The Church for the World -- Review

THE CHURCH FOR THE WORLD: A Theology of Public Witness. By Jennifer M. McBride.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.   Xiv + 295 pages.

            The debate continues – does faith, and specifically the Christian faith, belong in the public square?  The parties are all aligned on one side or the other, but perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions.  If faith is at the center of one’s identity, at least if one is a person of faith, then how can we not bring faith into public life?  To do so would be to cut off part of our identity.  So, maybe the question isn’t should it be present, but how should it be present?  

There was a time, not so long ago, that there was a quasi-establishment of religion in America.  It was a broadly construed Protestantism, but since the 1960s that consensus position has fragmented, but the expected triumph of the secular has not come.  Instead, we’ve seen growing competition among many religious actors to either find a place in public life or dominate it.  Since Christianity in its varied guises has been from the foundation of the nation the dominate faith tradition it has had a major role in framing issues of faith and public life, but many who come from this tradition find it difficult to share the stage with the growing pluralism that is present.  So how should we engage the public square if we’re people of faith?  As Christians how do we bear witness to Christ in public life?

This is the question that Jennifer McBride takes up in The Church for the World. She does so by looking at the American scene through the lens of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings, and not just a select few popular and well known books such as Discipleship or Life Together, but through an exploration of his entire work.  Although Bonhoeffer died at the hands of the Nazi’s at the young age of thirty-nine, he was a prodigious author, though many of his works were published posthumously. 

   McBride is a scholar and an evangelical Christian, who believes that Jesus is the means by which the world can be redeemed.  She serves as a professor of religion and ethics at Wartburg College and as a member of the Board of Directors of the International Bonhoeffer Society, English Language Section. This book is a revision of a doctoral dissertation written at the University of Virginia.  As a scholarly book, it’s not an easy read, therefore, but it reads well, so you can tell that McBride took much care in revising her dissertation to make it more accessible to a broader audience.    

As we watch and listen to the “conversation” that is currently underway concerning the role of religion and faith in public life, much of it is less than savory.  There are those who resist its presence and those who seek to impose their position on the nation – witness recent debates over contraception and gay marriage.  In the present climate, those whose voices are raised the loudest get attention, and those who speak more softly and more deftly are drowned out.  But perhaps Bonhoeffer offers us a model for engaging public life in a way that is true to the Christian faith and the pathways of Jesus.  

Bonhoeffer is well known to many Christians for his resistance to the Nazi regime that sought to control the church for its own purposes.  Bonhoeffer saw in the German Christian Movement an alien theology that had little to do with the message of Jesus and much more to nationalism and cultural identity.  In the face of this threat to church and society, Bonhoeffer sought to ground the faith of the church in Christ.  In the end he chose to resist the tyranny that he found present in Hitler’s regime by joining the resistance movement, serving as its liaison to the allies using his ecumenical contacts.  As part of this effort he was implicated in the attempts to assassinate Hitler.  Bonhoeffer engaged in this action, knowing that it conflicted with his own faith, but did so because he felt he had no other choice.  He took solace, however, in a theology that called for repentance and confession and provided grace.  

Many books have been written about Bonhoeffer, and his own works are now in the process of being published in new translations and editions.  There have been several new biographies written, some helpful to understanding Bonhoeffer, and others have distorted his life story for their own benefit.  As a result there are many different Bonhoeffer’s extant, but what McBride does is try to cut through this maze of interpretation to listen to the entire message of Bonhoeffer’s writings and life.  She shows us how Bonhoeffer’s theology evolved over time, and reminds us that it is an unfinished theology.  But in the course of doing this, she finds a foundation for a truly Christian public witness.  Her handling of Bonhoeffer is enhanced by her recognition that interpreting him for today and finding support for a contemporary theology of public witness requires reading him in his own German context.  

            McBride’s thesis is that Bonhoeffer’s public witness is rooted in a theology of confession and repentance.  This is a “worldly” Christianity, in that it emphasizes that Christ lived among us and shared life among us in all its fullness.  Bonhoeffer, she demonstrates, did not have a docetic Christology, where Jesus just seemed as if he was living a human life.  Christ shared our sinful flesh and as he did so, he provides us a way forward.  By emphasizing Bonhoeffer’s thinking on confession and repentance, she finds the basis for a non-triumphalist presence in the public square.  This is a theology of the cross rather than a theology of glory.  It is a theology that is a “religionless” Christianity that is lived out in the world, that lets go of “religious or cultural triumphalism that becomes especially detrimental to a redemptive witness when coupled with sociopolitical power and affluence” (p. 5).  The way forward is to “witness to Christ in a nontriumphal manner through an overlapping confession of their own sin and the sin of broader society, which finds public expression in repentant activity” (p. 6).  Using Bonhoeffer as a partner in conversation she strikes at the way in which much Christian witness is couched in attitudes of superiority and self-righteousness, one that seeks to impose upon society a moralism that shows no sign of our own sinfulnesss.  

            The book is comprised of seven chapters divided into three parts.   Part One, entitled Public Witness in a Pluralistic Society, includes the introductory discussion of “confession and repentance as public witness,” and an evaluation of public witness in the United States.  In these chapters, she sets up the broader discussion.  In Part Two, she focuses more specifically on the “Theology of Public Witness Based on Bonhoeffer’s Thought.”  In the course of three chapters, she focuses on Bonhoeffer’s Christology as the foundation for ecclesial witness, a chapter on belonging or participating in the “World’s Christological pattern.”  Finally, she looks at the “church’s public presence, again focusing on confession and repentance.  In Part Three she looks at two specific communities that she had studied during her doctoral work that she believes exemplifies the kind of public witness that Bonhoeffer describes in his work.  In her conclusion she offers some concrete implications.  Although she engages Bonhoeffer most directly in the center section, he is a conversation partner throughout the discussion.

            Regarding the present context, especially in the United States, she addresses our tendency to “equate witness with possession of right knowledge.”   She affirms a certain exclusivism of witness, but one tempered by recognition that we don’t have full understanding of the truth.  Christ may be the truth, but the church is the witness to truth, not its possessor.  She makes it clear that Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” is not ultimately that of modern liberalism, but in line with Barth’s affirmation that Christ is the Word of God to humanity.  But regarding our context, the question is how do we bear witness to Christ publicly in an increasingly pluralistic world, and do so in a non-triumphalist manner.  More liberal Christians may find Bonhoeffer (and McBride) too narrow, but her engagement with this topic is quite profound.  For liberals and progressives, the question is – what difference does Jesus make to your public witness?  

But more to the point of being non-triumphalist, she draws our attention to the idea that Christians are the “standard-bearers of morality.”  If you are paying attention to the political debates there is a strong sentiment that Christians are fighting a rear-guard effort against those who would undermine morality, and that this group of Christians (read conservative Christians) have the truth and that it must be imposed on society lest it fall apart.  It is also seen in the idea that America is specially favored by God, and thus its heritage must be protected against outliers.  Christians are in this understanding the determiners of what is right and wrong.  Bonhoeffer, however, pushes us beyond this moralism by forcing us to recognize our own sinfulness and complicity in the woes of this world.  Repentance, thus, becomes the alternative to our sense of righteousness.  

In the middle section McBride lays out in detail Bonhoeffer’s emerging understanding of the church and its public witness.  She helps us understand the German context, and Bonhoeffer’s frustration with what he observed in the United States lack of grounding in a strong Christology during his stays at Union Theological Seminary.  By exploring his insights on Christology, including the lectures published as Christ the Center, as well as texts such as Sanctorum Communio (his doctoral dissertation) and Letters and Papers from Prison, we are directed to Christ as our model for participating in the world.  She writes that we participate in the world not by seeing ourselves as “religiously or morally favored but by taking the form of the crucified Christ, who belonged wholly to this world through a righteousness expressed through repentance” (p. 87).  For Bonhoeffer, our public witness must never lose sight of the one to whom we bear witness, and we do this by conforming the life of the church to the way in which Christ was present in a non-triumphalist manner in the world.  We bear witness to the desire of God by recognizing our own sinfulness.  By doing so we recognize that we can’t both be confessors of sin and judges.  By recognizing our own sinfulness and by modeling our own life in public by way of the cross we find a way of avoiding a triumphalist presence.  

In the final two chapters, which form Part Three, McBride shows us two communities – The Eleuthero Community in Portland, Maine and the Southeast White House in Washington, DC, which have tried to live out the model she describes.  Both are distinctly evangelical in theology, but committed to a presence that seeks social justice in the community, doing so with Christ as redeemer and model.  They show how a community might engage the public sphere with an attitude formed by confession and repentance.  They are, McBride suggests, examples and not blue prints.  Each Christian community will need to discern how best to be present in their community with confession and repentance as their foundation.  

I greatly appreciated the way that McBride has brought Bonhoeffer into conversation with our modern predicament, where we seem to have this belief that we know the truth and we shall, by whatever means necessary, impose that truth on society.  Using Bonhoeffer she points us to a better way in Christ, who chose death on a cross rather than the imposition of his will on the populace.  There is much to wrestle with here, but the fact that she engages the entirety of Bonhoeffer’s writings gives us a better grounding and a better picture of the evolving nature of Bonhoeffer’s Christology, ecclesiology, and view of a Christianity that is truly worldly!  Not one that conforms to the world, but which is present in a truly redemptive way.

This is a book worth examining closely, whether or not you’re a fan of Bonhoeffer or even an evangelical.  It does point the church in the right direction at a time when the church needs direction, in an increasingly poisonous political climate where the church seems to be doing more harm than good.


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