Eberhard Bethge, in his biography of Bonhoeffer, writes about a meeting that Bonhoeffer attended in June 1933 to discuss, among other things, the church’s response to the political, social, and religious climate in Germany. The minutes of the meeting included the following:
“Bonhoeffer discussed the meaning of the struggle. If God had involved the church in struggle, it was to humble it. There was therefore no place in this dispute for self-justification. Anyone who simply made accusations without also accusing himself had failed to understand the meaning of the struggle. (The strength of the church rests in her ability to enter into repentance.)”
As was becoming usual, Bonhoeffer was in a minority – a word that Bethge uses more than once to describe Bonhoeffer during the time leading up to WWII is “isolated”.
In the current climate in our own country it seems that when Christians speak of repentance that they mean anyone and everyone but the church. Christians want the nation to repent but they do not want to repent themselves. The church wants its “cultural” adversaries to be humbled, but it does not want God to humble it. The church wants politicians, civic leaders, and academic leaders to embrace a “Christian worldview” (whatever that is it seems more often than not crafted in the image of prosperity), but the church has little desire to repent of its own narcissistic ways and change its own behavior.
Much of the American church is doing the very same thing that Bonhoeffer said that the German church was doing – justifying itself. How can we call others to repentance if we don’t first repent? How can we accuse others if we don’t accurse ourselves? How can we desire others to be humbled before God (a dangerous desire in most of us for it can lead to pride and self-worship) if we do not allow ourselves to be humbled by God?
A prophetic voice is a broken voice, a humbled voice, a voice clothed in sackcloth and not in the trappings of power and fame and prestige and prosperity. Jesus became poor for our sakes, but we will not become poor for Him or for the world. He bore our sorrows and our sin – but we insist that others serve our desires and allow us to sin as we please as long as it is Christianly acceptable, as long as it is clothed in a “Christian worldview” – whatever that is.
We reject any criticism, and we refuse to accuse ourselves, and we steadfastly refuse to humble ourselves. Instead of being models of repentance we are fools and tools who are manipulated by political, social, and economic agendas that are divorced from the Gospel and the Cross. The only power that matters is the power of the weakness of the Cross of Jesus Christ, the only victory that of suffering for Christ and on behalf of others.
Woe to the church that justifies itself – one day the beast it rides will devour it.