Ministry to the Marginalized: The Gospel and Bonhoeffer's Ethics, part 1

Ministry to the Marginalized: The Gospel and Bonhoeffer's Ethics, part 1

“A life is not justified by love or hope, but only by faith. For indeed faith alone sets life upon a new foundation, and it is this new foundation alone that justifies my being able to live before God. The foundation is the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

+ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics.

It feels like Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, the unfinished magnum opus of the man martyred by the Nazis, is a working out of Luther’s dictum in On Christian Liberty. Namely that, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” What I mean by this is that Bonhoeffer seems to have understood what Luther meant better than many other Lutherans of the twentieth century (and perhaps, better than most Lutherans in the twenty-first century). Part of the capitulation to the Third Reich by German Lutherans had to do with a weak theology of the life of a Christian. To be sure, the primal instinct to protect one’s self over and above all else was a motivating factor, but the established German Lutherans had no theological answer for Nazism. 

Bonhoeffer lived his life as a witness to a lively theology that did have an answer. In the above quote Bonhoeffer shows that faith alone is what justifies humans. Hope and love cannot justify. The gospel is the freeing of the human from the bondage of sin and it does this without any effort on part of a sinful human. There is no cooperation in salvation, unless one’s own death counts as “cooperation” (in other words, if you must play a part, then play dead). Bonhoeffer made clear that we do not do the gospel, in the sense that the gospel is something performed out in the world for the sake of justice. The gospel is done to us; and we do the gospel insofar as we speak to another fellow broken human the word of forgiveness that comes from Christ and him alone. 

What we do is in the realm of the law. But Bonhoeffer’s insights bring us further along so that we may understand that the doing of the law we perform is not for our own benefit—it isn’t for our own benefit per se—it’s for the benefit of another. We can do the gospel for another’s benefit as we speak to them God’s word of freedom in Christ, but we do the law when we pursue justice on their behalf. This distinction avoids two errors, as far as I can tell. First, it avoids the error of mixing the law with the gospel in an attempt to do the gospel in the world (again, presumably in the pursuit of justice). And it avoids the error of performing the gospel for our own benefit. The gospel is not performed by us for our own benefit.

Why does any of this matter? Because, truthfully, the church exists in time and space to do two things: first, the church exists to speak God’s free word of forgiveness through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This word is for all since scripture speaks plainly of a universal atonement. And second, the church exists for doing acts of mercy for another, especially another human who lives life on the margins. Ministry among the marginalized is possible because there is no other word that can usurp God’s final word of forgiveness. We are not only free from the sin that hinders us, but also the worry that keeps us from our other. Since we are ultimately forgiven, we can freely pursue the needs of others. Bonhoeffer’s theology constructs itself around freely pursuing the needs of others, especially those who are on the margins. 

Why was Bonhoeffer’s theology able to take off in this way? Simply put, he saw clearly that faith alone is the foundation for us to live a life that is not alone. This foundation propels us towards a life for the other. There is so much in this life that can prevent us from acts of mercy and charity; the beauty of God’s free word in Christ is that the worries of life do not have to get in the way of ministry to your other. This life of charity and mercy is not for the sake of securing salvation, nor for the sake of proving it. All of this has been taken care of in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This life of charity and mercy is simply for the sake of the other. It is an end unto itself.

Ministry in the church is also an end unto itself. The gospel of Jesus Christ frees Christians to do ministry for the sake of the other, and particularly for the marginalized. Why the marginalized? Because the marginalized have been put at the margins by those people and structures which have no regard for the freedom that comes about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Human beings become marginalized because it benefits structures of power and it benefits the people who stand to gain the most from protecting those structures. It is not really the business of the church to overthrow those structures, but it is the business of the church to enter into the places of the marginalized and serve them as if they were the ones holding the power. And it is the business of the church to speak prophetically to those people and structures who place their other on the margins. 

In Ethics Bonhoeffer notes that doing such ministry is an act of preparing the way of the Lord. This type of ministry does not supplant the proclamation of Jesus crucified and risen for human beings, but it does pave the way. This is not a new way of running a church program, as though this were simply one “offering” from a church among many others. Acts of charity and mercy are the way that leads to the coming of Christ. These acts are not programmatic—they are prophetic—because they are done in concrete hope that Christ is coming again. When Christ comes again all things will come together, and the ministry done on the margins will be shown for what it was, a sign of the ultimate hope we have.

In subsequent posts I hope to illustrate how this may be done, and in the interest of transparency I’m definitely still working through this myself. Ultimately, however this is done, it is never apart from the word of God in Christ which forgives and frees all people. That forgiveness and freedom is what enables the Christian church to act.

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