Today marks the 75th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom. The crucible in which Bonhoeffer lived and died—Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and World War Two—has been seen, up until now, as the greatest existential threat humanity has faced in modern times.
Now, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have entered into another global existential crisis of historic proportions, causing widespread panic, death and economic collapse.
A crucible to call our own.
My work and pastoral identity as a long-term care Chaplain caring for our most vulnerable on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic has been greatly enriched by Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics.
Bonhoeffer believed that God, in the cruciform Christ, comes into the world as the “concrete executor of God’s love.” He does so to reveal to human beings what is most true about His core nature and modus operandi in a world where people are experiencing the troubling and contradictory realities of a catastrophic pandemic. In Christ, God becomes vulnerable and enters into humanity’s great tragedies.
Bonhoeffer takes his cue from Martin Luther, whose theology of the cross, writes Alister McGrath, provides the “foundation and criterion of an authentically Christian theology, illuminating how the believer must exist in a shadowy world of sin and doubt, and challenging natural human preconceptions of what God is like, and how God should act.” Bonhoeffer, just as McGrath states about Luther, “offers a vision of how the Christian is to exist in the dark wastelands of a fallen world, and cope with the deep anxiety of existential and metaphysical uncertainty.”
Both Luther and Bonhoeffer affirm that God is not wholly other, but wholly here as we face, together as a whole human race, the existential and metaphysical uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, God has not abandoned us, although it may certainly feel the opposite is true right now. What Bonhoeffer calls for is a transformation of how we think about suffering and its place in human existence, and then how we integrate that into our spirituality and ethics in a suffering world that confirms reality’s contradictions and the need for divine solidarity.
At the heart of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s earthbound, existential Christianity, is his ethics and spirituality of suffering solidarity. Hamish Walker states that Christ’s “willingness to suffer, to endure and overcome, on man’s behalf, the distance between God and man is the proof of His solidarity with man.”
In Christ, God reveals to humanity that He is aware of our suffering, is willing to suffer with us—facing the problem head on with courage.
“God marches right in,” proclaims Bonhoeffer. He “goes incognito, as a beggar among beggars, as an outcast among outcasts, as despairing among the despairing, as dying among the dying.”
He chooses to suffer with those being crushed by the existential and metaphysical uncertainties this unprecedented pandemic has unleashed onto our entire planet.
In the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Geffrey B. Kelley explains in detail the spiritual substance and psychological comfort we can gain through believing in God’s suffering solidarity.
“God does not offer [us] a rational, logically ordered answer to the why of [our] afflictions. God suffers with [us]….God in Christ will not offer glib, evasive explanations for the agonizing problems faced by those whose lives have been menaced by the murderous forces of twentieth-century evil. God chooses to suffer with those who suffer, all the while raising up prophets of hope who are spiritually empowered to free God’s people from their captivity.”
As a Chaplain, I will not give in to the notion that God is somehow detached from our suffering. God is not apathetic to the dire and grave situation we now face as a human species. Now is not the time to despair, says Bonhoeffer. It is a time to lean-in to the existential and metaphysical crisis we face collectively.
But we can only do so if we are able to find a Way to anchor ourselves in the suffering Christ who is concretely present with us here and now.
We need to find a Way to respond to our feeling of deep vulnerability and uncertainty by penetrating into the cruciform Word of the cosmos, the eternal and all-embracing God who gives us peace for today and strengthens us with hope for tomorrow.
“Only the suffering God can help,” Bonhoeffer proclaims. Now, more than ever, Bonhoeffer calls us to follow the Way of the Cross.
As a long-term care Chaplain, the most difficult emotions I am encountering right now with health-care staff and residents is despair and fear of the unknown. Many wonder how they will be able to live when the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be throttling our existence and threatening our lives and those we love. But Bonhoeffer—who knew very well the gravity and immensity of facing a global existential crisis—teaches us what faithfulness and courage look like for a human race undergoing what feels like a real-life apocalyptic drama.
“That is why it is good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity,” writes Bonhoeffer. “For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has always been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and that finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart.”
For Bonhoeffer, if we can start to approach our current existence understanding the inevitability of life’s contradictions and catastrophes, this can help ease our psychological suffering and metaphysical angst when we are plagued by fear and chaos.
Bonhoeffer encourages us to enter into peaceful communion with Christ because our God, according to Scripture, has experienced first-hand his own existential crisis on the Cross. This is the Way to true spiritual formation and ethics.
As we approach Good Friday, let us remember the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday. Jesus is the God who saves us and the God we walk with on the Way to the Cross of suffering solidarity. Even though the Way leads us straight through the crucible, we have a concrete hope that God is making everything new in Christ. This is the good news of Easter—the concrete hope of resurrection and renewal. Our world needs this hope now more than ever.
This is the world Christ entered. And this is the world in which God is currently now deeply present and personally concerned for. This is our crucible.
How will you be transformed?