What is the proper relationship between the church—the Body of Christ—and the world as well as those who hold authority? What should that relationship look like when those who hold power and authority use it to persecute the church or to commit injustices in the world? These are the questions that Bonhoeffer tries to address in this chapter.
The first part of the chapter is a somewhat dense continuation of Bonhoeffer’s attempt to reconcile the understanding of discipleship that he draws from the gospels with the writings of Paul. This includes a somewhat tortuous tackling of Paul’s writings on slavery in the epistles, concluding with the quote from 1 Corinthians 7:20, “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” Bonhoeffer’s use of this text is surprising given this scripture’s long history in being used to justify slavery and Bonhoeffer’s own connection with Black churches in the United States from his time studying abroad.
Where Bonhoeffer is trying to go with this line of writing is addressing how the church is meant to respond to oppression and abuse by those who hold power. The Body of Christ is not meant to foment revolt and revolution, for attempting to overthrow those in power would be to align ourselves with the world, to choose the old humanity over the new humanity in Christ.
Rather, the Body of Christ is called to be a witness against the evils of the world and the oppression and persecution of others. How do we accomplish this? By giving over the wholeness of our lives to the Body of Christ, the church-community, which Bonhoeffer so eloquently places as existing in the space between proclamation of the word and the sacraments. We give our lives over fully to the Body of Christ even as we remain in the world, “remaining in the condition in which [we] were called,” overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21).
What does this “good” that we are supposed to do look like? For the most part, exactly what you think it would. Caring for the suffering, providing support and shelter for those who are being persecuted, and speaking out for those who have no voice. It is this good work, this faithfulness to Jesus’ call to discipleship, that makes the church-community visible in the world. And not just visible, a witness against the evil and brokenness of the world. Most importantly, this work is done without fear for the self or the community, for as the Body of Christ, as a part of the new humanity, we live in freedom from fear, for we know that it is Jesus’ suffering in which we share.
Ultimately, this is the core of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the right response to evil. We as the Body of Christ are to take on the suffering of those who are persecuted as our own. We are to accept the indignities of the abused as our own. For Jesus came to bear the suffering of the world and we are the Body of Christ in the world now and there is much suffering to be borne.
Bonhoeffer opens the chapter with the claim that, “The Body of Christ takes up physical space here on earth.”
Does the church take up a space within the world? If so, what kind of space is it?
Though Bonhoeffer does not use the term, his writing in this book, and especially this chapter, contains a certain understanding of non-violent resistance, putting him in the company of other, more prominent nonviolent activists and leaders of the Twentieth Century. What similarities do you see in Bonhoeffer with the teachings of figures like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela? How does Bonhoeffer differ from them?