Last year, SCM Press published a new edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together
Here’s an extract from Samuel Wells’ foreword:
“The most significant words in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together are these:
In a Christian community everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable. … Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship. (p. 72)
Life Together was published in 1939. In 1939 Germany was ruled by a regime that had no time for the weak. And those who opposed the regime had to think carefully about the resources they had for resistance. For Bonhoeffer, what the resistance had was the body of Christ – a securely interlocked chain, where weak and strong were unbreakably joined by the unity of Christ Jesus. How to grow such solidarity? What habits of life and mind and community are required to make such unbreakable bonds? That is what Life Together is about. It is written in a timeless style that makes it readable alongside the Rule of St Benedict among the archetypes of Christian community; but it is not a timeless rule. It is written in the face of pressing, poisonous and pernicious evil. And itis about overcoming evil with good, in practical, purposeful land proven ways.
Bonhoeffer is quick to dismantle sentimentality about communal life. Disillusionment is inevitable – and good. ‘God hates visionary dreaming’; nothing destroys a Christian community more readily than a person who allows their visionary ideal to become a governing principle against which God, the community and themselves may be judged. True community, by contrast, ‘is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate’ (p. 18). Sin need not destroy community, but can provide the occasion for deepening one’s awareness that no member of the community can live by their own words and deeds, but only by Christ’s forgiveness. Likewise Bonhoeffer is not interested in calls for godly leaders, noble authority figures or charismatic sources of inspiration: such desire springs from ‘a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive’ (p. 84). Again one must recall the backdrop of Nazi Germany.
Community is fundamentally a privilege. Bonhoeffer never underestimates the challenge of living with others, but he is overwhelmed by the joy of sharing the precious gifts of faith with others who treasure it like one does oneself. To share the ‘physical presence of other Christians’ (p. 9) is a ‘gracious anticipation of the last things’ (p. 8) – an opportunity denied to the prisoner, the sick person and the Christian in exile. Martin Luther insisted that the kingdom of God meant being in the midst of your enemies; so the opportunity to be in community with other Christians, occasionally or permanently, is ‘grace upon grace’ – the ‘roses and lilies of the Christian life’ (p. 10). Pastors and zealous members of congregations can be apt to forget this great privilege. But Bonhoeffer is uncompromising in his castigation of their ingratitude: if such a person is simply finding their wish dream is being shattered by God, they should either be thankful for being divested of their dream or penitent for their own failure and unbelief (pp. 17–18).
What community offers is the gift of discovery about the self, about others and about God. If you can’t be with yourself, being with others isn’t going to help you. There’s no getting away from the dimension of faith that has to be faced alone: ‘Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God’ (p. 57). Any kind of community living that isn’t based on being able to face such things alone is little more than a distraction.
These are sobering words. But some of Bonhoeffer’s most salutary remarks regard what it means to be with one another. He is under no illusion about these things: ‘From the first moment when a man meets another person he is looking for a strategic position he can assume and holdover against that person’ (p. 69). But there are seasoned ways to withstand such human shortcomings. One such is custody of the tongue. ‘It must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.…To speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and goodwill.’ How then to discern about a troublesome brother? Speak to God instead. We should ‘speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ’ (p. 23). Thus one may ‘cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place where he can gain ascendancy over him and thus doing violence to him as a person’ (p. 71). Only if one lets go the exasperation that ‘God did not make this person as I would have made him’ and realizes that God gave me this person not to dominate and control but as a way to find divine love, can one find the other person an occasion of joy rather than a nuisance and an affliction. The difficult part is to accept that God did not create every person in my image; instead it turns out every person is made in God’s image. The sooner we realize this, the better for us. The world is turned from a burden into a gift. And this truth crystallizes in the practice of intercessory prayer.
A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto might have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner. (p. 65)
In intercession we see our brother under the cross of Christ. ‘Then everything in him that repels us falls away; and we see him in all his destitution and need. His need and his sin become so heavy and oppressive that we feel them as our own, and we can do nothing else but pray: Lord do thou, thou alone, deal with him according to thy severity and thy goodness’ (pp. 65–6). But this is not done from magnanimity. It is done from repentance. The only way to forebear the sins of others is to consider oneself the greatest of sinners. One can find extenuations for the sins of others; but for one’s own sin, there is no excuse. One cannot truly serve another unless one regards one’s own sin as worse than theirs (p. 74).
Thus do we discover that all true being with the self and being with one another is a way of being with God. Every relationship, every interaction with another is mediated by Christ. ‘Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. …Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ embodied and would stamp upon all men’ (p. 23). This is how we meet God in community. Direct experience of God is something that may or may not be granted: but such experiences are not what Christian community is about– for the community lives by faith, not by experience.
Life Together may seem a book locked in its time. If you assume a treatment of community should have a finer awareness of gender, and not assume male singleness as the norm; if you are quick to pick up assumptions of class and leisure; if community seems a cover for sublimated urgings of sexuality, in ways Bonhoeffer is ignorant of or chooses to ignore; then this may not be the book for you. But if you are looking for knowledge of God rooted in deep knowledge of the self; for paths in which other people can be invitations into grace rather than obstacles to holiness; and for a way to build Christian community that is true enough to withstand the onslaughts of persecution, terror and destruction, then you are about to read possibly the finest handbook available to Christians of how to live as the body of Christ. It is perhaps the most succinct legacy of Bonhoeffer’s remarkable witness.”
You can find out more about the new edition of Life Together here . And look out in the coming months for news of our new edition of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, published next year.