A great deal of talk in evangelical Christian circles centers on religious freedom and values. It is a theme on display at the Values Voter Summit where President Trump spoke this week (refer here, too). We want to make sure we have carved out space to exist and worship in our increasingly secular world, and believe it is not only an American legal right, but also a divine command.
The German pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (shown here with his students in 1945; Wikimedia Commons) thought a great deal about the church’s relation to the world. I wonder how he might approach the subject of religious freedom and values in America today. Here are a few references on freedom and space from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics: “The space of the church is not there in order to fight with the world for a piece of its territory, but precisely to testify to the world that it is still the world, namely, the world that is loved and reconciled by God” (page 63). “The church can only defend its own space by fighting, not for space, but for the salvation of the world” (page 64). “Otherwise the church becomes a ‘religious society’” (page 64). The church’s first task is “to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world” (page 64).
As with the Letters and Papers from Prison, one finds in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics no independent existence for Christ, the church, and the world. That is not to say Bonhoeffer would aim to promote a religious state or Christian state. Hardly. But whether or not the world acknowledges Christ and the church, Christ and the church take seriously the world: there is no such thing as an autonomous world, “where the worldly establishes itself as an autonomous sector, this denies the fact of the world’s being accepted in Christ” (page 60). Nor is there an autonomous church (pages 60-61). “Christian faith perceives this in the fact that the reality of God has revealed itself and witnessed to itself in the middle of the real world” (page 54). An autonomous world as well as an autonomous church lead to “arbitrariness” (page 61). “In Jesus Christ the reality of God has entered into the reality of this world” (page 54). “In Christ we are invited to participate in the reality of God and the world at the same time, the one not without the other” (page 55).
For the Bonhoeffer of Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison, Christ and the church affirm the value of the world in all its non-religiosity. However, it does not affirm the world’s rejection of God’s love for it, but values the world because of God’s love. The church must embody the reality that Christ is for the entire world (Ethics, pages 66-67). “It is the task and the essence of the church-community to proclaim precisely to this world its reconciliation with God, and to disclose to it the reality of the love of God, against which the world so blindly rages” (page 66). “Christ is Christ only in the midst of the world” (page 67). “It is nothing but unbelief to give the world . . . less than Christ” (page 67). “The church is separated from the world only by this: it believes in the reality of being accepted by God—a reality that belongs to the whole world—and in affirming this as valid for itself it witnesses that it is valid for the entire world” (pages 67-68).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).
Contrary to Eric Metaxas’s dismissal of Letters and Papers from Prison (including “religionless Christianity”), Bonhoeffer makes an indelible connection between his Ethics and the Letters and Papers from Prison. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. De Gruchy, vol. 8, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), page 518: “You ask how the shorter [“Outline for a Book” in Letters and Papers from Prison] and the large work [Ethics] fit together. I guess the best way to describe them is that the shorter piece is in a certain sense a prologue to the larger work and, in part, anticipates it.” On his outline for a book, see page 500 where he states that he would like his first chapter to be on religionless Christianity/a world come of age. His outline of the book, he writes, would only be 100 pages. Chapter one would be on “religionless Christianity/a world come of age” (page 500). Chapter two would be on “worldliness and God” (page 501 and following). Chapter three would be the “Conclusion” (page 503). Bonhoeffer refers to this work as a prologue to his Ethics, not an outline of it. A prologue to his Ethics connects it to Ethics as a precursor. By making this point, it suggests that Letters and Papers from Prison is not a fresh break representing a new direction in Bonhoeffer’s thought as many would like to suggest. Refer to Metaxas’s dismissive treatments of “religionless Christianity” on pages 84, 465-469, and 472 of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). See also the Bonhoeffer Works’ editor, Clifford Green’s critical review of Metaxas’s volume: “Hijacking Bonhoeffer,” in The Christian Century, October 4th, 2010. I am also indebted to my friend and colleague Ross Halbach for his insights and engagement of Bonhoeffer’s writings set forth in this post.