While imprisoned by the Nazis at Tegel military prison, and shortly after learning of the last failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a short poem for his friend, Eberhard Bethge, titled “Stations on the Road to Freedom.”
I’ve come across the poem before, but in recently reading Eric Metaxas’ fine biography of the man, I was reminded of its power and potency in describing the essence of Christian freedom. It becomes all the more compelling given its context, serving as a “distillation of his theology at the time,” as Metaxas describes it.
Though we must be careful to appreciate the time and place from which it sprung, it brings with it plenty of implications for the ways in which we order our lives and allegiances. Indeed, in his prodding toward obedience, discipline, and submission to God — features many would find contradictory or in opposition to freedom — Bonhoeffer’s embrace of this profound paradox dovetails quite nicely with Lord Acton’s famous notion of “defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
I’ve heard it repeated in many times and in many places that for a gift to truly be a gift, there must be no responsibility of response on the part of the recipient. As I write in “Gift, Gratitude, and the Grace of Stewardship,” that view is precisely what Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against in his excoriation of “cheap” grace.
One of the most striking illustrations to me of this dynamic came as I watched the TV series Friday Night Lights. One of the main characters is Tim Riggins, a fan favorite who begins the series as a student and ends it as a man. Over the last two seasons Tim’s maturation really comes through, as he has graduated from high school and is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
Tim’s got a troubled background that doesn’t need to be explained here, but suffice it to say that the only family he’s got is his older brother Billy. Despite his better judgment and discomfort with the idea, Billy convinces Tim to help him with his new garage, which by night becomes a chop shop operation. The brothers are eventually busted, but Tim generously and lovingly takes the rap for his brother, who has a new wife and child that he’s trying to support.
After some time, Tim is paroled and comes back to Dillon, Texas. As you might imagine, Tim isn’t the happiest guy around after his stint in jail. But what really angers him is his sense that his brother Billy hasn’t done enough with the gift of freedom he’s been given by his brother’s sacrifice. After the brothers fight, Billy asks, “How long are you going to hold it over my head, man?” Tim responds, “The rest of my life if I feel it needs to be.”
Tim has given Billy a great gift, and it’s clear that Billy feels a sense of responsibility. Tim recognizes it, too, which is why they both know that there is something, some obligation, to be “held over” Billy. That doesn’t make what Tim did any less of a gift. But it does illustrate that there is a deep connection between gift and gratitude, or what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace.”
Tim’s sacrifice, in this way, is an echo of the great sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, who showed the greatest love there is in laying down his life for us (John 15:13). The reality of this gift of costly grace ought to inspire in us a sense of gratitude and responsibility, to do something good with the freedom we’ve been given in Christ.
Last century’s Protestant consensus on the rejection of natural law has been quested in recent decades, but Protestant social thought still has much work to do in order to articulate a coherent and cogent witness to contemporary realities. The doctrine of the two kingdoms has been put forward as a model for advancing the discussion, and while there is much to be learned from such a doctrine, its excesses ought to be avoided, just as the excesses of a transformationlist ethic ought to be avoided as well. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, is put forward as an example of a modern Protestant thinker with much to offer towards the advancement of Protestant social thought today, particularly with regard to his perspectives on the two kingdoms and the divine ethical mandates (marriage, work, government, and church).
When I watched Eric Metaxas deliver his remarks at this year’s national prayer breakfast, I was awed with the way he challenged the president on the issue of life and religious liberty. His words were wrapped in humor and informed by a powerful history that gave an edge to his remarks.
Metaxas challenged the president and the audience with the witness of historical figures such as William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He invited them to live out their faith and to defend the innocent and our religious freedoms. “Wilberfoce suddenly took the Bible seriously that all of us are created in the image of God, to care for the least of these. You think you’re better than the Germans of that era? You’re not,” said Metaxas. He asked: “Whom do we say is not fully human today?” If you haven’t heard his address it’s well worth your time.
In the new issue of Religion & Liberty, Metaxas defends religious liberty and offers insight into the challenges facing the culture and nation. He will keynote Acton’s Annual Dinner in October of this year.
Eric Metaxas, author of the recently published biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, sat down with the Alliance Defense Fund to speak on the role of the church in public policy and how Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s example is especially relevant today. Metaxas, also the author of a biography on William Wilberforce, is slated to deliver a lecture at Acton University on June 14 and the keynote address at the Acton Institute’s Annual Dinner on October 24th. Click on the links to register online.
On Wednesday, April 11, Victor Claar will join us for an Acton on Tap. Victor Claar is a professor of economics at Henderson State University in Arkansas, and previously taught for a number of years at Hope College. I’ll be introducing Victor and the topic for the evening, “Envy: Socialism’s Deadly Sin.” We’ll begin to mingle at 6pm, and the talk will commence at 6:30, followed by what’s sure to be some lively discussion. Join us at Derby Station, and if you’re on Facebook, check out the event page, where some enjoyable dialogue has already commenced.
That same evening George Weigel is visiting Grand Rapids to lecture as part of the Catholic Studies Speaker Series at Aquinas College. Weigel is a prolific author, perhaps best known for his magisterial biography of Pope John Paul II, and holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. At 7pm at the Wege Ballroom, Weigel will speak on the topic, “John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and the Future of Catholic Higher Education.” Check out the event and Catholic Studies at Aquinas College on Facebook.
The following morning, Thursday, April 12, at 8am Victor Claar will be headlining a breakfast at Kuyper College. Kuyper has recently introduced a business leadership major, and this breakfast is the latest event held to promote development among the students, faculty, staff, and broader community around the vitally important challenges of faithful engagement of business and economic aspects of life. Claar is the co-author of Economics in Christian Perspective, and will draw on this well-regarded text as he provides principles for understanding the relationship between Christian faith and commercial activity. There is some limited seating available for this breakfast, so check out the details at Kuyper’s website for more information on reserving a spot.
I’ll also be attending the 21st annual Wheaton Theology Conference, which this year focuses on the theme, “Bonhoeffer, Christ, and Culture.” One of my many projects at present is a dissertation (my second!) on Bonhoeffer’s ethics, and so I’m looking forward to this event, which runs Thursday and Friday next week and is at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.
There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. The important thing is neither that bitterness nor envy should have gnawed at the heart during this time, that we should have come to look with new eyes at matters great and small, sorrow and joy, strength and weakness, that our perception of generosity, humanity, justice and mercy should have become clearer, freer, less corruptible. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune. This perspective from below must not become the partisan possession of those who are eternally dissatisfied; rather, we must do justice to life in all its dimensions from a higher satisfaction, whose foundation is beyond any talk of ‘from below’ or ‘from above’. This is the way in which we may affirm it.
In his classic book Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks the critical question for the Christian life in today’s world: “What could the call to follow Jesus mean today for the worker, the businessman, the farmer, or the soldier?” This question is a corollary of another, more basic, question: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” If Christ is Lord, then what does his lordship mean for the lives of his followers?
In a worthwhile post over at Out of Ur, Skye Jethani explores the implications of Christ’s call to discipleship for our work, “where most adults (young and old) spend most of their time and what occupies most of their identity. Without the ability to connect faith to either family or work, there is little remaining to engage young adults other than entertaining gatherings or a celebrity in the pulpit.”
Jethani updates and sharpens questions related to Bonhoeffer’s famous discipleship question:
What does it mean to be in business to glorify God and bless others?
How does Christ want me to engage the health care sector?
Does being an artist matter to God?
How do I serve in the public school system as a follower of Christ?
Apart from not being dishonest, does it matter how I run my business?
I’ve been offered two jobs, how do I discern which one to take? Does it matter?
Can I be a soldier and be a Christian?
Does my work have any meaning apart from the money I earn and give to the church?
One of the consistent refrains from established denominations nowadays is concern over how to connect with younger generations of believers, to keep them from leaving the church, and show that the Christian faith is relevant to a contemporary world. A good place to start is to ask and begin to answer the questions that Bonhoeffer and Jethani have posed.
But as Jethani warns, such efforts must be undertaken not just as a rearguard stratagem: “Developing a theology of work and vocation-based-discipleship is not a silver bullet to slow the exodus of young adults from the church. But I am increasingly convinced that it is a significant blind spot for much of the Western church that must be remedied.”
In his treasure of a book on the subject, Lester DeKoster goes so far as to call work “the meaning of your life.” It is of central importance for followers of Christ to understand, articulate, and live out the way in which the Gospel shapes and determines the meaning of life “to the full.”
For “men seeking absolute power,” as Spock puts it, this rule of law must be denied. Therefore the reason that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is that it arrogates power to a creature that is beyond its inherent nature as creature and distinct from and beholden to a creator. It makes a man into a god.
Thus, writes Bonhoeffer,
People and especially youth will feel the need to give a leader authority over them as long as they do not feel themselves to be mature, strong, responsible enough to themselves fulfill the demands placed in this authority. The leader will have to be responsibly aware of this clear restriction of his authority. If the leader understands his function differently from that thus established, if the leader does not repeatedly provide the led with clear details on the limited nature of the task and on their own responsibility, if the leader tries to become the idol the led are looking for–something the led always hope from their leader–then the image of the leader shifts to one of a misleader, then the leader is acting improperly both toward the led as well as toward himself.
The leader’s function must be balanced, Bonhoeffer continues, with the other orders of the world: “The leader must lead the led into responsibility toward the social structures of life, toward father, teacher, judge, state. The leader must radically reject the temptation to become an idol, that is, the ultimate authority of the led.”
This is, as Bonhoeffer notes, the perennial temptation of those with political power, and it follows from the basic fallenness of humanity. Spock says rightly, “Your whole earth history is made up of men seeking absolute power.” We are, as fallen creatures, constantly creating idols, out of ourselves and our surroundings. As Bones McCoy puts it, when “a man holds that much power, even with the best intentions, [he] just can’t resist the urge to play God.”
It is comforting, I think, that Lord Acton’s wisdom survives into the 23rd century: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
Subject to the governor of the universe: The American experience and global religious liberty
March 1, 2011 – Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Denver, addressed the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
A friend once said – I think shrewdly — that if people want to understand the United States, they need to read two documents. Neither one is the Declaration of Independence. Neither one is the Constitution. In fact, neither one has anything obviously to do with politics. The first document is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. The second is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Celestial Railroad.
Bunyan’s book is one of history’s great religious allegories. It’s also deeply Christian. It embodies the Puritan, Protestant hunger for God that drove America’s first colonists and shaped the roots of our country.
Hawthorne’s short story, of course, is a very different piece. It’s one of the great satires of American literature. A descendant of Puritans himself, Hawthorne takes Bunyan’s allegory – man’s difficult journey toward heaven – and retells it through the lens of American hypocrisy: our appetite for comfort, easy answers, quick fixes, material success and phony religious piety.
Bunyan and Hawthorne lived on different continents 200 years apart. But the two men did share one thing. Both men – the believer and the skeptic — lived in a world profoundly shaped by Christian thought, faith and language; the same moral space that incubated the United States. And that has implications for our discussion today.
In his World Day of Peace message earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI voiced his concern over the worldwide prevalence of “persecution, discrimination, terrible acts of violence and religious intolerance.”i In reality, we now face a global crisis in religious liberty. As a Catholic bishop, I have a natural concern that Christian minorities in Africa and Asia bear the brunt of today’s religious discrimination and violence. Benedict noted this same fact in his own remarks.