Bonhoeffer’s Ethics Pt 5: Guilt, Justification, Renewal

While I’m away Dan is guest blogging through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US (part of the new Dietrich Bonhoeffer Series which I recently reviewed). Dan has served with Wycliffe in Papua New Guinea and is currently spending some time with us in The Crowded House.

In this manuscript Bonhoeffer discusses the need for acknowledgement of guilt by individuals but more especially corporately, by the church (134-142).  He then explores how those who confess their guilt can be justified and renewed, both individuals who have faith in Christ and to some extent the West as a historical political form (142-145).

When we turn away from Christ (and therefore turn away from our true nature), ‘There is only one way to turn back, and that is acknowledgement of guilt towards Christ.  The guilt we must acknowledge is not the occasional mistake or going astray, not the breaking of an abstract law, but falling away from Christ, from the form of the One who would take form in us and lead us to our own true form. … The place where this acknowledgement of guilt becomes real is the church. … It is tautological to say that the church is the place where guilt is acknowledged.  If it were otherwise, the church would no longer be church.’ (135)

Individuals must take responsibility for their own sin.  ‘Why does it concern me if others are also guilty?  Every sin of another I can excuse; only my own sin, of which I remain guilty, I can never excuse.’ (137)

The church must take responsibility for its sin.  Bonhoeffer opens ten paragraphs with the phrase, ‘The church confesses…’  One example is, ‘The church confesses its guilt toward the countless people whose lives have been destroyed by slander, denunciation, and defamation.  It has not condemned the slanderers for their wrongs and has thereby left the slandered to their fate.’ (140)  To those who claim that not the church but others are guilty Bonhoeffer answers, ‘In confessing guilt the church does not release people from their personal confession of guilt, but calls everyone into a community of confession.’ (142)

The church is justified by faith in Christ (142).  However, ‘for the nations [Völker] there is only a scarring over [Vernarbung] of guilt in the return to order, justice, and peace and in granting freedom for the church to proclaim Jesus Christ.’ (143)  Bonhoeffer argues that after imperialistic conquests there can be a slow turning towards justice, peace, and even happiness for those once violated.  This amounts to ‘a scarring over’ of past guilt.  ‘To be sure, the guilt is not justified, not removed, not forgiven.  It remains, but the wound that it inflicted is scarred over.’ (143)  At this point, ‘something like forgiveness takes place, though it is only a weak shadow of the forgiveness that Jesus Christ gives to believers.’ (144)
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