Monday, January 17, 2011

How the West Was Lost

I'm taking Bonhoeffer's Ethics and its bold opening premise that we are wrong to distinguish good and evil in the light of Bonhoeffer's history as a member of the German resistance movement that sought to overthrow Hitler and the Nazis.  Clearly Bonhoeffer saw Hitler's program as evil.  (The book speaks in such generalities about events in Germany at the time that I refrain from guessing whether Bonhoeffer thought Hitler himself was evil, i.e. beyond hope.)

I'm about 40% of the way through the book now, and as Bonhoeffer's picture resolves itself in my mind, the focal point seems to be his tenet of the two kingdoms: the Kingdom of the Word and the Kingdom of the Sword, or the Church and secular government.  Each is answerable to Christ, since He established each, and each has its distinct mission.  As I understand Bonhoeffer at this point, the proper place for judgment of good and evil in this world is in the secular government.  It deals with the penultimate (see previous post), whereas the ultimate, preaching the Way of Life and offering reconciliation, is left to the Church.

Bonhoeffer looks back with some nostalgia to the age of Christendom, when Church and Empire both professed the same goal.  Wars between Church and Empire or between Christian nations don't seem to sway his view: these were "chivalrous" wars, he says, ones in which the combatants recognized God as Arbiter.  Contrast this with the typical Asian war, he says, a total war in which the combatants will do anything -- even kill noncombatants, including children -- to preserve their earthly vision of nation or empire.  (Was "Asian war" only a code phrase for WWII?)

Bonhoeffer sees the West as a unit, as the former Christendom.  The end of this unity's actuality happened when the two kingdoms split and eventually quit recognizing the relationship they should have.  (Intriguingly, Bonhoeffer points out that the English-speaking countries have not experienced a radical split of the two kingdoms.)  The Kingdom of the Sword no longer acknowledges the Church's mission, and the Kingdom of the Word hunkers down defensively in the face of the government.  Bonhoeffer wanted to see the relationship restored.

But what common ground can the two kingdoms have today?  How could they possibly work together?  Bonhoeffer answers these questions by dividing the penultimate (the things of this fallen world) into the natural and the unnatural.  The natural, he says, is a preserving element God has given the world: virtue, goods of the world, and all that preserves life.  The unnatural -- evil acts, destructive philosophies, totalitarian governments, and such -- works in the long run against life.  The Church must offer natural services as part of preparing the Way for the Lord: food, clothes, comfort, counseling, teaching on virtuous living, and the like.  John the Baptist, after all, prepared the Way by preaching repentance, not that good living makes Christ's coming sure but simply easier.  So the Church operates in both the penultimate world and the ultimate: she feeds and she preaches.  If the secular government can't see the value of the latter, it can at least support the former and thus, even unwittingly, serve her Founder.  Bonhoeffer tells us to pray for the revival of the unified West: both kingdoms in every nation serving Christ in their proper spheres.

In September of 2001, I watched the news for hours every day along with everyone else.  Horrified by the attacks and inspired by the courage of the rescuers, I was also troubled by the form that the appeals for prayer took.  Perhaps I should have been happier to hear so much about prayer on national television, but I couldn't help noticing that every last person asked Americans to pray for the victims, rescue workers, and their families. Not one that I heard, not even pastors or other acknowledged Christians, asked for prayers for the families of the attackers or for the Muslims of the world.  When I heard tax collector -- er, Senator -- Hillary Clinton voice the same tired phrase, "Pray for the victims, the rescue workers, and their families," I immediately thought of Jesus's words in his sermon on the mount:
You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
Similarly, the Presidential Prayer Team, an online Christian organization, recently called for prayer for Representative Gabrielle Giffords, other victims of the shooting, and for their families.  I've been praying for these people, but where was the call for prayer for the shooter?  Our prayer guides appear comfortable with their roles as judges, distinguishing good people from evil people.  God rains on the just and the unjust, but we seem to insist on shining our sun only on the good.  In doing so, I think Bonhoeffer would say that we're making the mistake of living only in the penultimate.

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