At the age of 31, in 1936-37, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned “Life Together” while leading an underground community – an underground seminary – at Finkenwalde. The work is 95 pages in length, maybe 28,000 words, and contains five chapters.
Community – 1 – 22
the Day with Others – 23 – 48
The Day Alone – 49 – 62
Ministry – 63 – 82
Communion and Confession – 83- 95
I am re-reading Life Together, probably my fourth read in thirty years. It is one of those outstanding, brief, rich explorations that don’t appear very often.
Chapter One opens like this: “How good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1) Bonhoeffer immediately sets the tone for what follows with these words: “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.” And these few words sound very prophetic today, in this location in the dying days of Christendom. He next quotes Luther:
“The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be one of the Kingdom of Christ.” He quotes Zech. 10:9 – “I will sow them among the people; and they shall remember me in far countries.”
The second section begins two pages later, and is titled, “Through and in Jesus Christ.” Bonhoeffer intends to show that Christian community is a creation of the Spirit, and a marvelous gift to humankind. And he will compare the gift of community to its human counterfeit, a path that Scott Peck echoed many years later in his book “The Different Drum: Community Building and Peace.” Bonhoeffer writes,
“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this… We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.
“What does this mean? It means, first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united forever.” (21)
“Not what a man [sic] is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ.” (25)
The third section begins on the following page and is titled, “Not an Ideal but a Divine Reality.” This section begins, “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream [but] grace quickly shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” (27)
Profound! If these disillusionments do not come, we will never grow to maturity as believers. But if the first ones come apart from the latter one, we will forever live in a sectarian, judgmental spirit. Worse, without that knowledge of our shadow self we will use and control others for our own ego purposes. Bonhoeffer elaborates,
“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.
“The man [sic] who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. he stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren.” (27)
From here Bonhoeffer moves on to exhort us to thankfulness and to caution against complaining. “Let [us] guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God.” (30) Then he contrasts human community to the community created by the Spirit.
“In the spiritual realm the Spirit governs; in human community, psychological techniques and methods. In the former naive, un-psychological unmethodical, helping love is extended toward one’s brother; in the latter psychological analysis and construction; in the one the service of one’s brother is simple and humble; in the other the service consists of a searching, calculating analysis of a stranger.” (32)