This past weekend I spoke at an event organised around the topic of proximate justice. I specifically spoke to the question of What does God expect of us? I used two quotes by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the life of Christ as conversation partners. Afterward a number of people asked for a transcript – the talk wasn’t recorded – so I am posting it here. This is my talk more or less as I delivered it, missing however witty asides. I am not an expert on Bonhoeffer, though I have enjoyed reading and wrestling with a number of his works. The particular take on Bonhoeffer I follow in this talk has been shaped by Chapter Four of John Stackhouse’s excellent book Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World. The talk was twenty minutes long, so a lengthy read.
I want ask a simple question this morning: What does God expect of us?
My plan, perhaps frustratingly, is not to answer the question, but to put some biblical and theological ideas into play — ideas that we might find helpful this weekend and beyond as boundaries within which we seek to answer the question.
I want to do this by looking at the life of Christ and asking what clues does it give us as we seek to answer the question of God’s expectations. By the end of the talk I want to have established four or five boundary markers within which we can seek to answer the question. That’s the plan
As a way of sharpening our question, I want to begin not with the life of Jesus but with the life of another man, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I don’t want to speak in detail about his remarkable life, but hold before us two quotes of his which create for me a certain creative tension, a space within which we can explore this question of What does God expect of us?
The first quote is:
Who is there…in our times, who can devote himself with an easy mind to music, friendship, games, or happiness? Surely not the ‘ethical man’, but only the Christian.
This is a striking quote for at least two reasons. First, the “our times” he refers to are the horrors of World War II Nazi Germany. We can therefore paraphrase:
Who is there, in a time of war, in a time where we are led by a brutal dictator, in a time where millions of Jews, and gypsies, homosexuals and Christians, are being murdered with systematic efficiency, in a time where the whole world is caught up in a vortex of horror, violence, death and injustice, who in times like this can devote himself or herself with an easy mind to music, friendship, games or happiness? Only the Christian!
The second reason this quote is so striking is that the man who said it also said: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
This underrated church motto is the second quote I want to hold before us. Bonhoeffer himself heeded that call in the most literal way, went to his death as a martyr – hung for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
How did Bonhoeffer live and act between these two poles? Easy enjoyment of the good things in life, and the call to come die, that is, to get involved in the mess of human history, to give up everything for the good of the world? This is for me a question of proximate justice: Between these two poles of Christian living, how do we decide what God expects of us?
Perhaps this still feels too abstract and distant from you. Let me reflect back to you some questions I’ve heard some of you in this room ask over the years.
Is it a faithful option to use my gifts and energies to be a corporate lawyer, or should I seek to more directly help the oppressed, the needy?
How much of my salary should I give away? How should I balance generosity and stewardship? How do I decide?
Is buying works of art works or spending money on beautifying my home OK, when the money could go to feeding someone? What’s the balance?
Is it ok to do things at work I disagree with, when I have no power, apart from quitting, to change anything? And what are the limits?
Should we foster children who need a home, even when we know there will be a likely cost to our own children? How do we decide?
What does God expect of us between these poles of enjoying ordinary life, and giving it all up to die for others? This is the space I want to explore – so let’s look at the life of Christ and see if we can find any answers.
My key assumption is this: to be a Christian is to accept the call to follow the way of Christ in the world. That is what, after all, the word Christian means — little Christs. The image of the church as body of Christ is also evocative — we are the very body of Christ here for the world. To look at Christ, therefore, is a primary way Christians determine what it is God expects of us. This therefore will be a theological reflection, so I apologize if that’s not the space you are in.
So how does looking at Jesus shape our understanding of proximate justice?
Rightly, we often start with the cross. The cross, after all, is the sign of the Christian faith. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to follow me must pick up his or her cross.” To follow the way of Jesus in the world will involve following him in his death, in his costly engagement with injustice and suffering of the world.
My first boundary marker is therefore: disengagement from the world and its problems is not an option.
On the cross we see that God’s own response to injustice and suffering was not to just spout truth claims, not to separate himself off and cultivate his own holiness, not to sit back and condemn, it was to enter in and be affected.
If we are to follow the way of Christ as we seek the good of the world we are going to get our hands dirty, get involved — we are the body of Christ, and that body was broken for the world. Inaction, therefore, is not an option. We are called to act and live in the world in ways that make the world better, which bring more good, more justice.
However, this doesn’t now mean we know the decision to make. The Cross in itself gives us no resources that make sense of Bonhoeffer’s “easy mind”. And it raises some legitimate practical questions: Is it ever acceptable not to suffer with the world? Do we need to be personally involved in fighting every injustice? Should we always die to ourselves? Give everything away, all the time? What’s the long game? How do we decide?
When I was living in Vancouver I found this a real struggle. As Canada’s warmest city Vancouver has the vast share of Canada’s homeless: you can survive a Vancouver winter on the street. Everyday I would walk past men and woman sleeping rough on the sidewalk, begging for money or food. I had friends who moved into homeless shelters to live among the homeless and share their suffering. Was that what I was meant to do? How do I know?
This question took on particular poignancy because so much of my life in Vancouver was so good. Often I would walk out of friends’ homes after wonderful nights of friendship, food and wine, and walk past four or five homeless people on the way to the bus. I was deeply torn by how to respond and act. Could I have Bonhoeffer’s “easy mind”? How did it relate to the call to share in the world’s suffering? The cross by itself cannot answer these questions, we need to go further.
My second big boundary maker is this: to witness in our lives to the way of Jesus can’t just mean witnessing to his death, we need to witness to his life also.
Jesus spent 33 years not dying (something I’ve surpassed Jesus in, just saying). He spent 30 years not in ministry. He was always surrounded by poverty, sickness, injustice, and oppression — all the time. Yet he didn’t heal everyone, didn’t feed everyone, didn’t ever really address roman occupation and its injustice. A lot of time he spent presumably living the life of an ordinary 1st Century Jew.
The call to take up the cross, to come die, cannot therefore mean, because it did not mean for Jesus, that we can’t enjoy or affirm ordinary life: the blessing of friendships, food, family, fishing, wine, all of which the Gospels are clear Jesus enjoyed greatly.
It also cannot mean that it is always wrong to walk away from suffering and injustice having not done anything. Sometimes its ok not to have your awareness raised, not to watch the video that will change your view on something really important.
The God who was on a mission to save the world, who was willing to die for this mission, did not view it as a distraction or a compromise to that mission, to spend a lot of time, frankly the majority of his time, doing normal human things and enjoying them. Nor did he view it as wrong to leave some injustices unresolved.
How do we make sense of this in a way that is helpful to us? I think there are a couple of things going on here that are worth spelling out, and I want to do so using three keywords: thankfulness, obedience and trust, all of which really work together.
Bonhoeffer once wrote this in a letter to a friend:
We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly happiness, we mustn’t try to be more pious than God himself.
I love that last line, I’ve met those people. He goes on:
Everything has its time, and the main thing is that we keep step with God, and do not keep pressing on a few steps ahead-nor keep dawdling a step behind.
So thankfulness and obedience work together here. We are to be open to the good gifts God gives, but ready to follow where he calls, when he calls. We see this in the life of Jesus: God called him to go die, and he did; but he also freely enjoyed with an “easy mind” the good things God brought into his life.
This obedience relies on trust. Jesus seemed content to go about the work God called him to within his limitations and powers; content to seek to do some good without giving up because he couldn’t fix everything at once, couldn’t heal everyone, couldn’t right every wrong. He trusted the promise of God that he will one day put all things right, he contented himself to do some good, some justice, within the vocation and power he was given, trusting God for the big picture.
As an aside, it is worth stating that ordinary life and mission aren’t really opposed—I like the way Bonhoeffer put it: “God wants to see human beings, not ghosts who shun the world.” Meals with friends witness to the good world God created and wants to restore; living among the homeless witnesses to the compassion of God who came to live among us.
This is the ad hoc balance I tried to strike in my relationship with the homeless in Vancouver. Sometimes I would stop and buy them a meal; sometimes I would hear their stories. Sometimes I would walk on by and do nothing. Sometimes I would walk on by and then turn around because I felt God say don’t walk on by this time. There was a particular homeless man called Peter who lived near college and who I spent more time with.
I continued to enjoy good times with friends.
I explored for a while the opportunity to work with a ministry that served the homeless in the downtown eastside—but I decided my focus was to be a student for this season. I trusted others were called to that good work, not me for now. I am not sure I got that right. I am not sure I got any of it right. And that’s the next boundary marker I want to lay down.
It’s worth noting that Jesus involved himself regularly in institutions, systems, activities, he knew were deeply compromised by sin. The Temple in Jerusalem is an example. He would have regularly attended and participated in the very activities he later condemned as corrupt.
Rarely in life will we be given a clear morally unambiguous choice.
We live and act in a world that is very hard to analyse, where right and wrong aren’t always clear, where every choice sometimes seems to implicate us in some compromise. The life of Jesus suggests we can’t just expect God to rescue us from this real world of responsibility, he wants us to chose and act.
The story behind Bonhoeffer’s execution has intrigued me for a few years now and relates to this point. He was a pacifist, killing was wrong. But after much wresting he decided the right thing to do was to aid a plot to kill Hitler. His thinking process is really interesting here.
Bonhoeffer recognized that this was a compromise, indeed a sin. He didn’t actually rework his fundamental moral framework. He decided to act in a compromised way, in an extreme situation, in the hope that good would come out of it — he therefore confessed it as a sin, even before he committed it, even as he intended to commit it for God’s glory and his neighbors’ good [I am paraphrasing Stackhouse’s summary here]. For Bonhoeffer, responsible action involves both freedom and “willingness to become guilty.” That is, God gives us the freedom to act, but sometimes the right thing to do will make us guilty of sin.
When I first moved to Vancouver the advice I was given by those who worked with and cared for the homeless was that it wasn’t helpful to give them money when they asked for it, for a number of reasons. This was the advice I followed. But doing this “right” thing meant at times I walked past and ignored a real human in real need. I was maybe right, but I am not sure I was guiltless.
Much could be made of this, but I simply want to say that we need to make tough decision at times, that the way is not always clear, that we will be involved in compromise and must be willing to act even if it involves us not being sure we are getting it right, where we must chose between the lesser of two evils. None of this is a sign that we aren’t doing God’s will, that we are not listening to him. It is the nature of the world God calls us to love and serve, that he himself loved and served.
Being involved in the life of politics, with its compromise and injustice; or the economic sphere, with inequalities and material temptations; or media, with its mixed motives and inanity, cannot be dismissed as automatically out-of-bounds for Christians because it involves compromise, the choosing of the lesser of evils.
In the end, what God expects of us is obedience.
Bonhoeffer was actually suspicious of formal ethics that trusted a system to tell us right and wrong and promised sure answers — the question was for him What does God will? He acted with radical trust not in his own ability to discern right and wrong, his own ethical reasoning, but in the grace of God to forgive him even if he is wrong, knowing that inaction was not an option. In this he followed, I think, the way of Christ. The cross was a risk. I am not sure Jesus knew with scientific certainty that this was the path God was asking him to take. And so on the cross he committed his Spirit, as Bonhoeffer did his, to the grace and mercy of God.
That trust is in the end what God expects of us.
I might have got it wrong to focus on being a student in Vancouver. It was the easier choice perhaps. But it was what I had initially felt called to. I prayed and discerned as best I could, and then I trusted myself to the grace of God.
Here I want to make one more point, lay one last boundary marker: We witness as the body of Christ—that is, as different parts of one body.
The life I am called to is not the same as the life you are called to, except to the extent we are all called to obedience. What is right for me may not be right for you. It was perhaps faithful and obedient of my friends to give up comfort to live among the poor; it was perhaps faithful and obedient for me to focus on being a student. We are one body, but many parts.
Some of us through personality, or history, or opportunity, will witness to Christ in our ordinary life more than otherwise—faithful relating to friends, family, neighbourhood. Others are wired and feel called to get their hands dirty, to be at the coalface, enter into the dark places of brokenness and suffering. And in that they witness to Christ. And yet others here have been given opportunities, and will be given opportunities, to witness in power, to see significant positive change in the world.
We each have different callings, different concerns that God places on us hearts and gives us the skills and opportunities to meet. Some of us care about and are called to address issues of poverty; others injustices of war; others the environment; others bad city design; others sex trafficking; others foreign mission; others education; and so on.
Together we witness as a body.
Jesus had his particular vocation, and it was not mine. Bonhoeffer had his particular vocation, and it was not mine. You have your vocation, and it is not mine. But we are all called to the same obedience.
In reality, we will each at different times, in different seasons, witness to different parts of Christ’s life. I have seen some of you witness in death—in long periods of faithfulness even in the midst of suffering and pain. Others I see seeking to witness in power, in roles of authority, in resurrection and ascension—and I pray you have courage and wisdom, and be willing to give it all away if called.
There is a time for everything we are told in Ecclesiastes 3
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
We must practice discernment, attention to the call of God’s Spirit in our lives, to ask what is the time? What is the season? We are to be open to the generous gift of life, and open to God’s call to pick up the cross.
What God asks of us is not certainty about our decisions, not that we get everything right, but the fearful obedience that is willing to die, willing to enjoy, willing to witness in and out of every season, to seek a proximate justice. A proximate justice that is a witness to the future justice of God which the prophets promise will one day flow like a river.