destroying the unity, and thus the potential political power, of that confederation as he tried to push through his Nazi agenda.  Churches splintered off from the confederation.  For most Protestant leaders who objected the concerns were more to do with the regime’s interference in what they considered church matters (like determining their own doctrine) than antisemitism per se.  Muller’s efforts eventuated in the forming by 1937 of a Reich Church espousing a single doctrine called ‘Positive Christianity’.

The Aryan Paragraph though created a furore among some of the clergy.  Under the leadership of Martin Niemöller, the Pastors’ Emergency League was formed, presumably for the purpose of assisting clergy of Jewish descent, but the League soon evolved into a locus of dissent against Nazi interference in church affairs.   Eventually, this dissenting group evolved into the Confessing Church.  While many leaders of the Confessing Church attempted to persuade the church to take a radical stance in opposition to Hitler, it never adopted this policy.  Bonhoeffer and a few others condemned the failure of the Confessing Church to move beyond its very limited concern for religious civil liberties and to focus instead on helping the suffering Jews.

Today Bonhoeffer is a source for those looking to challenge others (and themselves) about the cost of discipleship, of standing up for what is right, and being persecuted for that.  For example, he wrote: “Your ‘yes’ to God requires your ‘no’ to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and poor, to all ungodliness, and to all mockery of what is holy.”

Bonhoeffer though is also a source for those who struggle with the sense of abandonment by God and the demise of the Church; or in his words: “Before God and with God we live without God.”  I would translate that like this:  The God of power and glory, kingship and certainty has gone absent.  He’s hopped off his throne, given up his influence, and is gone.  And likewise the Church of power and glory, kingship and certainty, is going, fading, falling into powerless irrelevance. 

For Bonhoeffer that fall of the Church is due to its seduction by an evil state; and the fall of God is due to God’s powerlessness to prevent the evil that followed.  So we live without God – that is without power and certainty. 

But for Bonhoeffer God doesn’t just hop off the throne, he then comes and lives among the nuisances and nobodies in the powerlessness of the Jesus of history, and gets nailed, failed, on a cross.  Yet it’s in Divinity’s very weakness and powerlessness and solidarity that there is any hope to be found.  So the God who is before us and with us is the weak crucified God.  It is God who is being taken to the gas chambers.  There is no kingly transcendent God.

So, there emerges the question, given the absence of the kingly God and the weak hope of the powerless crucified god, what does a church who follows the latter look like?  Here, and bearing in mind the two Christ and C/church ideas I talked about earlier, Bonhoeffer (supported also by Barth) talked of ‘Christ existing as the Church’.  For Bonhoeffer the body of Christ is this weak community which practices unconditional reciprocal acceptance, being there for others (as Jesus was “the man for others”), existing for outsiders rather than insiders, a witness against all actions and policies of exclusion and injustice. 

So Christ is not a transcendent warrior on a horse riding to victory[i] but Christ is literally the weak church community body of eating, solidarity, and boundary-breaking inclusion.

[i] See…