Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
by Milo Clark

Life Together is a profoundly Christian, yet totally secular, comment on discipleship and community. It has vital significance for all who would seek to live in community, in harmony, in peace with each other and with nature. On April 9, 1945, shortly before the concentration camp at Flossenberg was reached by Allied forces, Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906-1945] was executed by special order of Heinrich Himmler, head of the fanatical Nazi secret police, the Gestapo. Bonhoeffer’s living and dying confirms Tertullian’s saying, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church". Tertullian was a second century Roman Christian and ardent defender of the faith whose experience of Christ eventually led him to break with the emerging Catholic church in 213 AD. Bonhoeffer’s early opposition [1933] to Nazism in Germany and to Hitler as a leader who would inevitably become a misleader marked him and shaped his remaining years. A deeply committed pacifist, Bonhoeffer nevertheless refused exile. He concluded in the depths of his soul that to withdraw from those who were participating in the political and military resistance [to Nazism] would be irresponsible cowardice and flight from reality. Not, as his friend Bethge says, that he believed that everybody must act as he did, but from where he was standing, he could see no possibility of retreat into any sinless, righteous, pious refuge. The sin of respectable people reveals itself in flight from responsibility. He saw that sin falling on him and he took his stand.

Life Together, first published in 1938, resulted from Bonhoeffer’s work in charge of an illegal, clandestine seminary beginning in 1935. There he shared a common life, a community, with twenty-five vicars. He is describing what it means to live with Christ. Eventually, the underground seminary was closed by the Gestapo. Bonhoeffer was forbidden to write or to publish in Germany. From 1938 until his eventual imprisonment in 1943, Bonhoeffer lived underground. His culminating work, published as Ethics, is a telling witness and beacon for all who follow. Bonhoeffer lived and acted in accord with his fundamental view of ethics, that a Christian must accept his responsibility as a citizen of this world where God has placed him.

God Himself has undertaken to teach brotherly love; all that men can add to it is to remember this divine instruction and the admonition to excel in it more and more. When God was merciful, when He revealed Jesus Christ to us as our Brother, when He won our hearts by His love, this was the beginning of our instruction in divine love. When God was merciful to us, we learned to be merciful to our brethren. When we received forgiveness instead of judgment, we, too, were made ready to forgive our brethren. What God did to us, we then owed to others. The more we received, the more we were able to give; and the more meager our brotherly love, the less we were living b God’s mercy and love. Thus God himself taught us to meet one another as God has met us in Christ. ‘Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.’ [Rom. 15:7].

Bonhoeffer writes from a purely Christian view of community. Yet, his message of selflessness and service to spiritual disciplines also have meaning within a secular context. While he writes as a committed Christian, he speaks also to others who approach the same ends from different directions. Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.

In his chapter on Ministry, Bonhoeffer cautions would-be leaders. Avoid the seed of discord contained in Luke 9:46, There arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be the greatest. In community, leadership is a sharing not a role. One’s strengths is another’s weakness. By sharing strengths and weakness, we can meet most tests with competence and assurance. Self-justification and judging others go together, as justification by grace and serving others go together.

In everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable. A community which allows unemployed members to exist with it will perish because of them. It will be well, therefore, if every member receives a definite task to perform for the community, that he may know in hours of doubt that he, too, is not useless and unusable. Every... 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 fellowship.

Not self-justification, which means the use of domination and force, but justification by grace, and therefore service, should govern the... community. Once a man experiences God in his life he will thenceforth aspire only to serve. The proud throne of the judge no longer lures him; he wants to be down below with the lowly and the needy, because this is where God found him. ‘Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.’ [Rom. 12:16]

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love of God begins in listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.

The second service that one should perform for another is a... community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things whenever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.

We speak, third, of the service that consists in bearing others. ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law... [Gal. 6.2] Thus the law... is a law of bearing. Bearing means forbearing and sustaining. The brother is a burden... precisely because he [exists]. For [those without spiritual grounding] the other person never becomes a burden at all. He simply sidesteps every burden that others may impose upon him.

[the spiritually grounded], however, must bear the burden of a brother. He must suffer and endure the brother. It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.

The weak must not judge the strong, the strong must not despise the weak. The weak must guard against pride, the strong against indifference. None must seek his own rights. If the strong person falls, the weak must guard his heart against malicious joy at his downfall. If the weak one falls, the strong one must help him rise again in all kindness. The one needs as much patience as the other.

When [we] live together the time must inevitably come when in some crisis one person will have to declare [truth] and will to another. It is inconceivable that the things that are of utmost importance to each individual should not be spoken by one to another. It is [unseemly] consciously to deprive another of the one decisive service we can render to him. If we cannot bring ourselves to utter it, we shall have to ask ourselves whether we are not still seeing our brother garbed in human dignity which we are afraid to touch, and this forgetting the most important thing, that he, too, no matter how old or highly placed or distinguished he may be, is still a man like us... He has the same great necessities that we have, and needs help, encouragement and forgiveness as we do.

In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person.... In confession the light... breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted.

In confession occurs the breakthrough.... The root of all sin is pride, superbia. I want to be my own law, I have a right to my self, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death.... In confession a man breaks through to certainty.

(From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. by John W. Doberstein, HarperSanFrancisco, , 1954.)

Published May 21, 1996
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