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Wallis on Bonhoeffer: “a real Christ critical of the majority culture”

Here’s Jim Wallis discussing his first encounters with the writings of Bonhoeffer, “through reading his books as a young seminarian.” “I had just come back to Jesus after rejecting my childhood faith and joining the student movements of my generation.” (This is from a recent email from Sojourners, and is from Wallis’ introduction to a new book, A Year With Bonhoeffer.

The evangelical Christian world I had grown up in talked incessantly about Christ but never paid any attention to the things that Jesus taught. Salvation became an intellectual assent to a concept.

“Jesus died for your sins and if you accept that fact you will go to heaven,” said the evangelists of my childhood. When it came to the big issues that cropped up for me as a teenager – racism, poverty, and war – I was told explicitly that Christianity had nothing to do with them: they were political, and our faith was personal.

Sounds like Ronald Sider’s new book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. Back to Wallis:

On those great social issues, the Christians I knew believed and acted just like everybody else I knew – like white people on racism, like affluent people on poverty, and like patriotic Americans on war.

Then I read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship … Believing in Jesus was not enough, said Bonhoeffer. We were called to obey his words, to live by what Jesus said, to show our allegiance to the reign of God, which had broken into the world in Christ.

What a wonderful idea – to actually believe in Jesus with one’s heart, with one’s life!

At the time, I had just experienced a secular student movement that had lost its way. Without any spiritual or moral depth, protest often turned to bitterness, cynicism, or despair … Bonhoeffer showed the way, by providing the deep connection between spirituality and moral leadership, religion and public life, faith and politics. Here was a man of prayer who became a man of action – precisely because of his faith.

… The liberal habit of diminishing the divinity of Christ or dismissing his incarnation, cross, and resurrection had no appeal for Bonhoeffer. But his orthodoxy has demanding implications for the believer’s life in the world. He refused to sentimentalize Jesus, presenting him as the fully human Son of God who brings about a new order of things.

There is already criticism this evening in the Right Wing Corporate Media about Coretta Scott King’s funeral today. There is offense that African Americans don’t know how to conduct themselves at funerals. They laugh. They cry. They celebrate. They tell the truth about political behaviors and priorities. Well, Bonhoeffer back in the 30’s found Negro American spirituality much more attractive than white versions.

During a stint at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Bonhoeffer’s response to theological liberalism was tepid, but he became inspired by his involvement with the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Meeting the black church in America showed the young Bonhoeffer again that a real Christ was critical of the majority culture.

Hmm. Any chance Jesus would ever be “critical of the majority culture”? Maybe He also would not know how to behave at funerals!

Bonhoeffer could not imagine the life of solitary discipleship apart from the community of believers. But he would not tolerate the communal life of the church being more conformed to the world than being a prophetic witness to it.

Martin King, Coretta King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – more of those imperfect, powerful, shockingly relevant heroes of our Christian tradition. Thank God for them – we have a lot to learn.

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  • Bonhoeffer’s piety is great and Jim Wallis’ way to present it is intriguingly simple and profound. Here’s very much of what I had in mind with my last sentence in my last comment (on: “Our Callings are Preciousâ€?)