Dietrich Bonhoeffer

On Suffering

An analysis by John D. Godsey

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Suffering by John D. Godsey

"Our God is a suffering God." So preached Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1934.

"(We are) summoned to share in God's suffering at the hands of a godless world." So wrote Bonhoeffer from Berlin's Tegel Prison in 1944.

These quotations expose the heart of his theology and ethics. When defining God, Bonhoeffer liked to quote Luther, who would point to Jesus and declare: "This man is God for me."

Bonhoeffer's faith was as simple and as astonishing as this affirmation: That the sole God of the universe, the Holy One of Israel, became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, who was born in a manger, lived God's righteous love as servant of all, died on a cross with forgiveness on his lips, and rose to inaugurate a new creation. Ecce homo! Behold the human being who as the incarnate, crucified and risen One reveals God's power in weakness and God's lordship in servanthood!

For Bonhoeffer, this is the liberating gospel of grace and the magnetic summons to discipleship. Despite the admittedly situational and often fragmented writings of this German Lutheran theologian, who began theological studies in 1923 and was hanged by the Nazis in 1945 for his involvement in the conspiracy against Hitler, a reader of Bonhoeffer will find an amazing coherence in his thought. To use his own musical metaphor, it is "polyphonous."

Like a Bach fugue, there is a bass theme running throughout that holds together the great variety of contrapuntal themes. That bass theme can be summed up in the word "suffering": God's suffering for us in Christ and with us in all worldly suffering. Most of Bonhoeffer's contrapuntal themes involved the suffering of Christians with God and for others in the midst of earthly life.

Important to note from the outset is Bonhoeffer's distinction between "general suffering" and "Christian suffering." The former casts a foreboding shadow over all earthly life. Just as no one exits this world alive, so no one escapes suffering in some degree, although one of its enigmatic features is its unequal distribution. General suffering encompasses all the misery, illness, pain and death which is inexplicably part of the human condition, and Bonhoeffer attributed it not to the will of God but to the sin and evil resulting from the fall. Christian suffering, by contrast, is a specific kind of suffering which, for Bonhoeffer has three main features: first, it is voluntary; second, it is bearing the burdens of others; and, third, it is done for the sake of Christ. This is suffering that one freely and gladly assumes in the loving of one's neighbor or neighborhood. As such, it is nothing other than answering the demands of Christian discipleship. According to Bonhoeffer, this suffering entails the active following of Jesus into a hurting and often hostile world, doing the "extraordinary" not from some heroic impulse but from the prompting of the Spirit of Christ."

Bonhoeffer's favorite passage of Scripture for summing up his concern was Paul's admonition, "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2). God, he emphasized, is a God who bears: bears our sin, bears our pain, bears our anguish. The deep meaning of the cross of Christ is that there is no suffering on earth that is not borne by God. The church, for Bonhoeffer, is the continuing presence of Christ in history, a body of persons called to share in the messianic suffering of God by being there for others, carrying their burdens and thus fulfilling the duty laid on them by Christ himself. In doing so they become "like Christ," conforming their lives to the way of self-giving love. Bonhoeffer boldly puts it this way: through the life of responsible discipleship Christ actually takes form in us, lives his ongoing life in us. The Church, then, is not a group of people who are merely worshipers of Christ; the church is Christ himself taking form in a community that lives for others; caring for neighbors, both individually and corporately, both near and far.

Must the Christian go around looking for a cross to bear, seeking to suffer? No, insisted Bonhoeffer. Opportunities for bearing crosses will occur along life's way and all that is required is the willingness to act when the time comes. The needs of the neighbor, especially those of the weak and downtrodden, the victimized and the persecuted, the ill and the lonely, will become abundantly evident. What about non-Christians, or at least those who would not call themselves "Christians," who would nevertheless work for peace and justice and reconciliation? They should be embraced with gratitude, according to Bonhoeffer. He cited the Beatitude in which Jesus grants his blessing to anyone who suffers for a just cause. Indeed, Bonhoeffer pointed out that any goodness or humanness in this world can be claimed for the domain of Christ, who is Lord of all but whose rulership consists in service. Few things disturbed Bonhoeffer more than a type of religiosity that tries to circumscribe the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer's sensitivity to suffering, both divine and human stemmed from two main sources. The first was his life of discipleship, which included daily meditation on scripture and prayer. His favorite biblical book was the Psalms, which is filled with the cries of the oppressed and the succor of God. The second was the experiences in his life that confronted him with the reality of suffering: the trauma of losing an older brother in World War I; his weekly involvement in a Harlem church where he learned of the devastating effect of racism and economic deprivation on African-Americans while he was studying at Union Seminary in New York City during the depression year 1930-31; his struggle against the Nazi government's intrusion into the affairs of the German Church and particularly the Nazis' persecution of the Jews; and finally, his participation in the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler, which led to his imprisonment and death. These experiences provided him with what he called "the view from below," that is, the perspective of those who suffer from maltreatment, powerlessness and oppression.

Bonhoeffer firmly believed that suffering with God and for others eventuates in God's blessing. The ultimate blessing is martyrdom, which God grants only to a few. Bonhoeffer would never call himself a martyr, but as a result of his costly witness, may not later generations do so? After all, he advocated judging people less in the light of what they do or don't do and more in the light of what they suffer. In the words of K. F. Harttmann's poem, which Bonhoeffer cited in his Ethics: It is in suffering that (God) imprints upon our minds and hearts (God's) own all-valid image."

After Bonhoeffer learned that the plot against Hitler on July 20, 1944, had failed, he wrote a poem in his prison cell entitled, "Stages on the Road to Freedom." After "discipline" and "action," the third stage is "suffering."

It is through suffering, he wrote, that Christians learn to turn the final outcome of their actions over to God, who alone can perfect them in glory. And it is in dying that they find true freedom as they meet God face to face.

Editorial Notes Stauros ( ) is grateful to the editorial staff of The Living Pulpit for permitting us to reprint John D. Godsey's commentary on Bonhoeffer's theology of suffering. The Living Pulpit is published quarterly for members of The Living Pulpit, Inc., 5000 Independence Avenue, Bronx, NY 10471, 914/757-5109. Membership dues: $39 per year. 1995 by Stauros, U.S.A., 5401 South Cornell, Chicago, IL 60615-5698

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