In chapter four of Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues his discussion of the burden with a look at how the freedom of another becomes a burden to Christians. In allowing others their freedom it often goes against a Christians high opinion of themselves and this is something they must come to recognize. The only way Christians could rid themselves of this burden is by not giving the other person their freedom. But this does violence to the personhood of others and, in fact, stamps the Christian’s own image on others.
But when a Christian allows God to create God's own image in others, they allow others their own freedom. By doing this, Christians themselves bear the burden of the freedom enjoyed by these other creatures of God. All that is meant by human nature, individuality, and talent is part of the person’s freedom, just as much as the other’s weaknesses and peculiarities that so sorely try one's patience, as well as everything that produces the clashes, the differences, and arguments between me and the other. Here, bearing the burden of the other means tolerating the reality of the other’s creation by God, that is, affirming it and, in bearing with it, breaking through to actually delighting in it. This is especially difficult where both the strong and the weak in faith are bound together in one community. The weak must not judge the strong and the strong must not despise the weak. The weak must guard against pride and the strong against indifference. Neither must seek their own rights. If the strong persons fall, the weak ones must keep their hearts from gloating over the others’ misfortunes. If the weak ones fall, the strong must help them up again in a friendly and familial manner. The one needs as much patience as the other.
Then, along with the others freedom, comes the abuse of that freedom in sin, which becomes a burden for Christians in their relationships one to another. The sin of the other is even harder to bear then is their freedom. For in sin, community with God and with each other is broken. But here, too, it is only in bearing with the other that the great grace of God becomes fully apparent. Not despising sinners but being privileged to bear with them, means not having to give them up for lost, being able to accept them and able to preserve community with them through forgiveness. As Christ bore with us and accepted us as sinners, so we in his community may bear with sinners and accept them into the community of Jesus Christ through the forgiveness of sins. We do not need to judge. That is grace for a Christian.
Because each individual sin burdens the whole community and indicts it, the community of faith rejoices even in the middle of all the pain inflicted on it by the sin of the other and, in spite of the burden placed on it, rejoices in being deemed worthy of bearing with and forgiving sin. As Martin Luther said, Behold, you bear with them all and likewise all of them bear with you and all things are in common, both the good and the bad.
So, forgiveness is also a service done by one to the other on a daily basis. It occurs without words during intercessory prayer from one another. Those who bear with others know that they themselves are being borne. Only in this strength can they themselves bear with the others.
Wherever the service of listening, active helpfulness, and bearing with others is being faithfully performed, the ultimate and highest ministry can also be offered, the service of the Word of God, said Bonhoeffer.
The service of the Word of God is that unique situation in which one person bears witness in human words to another person regarding all the comfort, the admonition, the kindness, the wisdom, and even the firmness of God. This Word is threatened all around by so many dangers. If proper listening does not precede it, how can it really be the right Word for the other? If it is contradicted by one's own lack of active helpfulness, how can it be credible and truthful? If it does not flow from the act of bearing with others, but from impatience and the spirit of violence against others, how can it be the liberating and healing Word? On the contrary, the person who has really listened, served, and patiently borne with others is the very one who can easily stop talking. A deep distrust of everything that is mere words often stifles a personal word to another Christian.
But, on the other hand, who wants to accept the responsibility for having been silent when one should have spoken? The orderly words spoken in the pulpit seemed so much easier than this totally free word, standing responsibly between silence and speech. Added to the fear of one's own responsibility to speak the Word, there is the fear of the other. At what cost do we bring ourselves to say the name of Jesus Christ even in the presence of another Christian! Here, too, right and wrong approaches are mixed together. Who has permission to force oneself on one's neighbor? Who is entitled to corner and confront one's neighbor in order to talk about ultimate issues? Again, here the spirit of doing violence to others could easily insinuate itself in the worst way. In fact, others have their own right, responsibility, and even duty to defend themselves against unauthorized intrusions. Other persons have their own secrets that may not be violated without the infliction of great harm. Nor can they divulge them without destroying themselves. They are not secrets based on knowledge or emotions, but secrets of their freedom, their redemption, their being. And yet this good insight lies perilously close to Cain's murderous question Am I my brother’s keeper?
[Next week: Chapter Four – Service(cont’d)]
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