Monday, February 27, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 81

“…all the members of the community are given their special place; this is no longer the place, however, in which they can most successfully promote themselves, but the place where they can best carry out their service. In a Christian community, everything depends on whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain.

“A community that allows the presence of members who do nothing will be destroyed by them. Thus it is a good idea that all members receive a definite task to perform for the community, so that they may know in times of doubt that they too are not useless and incapable of doing anything.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 72.

One of the warnings reiterated throughout the chapter on Service is the danger of self-promotion. Self-promotion, judging others, self-justification, seeking to force others to conform to our image of what they should be – all of these elements are interwoven with each other; Christian community is not a place for self-promotion, but rather a place for service. Self-promotion is ingrained in our fallenness, and it is ingrained in Western culture. Furthermore, we are a society that tends to idolize success and charisma and talent, and we are often only too willing to let others entertain us and take responsibility for us. Self-promotion thrives in laissez-faire cultures, including the cultures of Christian communities.

Self-promotion may be overt or covert; it may be obviously aggressive, or it may take subtle forms. It may be patient, or it may be impatient. The poison may work quickly or it may do its work over time. We are all carriers of this disease and we ought to fear its work within us; we ought to know that the moment we think we are immune from it that it will take root and sprout and do its insidious work. Thankfully, our Father’s grace shows us who we are outside of Christ, and as we reflect on His Word and learn to love Him with all that we are and to love others as ourselves, the Holy Spirit mercifully reveals to us the things in our lives that need to experientially be put to death through the Cross.

I would like to ask Bonhoeffer what he meant when he wrote, “A community that allows the presence of members who do nothing will be destroyed by them.” Certainly when there is a group of people that has a number of members who do nothing we cannot call that group a community, not if we use the word “community” to denote a people living in relationship. Of course then we are confronted with the question of whether what passes for “church” in our society is Christian community, whether it is life together, for most congregations have many more people who do nothing than they have people who do something. We get around that problem by making “doing something” the lowest common denominator, such as attending services and financial giving – we’ll typically justify ourselves before we will engage in congregational critique. Also, allowing the many to “do nothing” ensures job protection for some and ensures that others will have no opposition to self-promotion.

Having a “task to perform” is not enough – and again I’d love to be able to discuss this with Bonhoeffer. All too often in congregational life people are given tasks just so they’ll have something to do, and while this may be important to some degree, it is also vital that we recognize that each person is also a reflection of the image of God – not in terms of what they do but in terms of who they are. Therefore, each person has something of the grace and truth of God to share with the rest of us – and if we cannot readily discern and receive what others have to share, it is an invitation for us to listen, watch, and lay down our images of what we think others ought to be. We ought to be affirming in others that they not only have something to do, but that they also have something to share. I think in the previous paragraphs that Bonhoeffer lays the foundation for this (see previous posts) perspective.

If we focus mainly on having something “to do” we may fall into a utilitarian trap of valuing one another based on functionality – this is obviously not what Bonhoeffer meant, till his dying breath he stood for the image of God in humanity and fought against a utilitarian view of humanity – he defended those who had limited functionality. When we view “church” as primarily an organization rather than an organism we will focus on people having jobs to do, when we view church as an organism in Jesus Christ, as we view church as the Body of Jesus Christ, then we will see one another in terms of our intrinsic worth in Christ.

The weaker members of the body ought to have special honor given to them, and rather than promoting ourselves we ought to seek to promote them. Having a job to do may enrich weaker members, while not having a conspicuous job to do may be needful for those with many talents so that they learn to focus on others and to submit their talents to the Cross.

Well, there are tensions to all of this, challenges, ebbs and flows…but isn’t this what it means to live in koinonia with the Trinity and with one another? There are no formulas, but there are two commands: to love God with all that we are, and to love one another. If Jesus laid down His life for us, we are to lay down our lives for one another. 

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