... both alike forgiving.

One of the gifts I have discovered of late is Bonhoeffer's fierce commitment to the dialectical reality of Christian faith. Some might speak of faith paradoxically, too but this might blur the important tension in the dialectic. A poem from Letters and Papers from Prison, DB gives expression to the both/and of this challenge when he wrote this in July 1944.

Men go to God when they are sore bestead, Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread, For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead; All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he sore bestead, Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead; Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving.


In Letters and Papers it is called "Christians and Unbelievers." In a 1990 reworking from A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (eds GB Kelly and FB Nelson (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1990), p. 549, the poem becomes "Christians and Pagans."

People turn to God when they’re in need,
plead for help, contentment, and for bread,
for rescue from their sickness, guilt, and death.
They all do so, both Christian and pagan.

People turn to God in God’s own need,
and find God poor, degraded, without roof or bread,
see God devoured by sin, weakness, and death.
Christians stand with God to share God’s pain.

God turns to all people in their need,
nourishes body and soul with God’s own bread,
takes up the cross for Christians and pagans, both,
and in forgiving both, is slain.

In spite of the exclusive language, I favor the first rendering even as I appreciate the intent of the second. What is clear in both, however, is the dialectical nature of grace: God shares grace with all whether we grasp, understand or commit to responding in gratitude. Others have said that verse one describes the human condition, verse two sheds light on the calling of the committed, and verse three points to the radical nature of God's love. "For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead and both alike forgiving." describes the essence and activity of the one who is Holy..

In another section of Letters and Papers, Bonhoeffer confesses that all we can know about God has been articulated in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as Christ. What I find compelling in this, even in its challenge, is the unsentimental weaving together of Christ's humanity and divinity. It is not one or the other, but always both at the same time. This keeps me away from making pious statements about Christ that are not born out in his flesh. When I ask myself, "How have I learned about humility?" for example, I know there is a strong correlation between experiencing humiliation and eventually discovering the humor of my state of being. Maybe irony, too. At any rate, I have fundamentally learned to be silent after failing, sinning, and falling on my face. Humiliation. From sorrow, pain and disappointment, too. My working hunch, therefore, is that what is true in my flesh, was equally true for Jesus. For the past week I have been making a list of what human experiences may have helped Jesus grow in humility through the humiliations he experienced as a child, a refugee, a fatherless boy with questionable paternity, a Jew living under Roman occupation and so much more. 

By doing this, I am discovering that my faith and trust grows - Christ's weakness does not diminish my faith, but strengthens it - as I have come to experience in the foolishness of the Cross and all its emptiness. There's more to say about this, but for now the wisdom of the dialectic is helping renew my faith in this strange journey called life.

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