In the past several weeks I have been preparing for fall courses at United Seminary of the Twin Cities, one of which is a course called “Public Theology for Social Transformation.” I have been attempting this academic preparation while the world is ripping apart. Palestine/Israel, deadly persecution of Christians in Iraq and now the mind-boggling and heart-wrenching travesty of Ferguson, MO. I don’t pretend to have anything new to say about any of this, or to have some theological key that will unlock the problems of the world. In my preparations, though, I have been reading through Jennifer McBride’s excellent analysis and application of Bonhoeffer for public theology, called The Church for the World: a Theology of Public Witness. She eloquently argues that if the church is going to have any relevant voice to speak into the problems of the world today, it will need to first and foremost take the form of the suffering Christ. McBride situates Bonhoeffer’s theology in the context of the influences of Luther, Kierkegaard, and Barth–each of whom knew how to speak of the “hiddenness” of God (and for Kierkegaard, Christ is also “incognito”), in the world and who knew that the church’s witness, it it would mean anything at all in and for the world, cannot be a witness based on triumphalism and conquest, but one of suffering and solidarity. This also means, she points out, that the church must, like Christ, take up the stance of perpetual repentance-by taking on the sins of the world into itself, absorbing sin through repentance. She writes,
Repentance is “allowing oneself to be pulled into walking the path that Jesus walks,” [Bonhoeffer] says. By defining repentance as discipleship, Luther and Bonhoeffer each insist that, in Luther’s words, “inner repentance is worthless” unless it manifests in “various outward” forms. Likewise, Bonhoeffer and Luther both view confession of sin or “daily contrition and repentance” to be the continual outworking of one’s baptism and the definitive activity of the Christian. They both insist that the guilt Christians confess be all-encompassing, although Bonhoeffer takes this idea a step farther than Luther. Luther says that Christians are to “acknowledge the guilt of all sins, even the ones we are not aware,” while Bonhoeffer says explicitly that, as the contemporary manifestation of Christ, the church-community accepts the guilt of the whole world. Before the world, the church proclaims mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Maybe there is no better time than now to take seriously the words of Peter, that “it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God.” Repentance in and by the church, for the sake of the world.