The Cost of Discipleship, the Cost of Being a Woman and Other

Let me just get this out of the way: I am not really enjoying this quarter. This is good information. Sitting with this discomfort is educational, insightful. But not fun or juicy or exciting. I surprise myself every week with just how Not Christian I am. Oh, do I miss the practices and mindsets of the previous two quarters! I can’t not practice, so I lightly say my prayers and do a few breathing exercises. But oh, how I miss my practice.

Revisiting things that once held meaning for me is both tedious and informative. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. I studied Bonhoeffer in college. I wrote my senior history thesis on him. And I barely remember anything about him, other than: influential Lutheran German pastor, who resisted the Nazi co-option of the German church and joined the resistance movement, eventually being sent to concentration camps, where he was killed just days before the liberation. I believe I wrote about how he reconciled his Christian pacifist ideology with joining the resistance movement, which worked to assassinate Hitler. At least, I think it was. You might remember that my memory from this stretch of my life is minimal, at best.

I remember really liking The Cost of Discipleship. I’ve kept a copy on my bookshelf all these years. I connect Bonhoeffer with integrity in my mind, with doing the right thing in trying circumstances, with staying true to one’s beliefs and treating his fellow prisoners, as well as his captors, with dignity and love. Those thoughts haven’t changed one bit in my re-reading. However, I’ll be removing this book from my library. I can’t understand what about it I could have possibly found edifying (ha! great Christian word there).

Before we go any further, let me admit: I haven’t finished the book. I only re-read the first third. I can’t do it. I just don’t care. Besides Bonhoeffer being far more traditional and conservative than I remember, his book is basically by a man for men who need a male saviour.

In the beginning of the book Bonhoeffer writes about how grace has been cheapened. I think he would weep were he to witness the rise of mega-churches, prosperity gospel preaching, and mainstream American evangelicalism (which I think is basically cultural Christianity and not much connected with the gospels). “The real trouble is that the pure Word of Jesus has been overlaid with so much human ballast – burdensome rules and regulations, false hopes and consolations – that is has become extremely difficult to make a genuine decision for Christ.” (p. 35)

The majority of the first part of the book is about obedience: obedience to The Call, to Jesus. Let it be known that obedience has never been my strong suit. Rules apply to me only if I like the rules. This has been a sticking point for my spiritual development my whole life. But I also have a romantic view of discipleship. I intellectually recognize the wisdom that obeying can have – I’d better, I’m a parent! But the extent to which Bonhoeffer insists we obey Jesus – no questions, just following – worries me. Bonhoeffer writes about the ways in which we use our questions to attempt to ‘outsmart’ our would-be saviours, to avoid the hard work of Becoming (my language). He makes a really good point here. But the opportunity for maturation is not the point. He goes on to say that “…only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.” (p. 63) “Doubt and reflection take the place of spontaneous obedience.” (p. 73) Yikes.

While I can see that excessive questioning can be a form of self-delusion and avoidance of actually doing the Work, I think it is healthy to question. In fact, I think it is our duty to question. Jesus challenged the Powers that Be, the status quo. The implication that we ought never question our spiritual authority (be that God or the Bible – a document put together by men, even if I agree that it is divinely inspired, or a pastor) because we are only sinful humans steals our human agency from us. Many Christians don’t have a problem with this. I believe the example of Adam and Eve in the garden is all most people need to say ‘yup, humans can’t be trusted.’ But Jesus was also fully human, even if he was infinitely wiser than we are by virtue of being also fully divine,* he was still fully human, and he was not satisfied with the status quo. Blind obedience is problematic for all living things. It is even more problematic for women and other marginalized people.

Women suffer uniquely in communities where questioning is discouraged. The kind of Christianity described by Bonhoeffer may win points for its integrity, but not for its compassion or sense of community. The pastors in Christianity like this are almost always male, and if a woman were to question her lot in life or her struggle then she would likely be told that she is questioning God’s Order. I have no sources to cite from this particular book, but after years of studying feminist theology and from living my own life I know there are scores of books (and blogs) that address this very phenomenon. God (who is He and male) knows best, the Bible (in spite of being written 1900 years ago in a specific time, place and culture) is the Way It Should Be, and Pastor (likely male) knows if you’re being obedient. All Others need to tow the line and know their places.

Obedience usually leads to a discussion of suffering, and this book does not disappoint. Like Roman Catholic theology, suffering is the center of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity. The point of Jesus is rejection and suffering. His crucifixion “must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity…” (p. 87) Why?? Why does giving of self have to equate with rejection? I reject all of this as completely untrue! Even in a Christian context I reject this as Not True. I believe that Jesus could have still accomplished the Christian message if everyone present at that time was mortified by his execution, if his followers and fellow Jews hadn’t rejected him but had instead embraced him. Suffering is NOT a divine necessity.

Suffering occurs in this life. We cannot have life without suffering. Learning to make sense of that is important, whether or not we follow a spiritual path. Jesus, by being part of this human existence and by fighting the Powers That Be, had to embrace suffering. What is to me the heart of the Christian message is that when suffering and death and rejection occur (because they occur to us all at some point, in some form) resurrection is possible. Suffering is not the core of the message, resurrection is. We rise again, in glory. We rise again, glorified.

“Suffering, then, is the true badge of discipleship” (p. 91) says Bonhoeffer. Once again women and other marginalized people lose out when this is the core of a theology. We already have noted the culture of not questioning. A woman in an unhappy marriage, a slave being a …well, slave, a child being abused by his parents – they are true disciples because they are not questioning the systems of the status quo and are enduring their suffering. People who choose not to suffer are then considered disobedient, less faithful, not True Christians. People who choose not to suffer are denying Jesus, in this context. Who are true disciples of Christ, according to Bonhoeffer? “They simply bear the suffering which comes their way as they try to follow Jesus Christ, and bear it for his sake.” (p. 109, emphasis Bonhoeffer’s) How can we bear anything for Christ’s sake? If he bore all for us, what can we possibly bear for God? How does our suffering improve or profit anything?? It profits nothing. I see it as a way to prove that one person is holier than another, or worse, a way to keep women and other marginalized people in their place.

I have no problem with a theology that has place for suffering, but when it is the crux of the faith then the only way into heaven is through suffering. To that I say, every one deserves in to heaven then, because everyone suffers. Or, change the fulcrum on which the tradition balances. I choose not to be obedient or to suffer, not in the Christian context, not according to patriarchal tradition of Western civilization. I will not be obedient to a deity or spiritual leader that insists I deny my own suffering, that I increase my suffering, that I submit to patriarchal status quo systems of injustice, on the flawed logic that we live in a fallen world and only Jesus will make it better…. in the world to come.

To some it may seem like I’m taking Bonhoeffer way out of context or addressing him in anachronistic terms. He was man writing during World War II. When he says things like “What can the call to discipleship mean to-day for the worker, the business man, the squire and the soldier?” (p. 38) am I being a deliberate trouble maker by pointing out that he has excluded women from the list? Sure, a woman is a worker, but so are business men. I believe he is listing by class. He doesn’t mention the mother, which might be the main ‘job’ of women at that time. No, women are left out of this entire discussion of discipleship.

In this book there is an entire chapter titled “Woman.” Great! I thought, here he will address the 51% of the population! No. It’s an entire chapter on Jesus’s teaching on divorce and whether male disciples should marry. This chapter is not about women at all. If this is the only context for women, then we are merely equated with male desires and functions.

After getting to this point in the book I just threw my hands up and decided it’s time to move on. This is one of the reasons I quit my PhD program. I am beyond tired of this sort of theology: written by men for male believers in a male saviour who saves men.

*I actually think we – all of us – are fully human and fully divine already and that the point of the Incarnation was revealing that to us. The work of the spiritual life is to embrace both, to be Whole.

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Living Saraswati
Polytheism, Politics, Discomfort, and Growth
Broken Gods: A Book Review
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About Niki Whiting
  • http://taurusathome.blogspot.com/ taurusathome

    “I actually think we – all of us – are fully human and fully divine already and that the point of the Incarnation was revealing that to us. The work of the spiritual life is to embrace both, to be Whole.”

    Wow. This is actually a really really interesting line of thought that I’m going to need to personally dig in to more. What you say makes an awful lot of sense when I view Jesus’ teachings from outside of a purely “Christian” context. Having been raised in an Evangelical Pentecostal tradition for the majority of my life, I’ve been having difficulty looking at Christianity through an outside lens as I’ve worked to expand my spiritual horizons. In the past I had always scoffed at the people who claimed “We are Divine” because of course, only God is Divine (and Jesus…and the Holy Spirit…). But reading this in the mindset of Jesus being a part of something Greater (not necessarily an agent of only the Christian God)…this really piques my interest. A lot.

    I’m not sure where I’m going on my new path, or where I’ll end up, so reading your journey has been invaluable to me. Thank you very much for everything you have shared. :)

    Also–apologies for commenting on a post from 2 years ago. I’m slowly working my way through your blog chronologically (while simultaneously enjoying your newest posts).

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram/ A Witch’s Ashram

      I am glad that you are getting something from my more theological posts. Eventually I’d like to get back to more of that thinking. Please don’t apologize for commenting on an old post! The goal of these posts is discussion, and there’s no time limit on that!

      • http://taurusathome.blogspot.com/ taurusathome

        Thank you! I’m looking forward to reading more (and probably adding some additional late-to-the-game comments, haha).

  • Patrick Henry

    Niki, your quote ” While I can see that excessive questioning can be a form of self-delusion and avoidance of actually doing the Work, I think it is healthy to question. In fact, I think it is our duty to question. Jesus challenged the Powers that Be, the status quo. The implication that we ought never question our spiritual authority (be that God or the Bible – a document put together by men, even if I agree that it is divinely inspired, or a pastor) because we are only sinful humans steals our human agency from us.”

    The problem is your approach to this as a whole. You see from a human’s perspective assuming that you are ok. You and I are not ok, apart from Christ. The bible says that we are wicked. That no one is righteous, no not one! We see this played out all around us and in our communities. We also, see it played out in our own minds by what we think about and sometimes do, even if we are decent “moral” (by human standards) people.

    Your quote: “Many Christians don’t have a problem with this. I believe the example of Adam and Eve in the garden is all most people need to say ‘yup, humans can’t be trusted.’ But Jesus was also fully human, even if he was infinitely wiser than we are by virtue of being also fully divine,* he was still fully human, and he was not satisfied with the status quo.”

    Again, your human perspective minimizes Jesus by saying He is human, which is true, but your tone tends to identify with him on a level that doesn’t make Him Lord. When you say He wasn’t satisfied with the status quo…….really is not accurate at ALL, because it’s a huge understatement. Jesus came to die on a cross, suffering a roman style execution, rejected by man, and even for a while by God Himself, as Christ hung on the cross enduring hell on behalf of all who will someday believe in Him and commit their lives to Him as His disciples. Bonhoeffer is one of those disciples and we have much to learn from his example.

    Your quote: “Blind obedience is problematic for all living things. It is even more problematic for women and other marginalized people.Women suffer uniquely in communities where questioning is discouraged. The kind of Christianity described by Bonhoeffer may win points for its integrity, but not for its compassion or sense of community.”

    What is more compassionate than what Bonhoeffer did? He came back to Germany to suffer with his people. He was a great encourager to those women who were suffering anxiety because they had lost their husbands and other loved ones in the prison camps. Even the German prison guards had respect for him, because of his love towards people.

    Your quote: “The pastors in Christianity like this are almost always male, and if a woman were to question her lot in life or her struggle then she would likely be told that she is questioning God’s Order. I have no sources to cite from this particular book, but after years of studying feminist theology and from living my own life I know there are scores of books (and blogs) that address this very phenomenon. God (who is He and male) knows best, the Bible (in spite of being written 1900 years ago in a specific time, place and culture) is the Way It Should Be, and Pastor (likely male) knows if you’re being obedient. All Others need to tow the line and know their places.” ”

    You misunderstand the bible in it’s proper context. The gospel liberates women from the ancient Jewish culture. It was revolutionary in its time. The gospel commands men to love their wives as Christ loved the church, laying down their lives. This means commitment and fidelity and true self sacrifice to one woman in marriage. While man was created to lead and is to be the leader, does not in any way minimize the role of women. We all have important and equal roles to play out and having roles does not take away our freedom by the way. Yes, we are to obey God, but that’s because God is……..God. Which takes me back to the beginning of my comments that men and women are sinful in our nature and in our actions. We only need to be honest to see it. Therefore we obey God, believing that His word, the bible is true. If you forsake all your own personal passions and truly follow Christ, then He will bless you with eternal life and a true peace and joy which begins in this life will extend into the next. That is the place where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in his soul when he departed this earth, ready to meet his Maker covered in the righteousness of Christ.
    I will ask you to humble yourself before the Lord and seek His forgiveness, and truly commit your life to Him, forsaking all the worldly ambitions which can so easily grab hold of us. Remember that neither man or woman can come to God in any way other than humility and truth. When asked about truth, Jesus said that He was the way the truth and the life! Only by Him can we get to God.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram/ A Witch’s Ashram

      Mr Henry, firstly, thank you for taking the time to read my post on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and for writing a response.

      May I humbly offer your words back to you: “The problem is your approach to this as a whole.” I do not misunderstand the bible and its context. If you read through my posts you will see that I have an extensive religious and theological background, as well as 20+ years as a devoted Christian. The problem is your assumption that because I have had a different experience than yours that I did not understand Christianity properly. Please, by all means, mansplain your religion in more depth to me. It seems to me that you, sir, do not understand the words I have written in regards to being a woman in the Christian tradition. I believe the problem might very well be your approach.

      • Patrick Henry

        Yes, I will explain. BTW…..I came upon your blog purely by accident when researching Bonhoeffer. I have not read your other blogs so forgive me if I’ve assumed too much. But I’ve read that you’re living like a Hindu for a while and then Feri, your blog title has the witch in it. Then you’ll be back to living like a christian? So I have assumed a few things about your beliefs and please correct me if I’m wrong. Maybe some of your page is a joke or something (?). But assuming it’s not, when you say that you are living as a christian you must realize that we can’t just turn christianity off and on like a switch and think that we are saved. I understand moral living but that isn’t what salvation is all about. Moral living is a PRODUCT of a heart change, and a commitment to Jesus Christ. Yes that means obedience, but not the prodigal son’s brother type of obedience and not a pharisaical type either. But a true heart change which is a genuine love for Jesus because of what He’s done. So the question is……what has He done? The answer to this question will address your point that ” Suffering is NOT a divine necessity”. If you mean human suffering is not a divine necessity for salvation, that would be true. But if you mean that Jesus didn’t have to suffer rejection and suffering I would disagree. It is true that Jesus offered Himself to all people and they didn’t have to reject Him, but they did, and that was part of God’s plan all along. That Christ would be rejected as it says in Isaiah 53:3-4:
        3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

        4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
        Why?
        Because He carries our sorrows and our earthly pain. He ALSO most importantly, took on the rejection of God Himself. Remember “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” spoken on the cross? That was a necessity which goes back to the old testament of the sins of the Jewish people being symbolically laid upon the scapegoat and sending that goat into the wilderness to die alone and rejected.
        Those old testament stories are pointing to the Messiah. Who is our salvation, bearing the wrath of God on our behalf. So yes, it was necessary.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram/ A Witch’s Ashram

          Ah, I might be able to see the source of your confusion.

          Nothing in here is a joke. My blog originally began as a way to explore in depth the sources of my beliefs and practices at a time when I had already left Christianity proper. I was going to back to review my original faith, Christianity during the time of this post, but found it no longer sat well with me at all. If you see the date, you’ll notice that I wrote this 2.5 years ago.

          I agree that a belief system cannot be turned off and on. Alas, I do not take the bible to be the infallible or only word of god, so arguments from the bible won’t sway me. There is much that I find beautiful in Christianity and in the Christian story. I’m a sucker for the resurrection. But Jesus and I never developed a relationship. He is not my god.

          • Patrick Henry

            I’ve considered whether or not the bible is true and have come to a different conclusion than you. It doesn’t appear to be man made since the apostles and early disciples were writing instruction to the church, often from prison cells, for it’s edification as well as encouragement to love others. No self serving power grab that I can see. Amazing joy and peace in the midst of suffering. I believe the gospel as the best news ever written for mankind. I wish you the best, and hope you’ll reconsider your beliefs. If Jesus really did say that He is the only way to God, then the ramifications are eternal.


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