Hunsinger on Bonhoeffer: Who Is Jesus Christ For Us Today?

Kevin Hector, a Ph.D student here at Princeton Seminary and a Wheaton College graduate, posted a recent sermon by George Hunsinger at the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank, where a number of very intelligent scholars post on theological topics relevant to our present-day situation. Some of you may remember my own post on Bill Cavanaugh's lecture on torture that was given in January at Princeton Seminary. That conference was organized by Hunsinger, and the issues raised by Cavanaugh in his books are dear to Hunsinger's heart. This sermon is beautiful and disturbing. I hope people take the time to read it.

Hunsinger's Sermon

Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).

The question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked himself, his students, and his readers remains as urgent now as when he first raised it: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Bonhoeffer by no means intended to challenge the authoritative biblical answer. What he confessed with the prophets and the apostles, he attested at the cost of his life. He affirmed that Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord who had become incarnate for our sakes in order to die for our sins and liberate us from the power of death. That was the answer presupposed in every other possible answer to his question. It was the one answer that contained all others within itself.

But Bonhoeffer knew that other answers were indeed included within that one answer. He knew that in dying for our sins, Jesus Christ had made the sufferings of the world his own. He knew that discipleship to Christ meant participating in Christ's sufferings in the present time. "The hungry need bread," he once wrote, "and the homeless need a roof; the oppressed need justice and the lonely need fellowship; the undisciplined need order and the slave needs freedom." Because Jesus had entered into our world of sorrows, and because he had taken up the cause of those in need, making their cause to be his own, Bonhoeffer could continue: "To allow the hungry to remain hungry would be blasphemy against God and one's neighbor, for what is nearest to God is precisely the need of one's neighbor" (Ethics, p. 137).

That was Bonhoeffer's great insight. "What is nearest to God is precisely the need of one's neighbor." On this profound basis he saw that it made no sense to choose between evangelism and social action. He saw that evangelism without social action was empty, and that social action without evangelism was blind. Both were key to the church's mission, since both were ways of bearing witness in the world to God's love for the world in Jesus Christ. Social action against crying injustice was an indirect form of evangelism, while evangelism that led unbelievers to know and love Jesus remained an indirect goal of social action. In different ways they both proclaimed that God's love extends to the whole person at every level of human need. Feeding the hungry, as Bonhoeffer once said, prepared the way for the coming of grace.

"What is nearest to God is precisely the need of one's neighbor." This statement provides a real clue to how Bonhoeffer answered his own question. The Risen Lord, he believed, confronts us here and now precisely as the neighbor in need. That is who Jesus Christ is for us today: he comes to us in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the prisoner locked away. The neighbor in need is revealed as an incognito form of Christ's presence. This epiphany does not mean that Christ and the needy are simply identical, but it does mean that by divine grace they are inseparably one. It is impossible to serve Christ here and now without serving one's neighbor in need. As you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).

Since what is nearest to God is the need of one's neighbor, and since Christ has made himself to be one with those in dire need, Bonhoeffer drew the right conclusion. He recognized that Christians have a special obligation to those in any society who are being persecuted, humiliated and abused. "Only those who cry out for the Jews," he wrote, "have the right to sing Gregorian chants." For the church in the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer perceived, the presence of Jesus Christ could not be separated from the plight of persecuted Jews. Whoever would serve Christ had to enter into solidarity with that despised and mistreated group, crying out by word and deed.

But that was then, and this is now. Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Who are those who are being persecuted, humiliated and abused in our particular society? Sadly there are many contenders, and too many to be mentioned here, yet chief among them, I would suggest, are the victims around the world today of U.S. sponsored torture.

April 2006 marks the second anniversary since shocking photos were released from Abu Ghraib. These photos are difficult to look at yet impossible to forget. How can we view them without thinking of Christ? How can we view the wrenching scenes of nude male bodies stacked in postures of sexual humiliation without remembering the saying: I was naked and you clothed me? How can we gaze on the shackled man kneeling in an orange jumpsuit with terror in his eyes as a ferocious German shepherd strains at the leash only inches from his face without recalling: I was in prison and you visited me. Where is the outcry? Why the silence of the churches? Can we learn what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has to teach us? Or will we be "good Germans" all over again? Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

"The thought of Jesus being stripped, beaten and derided until his final agony on the cross," wrote Pope John Paul II, "should always prompt a Christian to protest against similar treatment of their fellow beings. Of their own accord, disciples of Christ will reject torture, which nothing can justify, which causes humiliation and suffering to the victim and degrades the tormentor."

The torture-abuse scandal, as first revealed by the photos from Abu Ghraib, has by no means gone away. According to recent human rights reports:

· Detainee deaths at the hands of U.S. soldiers continue around the world.

· Aggressive, painful force-feeding has been instituted at Guantanamo where prisoners are so desperate that many would prefer to commit suicide.

· Secret CIA prisons, rife with torture situations, remain scattered across the globe.

· Thousands of persons have been subjected to what is called "extraordinary rendition," whereby suspects are essentially kidnapped and sent to countries that use torture as a means of interrogation. Yet who can deny that outsourcing torture to other regimes is the moral equivalent of practicing it ourselves?

· Finally, the department of defense has admitted to the Red Cross that "70-90 percent" of the Abu Ghraib prisoners were entirely innocent. Similar if somewhat lower figures have been estimated for other U.S. detention centers, including Guantanamo.

Not a single major human rights organization in the world believes that these abuses can be explained merely as the actions of a few bad apples at the bottom of the barrel. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, has stated that top officials -- up to and including the president -- have given a green light to soldiers to abuse detainees. "You don't have this kind of pervasive attitude out there," he observed, "unless you've condoned it." Yet no officials at the higher levels have seriously been been brought to account.

The photos from Abu Ghraib make one thing clear. Working against torture as sponsored by our government must begin at the local and congregational level. As dismaying as it may seem, polls show that at least 73 percent of the American people believe that torture may be used at least rarely, and 15 percent say it is "often" permissible. The figures for Christians in particular are, sadly, no exception.

The terrible stain of torture -- which is not only morally wrong but has many harmful consequences even from the standpoint of self-interest -- will not be removed from our nation until we learn to act from higher motivations than blinding fear, narrow self-regard, and ugly resentment -- to say nothing of cultural racism. If torture is not evil, then nothing is evil, for torture is the very essence of evil. Only those who cry out today for the detained Muslims and Arabs have a right to sing Gregorian chants.

Let me close with these words from Holy Scripture.

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured (Heb. 13:3).

Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen (I John 4:20).

This verse might be glossed to read: Those who say, "I love God," and torture their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who torture a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen -- and the same holds true for those who turn a blind eye to torture or otherwise condone it.

Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).

Bonhoeffer's searching question thereby remains: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?


I too was moved by this essay. While I'm not quite sure how Webster thinks through politics theologically, at least part of his interpretation of Bonhoffer's question "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?" is revealed:

"At least in 1935, the answer to the question that Bonhoeffer would later ask - the question of '[w]ho is Jesus Christ for us today' - is very plain: 'HE himself, and HE alone, and he in his entirety.'"
- John Webster, "Reading the Bible: The Example of Barth and Bonhoeffer" in Word and Church, pp. 102-103.

How should we relate this dogmatic phrase of the presence of Jesus Christ in the word (where Webster is countering the "revisionist" readings that twist the later prison letters to make Bonhoeffer a "moralistic" theologian) and the solidarity we have with fellow human beings through Jesus Christ (a la Hunsinger's sermon)?

I look forward to reading more about Webster's take on ethics, particularly the church's activity in politics. Hunsinger seems to have a pretty solid identity in politics. How does this look across the spectrum with other Barthian scholars?
Webster is quite reticent on ethical-political issues, but that's probably because he has spent most of his time explicating Barth on ethical-political issues (e.g., Barth's Moral Theology, Barth's Ethics of Reconciliation). Webster tends to stick to dogmatic topics, which represents his own bias towards understanding the nature of God, humanity, and the church before discussing how the Christian ought to live. This is no where more evident than in his great essay, "Christ, Church and Reconciliation."

Hunsinger, as you say, does have a very strong political presence, and it is one that is shaped by Bonhoeffer's theology of nonviolence. Hunsinger stands in the company of other great pacifist theologians, including John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. Unfortunately, this does not characterize Barthians as a whole, at least not actively or outwardly in what they produce theologically.

However, Barth is very important in terms of political issues. His theology, from Romans to the CD, is consistently and radically opposed to any kind of ideological identification of Christianity with a worldly power or institution -- hence his rejection of religion. I would venture to say that most serious Barth scholars are on the side of nonviolence and "liberal" politics, but this is only a conjecture. Anything other than this would probably be a position that has not been thoroughly shaped by Barth's own writing. Of course, Hunsinger is taking cues from other theologians, since Barth does not address these political issues head-on.

Lastly, I think speaking of "the presence of Jesus Christ in the word" is not exactly Webster's position. To be honest, it is Jüngel's. Webster is more Reformed on this topic. What you point out is right, that the presence of the risen Lord is "Jesus Christ for us today" and we have solidarity with others through Jesus. Whereas Jüngel would focus this presence in the word of the gospel (not to be identified with Scripture, though), Webster would strongly say that Christ is present through the Holy Spirit. In the end, these two positions are not far apart and in fact both would, in principle, agree with the other. But the distinction is important. Webster wants to hold on to the incarnate Christ's reality and presence and activity in the world, rather than moves today to dissolve Christ into the Scriptures or the Church ("we are his hands and feet" nonsense).
Thanks. How do you reconcile the two positions with regard to political activity? Do you have any suggestions with regard to other works on the interface between dogmatics and politics that have challenged you?

I'm currently pushing through Webster's "Incarnation" essay. I got into him via his "Holy Scripture," which seems to be a composite of the first 3 essays in "Word and Church."

I made mention of your two posts on Barth and Contraception as well as on New Gnosticism on the Barth website.

Webster's position may be dogmatically correct, but it does take out some of the political steam that other ecclesiologies might provide. Check out his essay "On Evangelical Ecclesiology" in Confessing God for a good example of his critique of modern ecclesial-centered theologies. I agree with Webster, but I also think that his position can still provide room for thinking ethically and politically.

For example, just because we assert the centrality of Christ's person as the one who reconciles us, our own ethical life is not then dissolved. Barth is great on this point, though I disagree with Barth on his view of the human person as an actor like God is an actor. In this area, I am Lutheran in my theology, and I side with Eberhard Juengel. Read Webster's very good essay on Juengel's ontology and ethics entitled, "Justification, Analogy and Action," which you can find in Barth's Moral Theology and The Possibilities of Theology.

But we cannot just stick with these three theologians, as great as they are. I recommend William T. Cavanaugh very highly. Read Theopolitical Imagination and, if you get around to it, Torture and Eucharist. Cavanaugh's Catholic emphasis on the eucharist can be adapted rather easily to fit a more Protestant emphasis on Christ.

Of course, Yoder and Hauerwas are fantastic. The Politics of Jesus and The Peaceable Kingdom are the best, and I will toss in A Community of Character for good measure.

Also check out Daniel Bell's work, Liberation Theology After the End of History.