Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Jesus for You: A Feminist Reading of Bonhoeffer's Christology

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Jesus for You: A Feminist Reading of Bonhoeffer's Christology

Article excerpt

In a previously published essay I outlined how I see Dietrich Bonhoeffer's spirituality related to his upbringing as a dominating, aggressive self and how naive reading of his work can prove disastrous when uncritically applied to people in very different social locations, such as women in abuse. (1) In the present essay I move on to explore how Bonhoeffer's strong Christology in particular speaks to women in abuse and others with degraded self-conceptions. This essay derives from several overarching questions having to do with Bonhoeffer's own spiritual experience of Jesus Christ, his articulation of this experience in formal Christology, and the conversation arising when this Christology encounters people living in power relations different from those that shaped Bonhoeffer.

So: What is the transformation Bonhoeffer experienced in his encounter with Jesus Christ? What are the contours of redemption women trapped in the shadows of reality need? And how--both with and against the grain of his legacy--can Bonhoeffer's Christology provide an authentically Lutheran spirituality of transformation for people in social locations very different from his own?

I attempt here to bring together into one conversation Bonhoeffer's Christology and the psychological and spiritual needs of women in abuse. Such a specification in no way limits the relevance of this inquiry to victims or survivors of abuse. But women in abuse represent an extreme instance of the selfhood that characterizes many women to some degree, as well as those men who have internalized familial or social rejection into the self-silencing, self-attacking submission characteristic of soluble selves. Thus, the essay may prove germane to central aspects of the experience of a wide audience. We see revealed the recurring biblical motif of the paradoxical and surprising centrality of precisely those persons regarded (by their oppressors, by society, and even by themselves) as marginal, failed, invisible, or worthless.

That the experience of battered women could shed new light on the teachings of the great Bonhoeffer in ways that prove illuminating for many beyond themselves may seem improbable. Yet, were he alive today, Bonhoeffer might be among the first to acknowledge the Christian mystery at work here: that attention to these bruised and bleeding bodies and spirits, despised and rejected by the powerful, both radically contextualizes (or even subverts) the best wisdom of the wise, and in fact reveals the very heart of God for the world. (2) I begin with an overarching critique of Bonhoeffer's notions of the relation between self and other; this will make possible a more nuanced exploration of his Christology.

Self and other

Various scholars have commented on the striking other-orientation in Bonhoeffer, finding it a salutary Christian alternative to the self-indulgent pieties of American consumerism and privilege, and locating him within a developing tradition of philosophical alterity manifest also in such thinkers as Adorno and Levinas (3) as well as in subsequent liberation theology. (4) From the beginning of his writings Bonhoeffer identifies the "other" (whether divine or human) as the experienced locus of transcendence, drawing a person's attention away from one's own self as "totally claimless," sterile, and isolated to find authentic life and reality in surrender to the "absolute demands" of the other. (5) From the philosophical categories of Sanctorum Communio, through the powerfully enacted surrender to Christ in Discipleship and to the human other in confession and service in community (Life Together), he continued to develop this motif of the priority of the other over the self for Christian maturity. And at the end of his life, even as he was beginning to notice problems with this "unconditional surrender" of self to other, nevertheless the dominant tone of his writings in this regard is still that of the sheer joy and freedom he experiences in radical self-surrender, a process simultaneously sacrificial and redemptive. …

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