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10 April 2011

"People draw near to God in their distress". Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Fifty-six years ago (April 9, 1945), 23 days before it surrendered, the Nazi Regime murdered Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor, scholar and martyr.

Even though his life was cut short violently by those who thought they could silence him, his influence on modern theology, not just Lutheran theology, cannot be underestimated.

Bonhoeffer scholars trace how Bonhoeffer's theology (his "talking about God") changed as he moved from teaching seminary to being out there in the real world.  As he found his voice in the Confessing Church, it was no longer the voice of a man who preached a triumphant God. The Confessing Church became the Suffering Church, and Bonhoeffer became an object of hate to the idolatrous Nazi Regime.

Driven by the experience that the god of the triumphant church was no comfort in his own day-to-day suffering or that of the Church, he began preaching a God who stands with those who suffer in solidarity and compassion. "Only the suffering God can help," he said over and over again, in many different ways. Bonhoeffer wrote:

God is a God who bears. ... The Son of God bore our flesh. He therefore bore the cross. He bore all our sins and attained reconciliation by his bearing. 

James B. Janknegt: Man of Sorrows 

This understanding of God’s being as bearing goes back straight to Martin Luther who said at one point:

It is the honor of our God, however, that, in giving the divine self for our sake in deepest condescension, entering into flesh and bread, into our mouth, heart and bowel and suffering for our sake, God be dishonorably handled, both on the altar and the cross ...

In allowing human beings to "handle" him, God "binds himself to human beings", says Bonhoeffer. This is Theology of the Cross. From that point of view it could be said that “Good Friday" was not the beginning of God’s saving action in Jesus, but its “end,” in the sense of God's aim and purpose, God's “first passion,” of what God was doing in Jesus’ life all along: namely, to identify in full solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed.  This would spell out an alternative to (or an amendment of) the traditional substitutionary atonement theories which emphasize a God who must be appeased and satisfied by the punishment of God's only son.

Solidarity and compassion make for a powerful bond between God and humanity.  This bond is expressed in Bonhoeffer's poem, "Christen und Heiden" (Christians and Heathens), written in the Summer of 1944, here in the translation of Alan Gaunt:

People draw near to God in their distress,
pleading for help and begging peace and bread,
rescue from guilt and sickness, nearly dead.
Christian or not, all come in helplessness.

People draw near when they see God's distress:
find God rejected, homeless, without bread,
burdened with sin and weakness, nearly dead.
Christians reach out to meet God's wretchedness.

And God draws near to people in distress,
feeding their souls and bodies with his bread;
Christian or not, for both he's hanging dead,
forgiving, from the cross, their wickedness.

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