The Commandment to Peace (II)

The Commandment to Peace (II)

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The Extraordinary Work of the Visible Community

From 1935 on Bonhoeffer was working at a seminary for future pastors of the Confessing Church (in Finkenwalde, today Poland). The young theologian rediscovered the importance of Christian discipleship and the communal aspect of faith. The experience of these years gave birth to his two most popular books: Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. Following the latter book, I want to outline four dimensions of our calling as Christians, especially in these times of war.

A call to suffer    

“The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, for those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit, the yoke is easy, and the burden is light”, Bonhoeffer underlines right in the introduction of The Cost of Discipleship. Discipleship means belonging to Jesus and following him, and therefore “submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross”. Bonhoeffer writes in chapter “Discipleship and the Cross”,

“To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life. It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause or conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ. The cross is laid on every Christian.”

The cross of Christ is laid on every Christian. Discipleship does not mean suffering as such but “allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer.” Being a suffering disciple is in its core a communal experience and activity; discipleship and sanctification “is possible only within the visible Church” (ch. “The Saints”). We suffer as a community under the cross. Having reached the end of the beatitudes in Matthew 5, Bonhoeffer writes,

“…we naturally ask if there is any place on this earth for the community which they describe. Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found on the cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it has found all. From the cross there comes the call ‘blessed, blessed’.”

Suffering humans can relate more easily to a suffering Messiah. That is one of the reasons why in the first centuries the Good News was often warmly welcomed by the downtrodden in Roman society. That may be true even for whole people. The Koreans were not only occupied but basically enslaved by the Japanese in 1905/10, their country was devastated in the Korean war, causing some millions of casualties among the civilians. Presumably because of this tragic heritage the Koreans have turned in surprisingly big numbers to Christianity.

Nevertheless, there are no privileged people in the Church of Christ. The Koreans are not closer to the Cross than the Japanese. The disciples John and James were asking Jesus, “let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mk 10:37). Jesus denied their request. In the world to come every believer will be close enough to Christ and glorified with Him.

Neither in heaven nor in this age is there a privileged position of Christians or whole people near the cross. God himself distributes to each believer a “different share” of suffering with Christ, but it is “the one and the same cross in every case”, as Bonhoeffer says. All are called to submission to the Cross, all are called to stand at this “one place, and only one” – this one place in the shadow of the Cross.

Christians in Ukraine and Russia are now making different experiences of suffering. I suppose that a way to reconciliation between these people are brothers and sisters in Christ who are willing to submit together to the Cross, who are eager to see their common calling to take up that Cross, who compete not in victimhood but in an attitude of “how can we carry your burden?”.

Carrying a burden means not only help, it goes much deeper. Bonhoeffer again: “My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot, his natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share.”

A call to be different

“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life… And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives.” I guess Bonhoeffer has paraphrased in these sentences a whole passage from the Epistle to Diognetus, a Christian document from the early second century. In The Cost of Discipleship (Part II, “The Visible Community”) he writes,

“The Christians live in the world. They make use of the world, for they are creatures of flesh and blood, and it was for the sake of their flesh that Christ came into the world. They indulge in worldly activities. They get married, but their marriage will look quite different from marriage as the world understands it… The Christians buy and sell, they engage in trade and commerce, but again in a different spirit from the world… Thus the life of the Christian community in the world bears permanent witness to the truth that ‘the fashion of this world passeth away’ (I Cor. 7:31 )”

The Christians still walk in the flesh, “but with eyes upturned to heaven, whence he for whom they wait will come again. In the world the Christians are a colony of the true home, they are strangers and aliens in a foreign land”. They live each in their own country and “pray for all in authority”, but these are “alien rulers” and “alien laws”. Believers in Christ “are only passing through the country… They are strangers and sojourners on earth (Heb. 11:13; 13:14; I Pet. 2:11).”

The Christian life is ordinary, but there is also “something extraordinary” about it. This is most clearly seen in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5–7. In the eyes of Anglican theologian John Stott (1921-2011) the key text of that Sermon is 6:8 “Do not be like them”. In this verse Jesus is talking about prayer, but the theme goes right through all three chapters. The call to be different is elaborated in the whole Sermon. It continues the “You shall not do as they do” of Leviticus 18:3. There has to be a contrast between Christian and non-Christian standards of ethics and morality. Christians are called to be different from the secular world and the nominal church, both from the religious and irreligious. According to Stott, the Sermon is an expression of and call to “Christian counter-culture”:

“The essential theme of the whole Bible from beginning to end is that God’s historical purpose is to call out a people for himself; that this people is a ‘holy’ people, set apart from the world to belong to Him and to obey Him; and that its vocation is to be true to its identity, that is, to be holy or different in all its outlook and behavior.” (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount)

Bonhoeffer would certainly agree. The whole chapter on Matthew 5 in his book is headed “Of the ‘Extraordinariness’ of the Christian Life”. The chapter closes with a demand to love one‘s enemies, 5:43–48: “Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44). “The Enemy – ‘The Extraordinary’” is Bonhoeffer‘s heading of his exposition of the passage. Loving an enemy is really an extraordinary thing: “To the natural man, the very notion of loving his enemies is an intolerable offence, and quite beyond his capacity”, Bonhoeffer concedes. “Jesus‘ commands ask the impossible, they ask for a new man, a new community.”

“And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”, Jesus asks in verse 47. The word “more” translates the Greek perisson. Christians are different from pagans or non-believers in doing more than them. Bonhoeffer explains,

“What makes the Christian different from other men is the ‘peculiar’ the perisson, the ‘extraordinary,’ the ‘unusual,’ that which is not ‘a matter of course.’ This is the quality whereby the better righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. It is ‘the more,’ the ‘beyond-all-that.’ The natural is to auto (one and the same) for heathen and Christian, the distinctive quality of the Christian life begins with the perisson. It is this quality which first enables us to see the natural in its true light. Where it is lacking, the peculiar graces of Christianity are absent.”

“What is the precise nature of the perisson?”, Bonhoeffer asks.

“It is the life described in the beatitudes, the life of the followers of Jesus, the light which lights the world, the city set on the hill, the way of self-renunciation, of utter love, of absolute purity, truthfulness and meekness. It is unreserved love for our enemies, for the unloving and the unloved, love for our religious, political and personal adversaries. In every case it is the love which was fulfilled in the cross of Christ.”

War in general unifies the people of a country against an enemy. In war a dissenter easily becomes a traitor. In armed conflicts the pressure is enormous to stand together as a nation. The Extraordinary of the Church becomes utterly unfashionable, even to the Christian. They rediscover their earthly citizenship and their national ties with fellow countrymen. “Love for enemies” is tolerated in times of peace because it is easy to spiritualize, in an actual war it is often regarded as dangerous and defeatist.

What is the Extraordinary the churches in Europe are doing now, during the war between Ukraine and Russia? According to Bonhoeffer, it must not be lacking, but where is it? Now ‘everybody’ “stands with Ukraine”, ‘everybody’ supports refugees, ‘everybody’ opens homes and raises Ukrainian flags. What is the Christian “more”? Donating more money, helping bigger numbers of people, being more generous? The Christian “more” is not a “more of the same” (although that might be helpful too), but adding some different, something of a new and special quality.

It is interesting that “Love for enemies” almost totally disappeared from the Christian public communication. Sometimes the commandment is touched upon in sermons, interviews or articles of church leaders in Lithuania, but more in the passing – like a timid admission: wasn‘t there something in Jesus‘ Sermon?

Some are trying to soften the demand in Mt 5:44. Jesus allegedly had in mind only the personal enemies; so we are allowed, it is said, not to love the enemy in a war. Yet Bonhoeffer and with him the majority of serious exegets agree that He was speaking about enemies in general, about personal adversaries, but also about religious ones (persecutors) and political enemies too. Bonhoeffer again: “Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love.”

What is the Extraordinary the Church has to do now? How can the Visible Community be different – when being different is utterly unpopular? Are we willing to think deeply about these questions? Are we ready to ask uncomfortable and fundamental questions?

A call to be creative

The passage to love the enemy is preceded by the command “Do not resist an evil person” (5:39, NIV). Most theologians agree that this commandment of non-retaliation does not directly apply to the government. First of all the individual disciple is addressed. “To make non-resistance a principle for secular life is to deny God, by undermining his gracious ordinance for the preservation of the world,” Bonhoeffer writes. Nevertheless, he rejects the clear-cut distinction between person and office, made by Martin Luther and other reformers, as “wholly alien to the teaching of Jesus. He says nothing about that. He addresses his disciples as men who have left all to follow him, and the precept of non-violence applies equally to private life and official duty.” No less radical he goes on,

“The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no opposition and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match. Of course this can only happen when the last ounce of resistance is abandoned, and the renunciation of revenge is complete. Then evil cannot find its mark, it can breed no further evil, and is left barren.”

Paul gives a famous incentive for obeying this command: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay” (Rom 12:19, citing Deut 32:35). There will be divine justice on every hurtful, unfair, exploitive act in history, there will be a cosmic “eye for an eye” (5:38), a Last Judgment. This relieves disciples of the false opinion that in order for justice to happen, they must administer it. Evil will get its due, there will be a Great Payback.

Vengeance is the key word. The Greek me antistenai in verse 39, do not resist, probably also means “do not take revenge”. The apostles: “If someone has done you wrong, do not repay him with a wrong” (Rom 12:17); “Do not pay back evil with evil” (1 Pet 3:9). Our immediate reaction to ill-treatment from an “evil one” (v. 39) will be “get even!” or “pay back!”. But Jesus says, “Do not!”, “be more creative!”, “surprise him!”. Bonhoeffer‘s “let [the evil] run itself to a standstill” is an example, a creative application of that command.

Human beings are created to be creative in all their life. Christians are also called to be creative people in the course of their discipleship. The passage in Mt 5:38–42 shows us four little steps, four non-violent means of subtle confrontation. Jesus calls us to confront the evil one with a surprisingly nonviolent response – turn the other cheek, give the other garment, go to the other mile, give the other loan. “Our Peacemaking Command is the command to be a Surprising Person”, says Frederick Dale Bruner in his great commentary on Matthew (Vol. 1, Matthew 1–12, The Christbook).

Such an unexpected, spiritual and creative response is only possible for persons who believe in ultimate justice – in a living God. “Only when persons know themselves justified before God will they usually be willing to be treated unjustifiably by people”, Bruner writes. Only persons who have been previously upgraded by God are then willing to be degraded by renouncing revenge, as Bruner says. The “victory of divine love over the powers of evil” is “the only supportable basis for Christian obedience” to this commandment, says Bonhoeffer.

On the last page of The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer repeats what Christian discipleship is all about: we are called to become…

“…‘like Christ’ (kathos Christos). We have been transformed into the image of Christ, and are therefore destined to be like him. He is the only ‘pattern’ we must follow. And because he really lives his life in us, we too can ‘walk even as he walked’ (I John 2:6), and ‘do as he has done’ (John 13:15), ‘love as he has loved’ (Eph. 5:2; John 13:34; 15:12), ‘forgive as he forgave’ (Col. 3:13), ‘have this mind, which was also in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 2:5)…“

Following the Love in person also means following the most creative person who ever lived. Everything was created by the Word, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity (Jn 1:3; Rom 11:36; Col 1:16). In Jesus the Creator and Redeemer walked on earth as the incarnation of creativity itself. He applied his creative nature to his teaching, problem-solving, mentoring, ministry planning, to relationships and conflicts; we could give numerous examples in the New Testament. Jesus war a incredible creative story-teller – provocative, surprising, subverting, raising non-expected questions, never superficial. He watched everyday life, then applied these insight in very creative ways to his teaching. He saw things differently and in a fresh and new way.

Therefore Christian discipleship means following the steps of the creative Redeemer, to love neighbor and also enemy in creative ways. Obedience to Him is supposed to be “single-minded” (a chapter in Bonhoeffer‘s book) but that does not mean primitive, superficial and thoughtless. It is the other way round!

The distinctive answer of the Church in times of war has to be a creative answer. We need more creative discipleship and fresh answers – not just more arms, more money, more support. “Do not resist” means not only to stand still and let the evil overwhelm you; it demands creative activity. Nonviolence demands more thinking and more creativity than fighting back.

A call to prayer

As we have seen, Bonhoeffer stresses the communal aspect of discipleship and the visibility of the gathered Church. The passage in Mt 5:43–48 on Love for Enemies fits into this. All the verbs from 44 on are plural. The command to love the neighbor is in singular, keeping us from the cheap love of plural generalities (concrete love of a poor person instead of loving the poor). But here we have a universal command to love our plural enemies, all kinds of enemies and not just our personal one.

“Pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you”, Bonhoeffer paraphrases verse 44. He explains,

“This is the supreme demand. Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God. Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them. For if we pray for them, we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them. We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves.”

To pray for the enemies (v. 44b) means “in behalf of them”, it is substitutionary prayer; we ought to do “for them what they cannot do for themselves”. Because this command is communal Bruner interprets and translates “But I say to you folks, You people love your enemies”. The Presbyterian theologian elaborates, “This means, first of all, that the Christian community in her worship and public life will seek to keep the Command in relation to the persecuting communities surrounding her in the world and even in the church. The Christian community is to love her enemies!”

The plurals in this sentence teach us that this is a command for communal prayer. Jesus prayed for his enemies from the cross (Lk 23:34), as did Stephen in his martyrdom (Acts 7:60). The Church‘s worship service should regularly include prayers for our specific and most obvious enemies. In particular the prayer of intercession is recommended as the appropriate way to deal with mistreatments, challenges of war. This communal dimension of enemy-love is sometimes missed in our understandable eagerness to get to the individual challenge of personal perfection. We have to ask: Do our prayers – corporate or private – often enough include prayers for opponents and persecutors?

Verse 45 gives a motive and a reason for the love for enemies: “…that you may be the son of your Father in heaven.” We will come to experience God the Father in an especially intimate way. The promise of the seventh command in the Sermon is exactly the promise of the seventh beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”. All true believers are children of God. Therefore all of them are called to grow in the praxis of love for enemies.

The second half of verse 45 gives a reason. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good…”: God loves all these people the sun is shining on, also the evil ones. Even in nature we see God‘s love of enemies. Hence Jesus is asking to do what God himself is doing daily. God loved his enemy world so much that he gave it his Son. God shows his grace both in upholding nature and in sending his Son to the cross. Bonhoeffer writes,

“In the face of the cross the disciples realized that they too were his enemies, and that he had overcome them by his love… He knows that he owes his very life to One, who though he was his enemy, treated him as a brother and accepted him, who made him his neighbor, and drew him into fellowship with himself. The disciple can now perceive that even his enemy is the object of God’s love, and that he stands like himself beneath the cross of Christ.”

God is the greatest enemy-lover of all time (see, e.g., Rom 5:10, 8:7; Col 1:21; Eph 2:16). Bruner again, “The heart of Christian theology is also the heart of Christian ethics: God‘s love of enemies. Christ was sent by God to love his enemies, that is why his disciples are taught to love their enemies. If God reconciled His enemies by suffering, then those who want to follow Christ faithfully must not treat their enemies differently.”

“When we love those who love us, our brethren, our nation, our friends, yes, and even our own congregation, we are no better than the heathen and the publicans. Such love is ordinary and natural, and not distinctively Christian”, Bonhoeffer says. The love of enemies does not come naturally, it is the Extraordinary. It demands are miracle in the heart. It has to be taught and put into practice, first of all through communal prayer.

Surely, we do not discover anything loveable in our enemies. But, as Luther said in his Heidelberg disputation of 1518, “The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it” (theses 28). Creative prayer of the Church for enemies of all kinds will create new realities, first of all, it will turn the Christian themselves into “pacifici”, peacemakers in Latin, pacifists: “We should not balk here at using the word ‘pacifism’. Just as certainly we submit the ultimate pacem facere [to make peace] to God, we too must pacem facere to overcome war.”

(Bild o.: Bonhoeffer-Skulptur an der Kirche St. Petri in Hamburg; Fritz Fleer, 1979)