Christian Suffering and Divine Alienation

I know of no book more convicting than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship; read this book closely and seriously enough, and you will likely have to stop calling yourself a Christian. Bonhoeffer’s stark and savage denunciation of Christendom surpasses even Kierkegaard’s and shines a floodlight on the reader’s embrace of civic religion and what Bonhoeffer famously calls “cheap grace.”

The earth-shattering revelation in The Cost of Discipleship is the extent to which suffering is necessary for the Christian life. (Obviously, Bonhoeffer was not the first to point this out, but he points it out more stridently and effectively than anyone else I’ve ever read.) Suffering is for Bonhoeffer the immediate requirement of the Gospel, “not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The Christian life always already demands suffering.

But it’s important to note that it is not merely suffering Christ demands—it is suffering for the sake of others:

While it is true that only the sufferings of Christ are a means of atonement, yet since he has suffered for and borne the sins of the whole world and shares with his disciples the fruits of his passion, the Christian also has to undergo temptation, he too has to bear the sins of others; he too must bear their shame and be driven like a scapegoat from the gate of the city.

The Christian must suffer at the hands of the world for the sake of the world and for the sake of the Gospel. We 21st-century Americans are not great at this sort of suffering, it is true–that’s why we like to scream “PERSECUTION!” when the government takes down the Ten Commandments from its public buildings or when the cashier at Wal*Mart says “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Persecution is, of course, ultimately a good thing for the Christian, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear. Obviously we should embrace it.

Bonhoeffer himself serves as a model for the embracing of suffering. He was famously imprisoned in Germany for speaking against the Nazis and for advocating the assassination of Hitler. He languished in a prison for years before being executed only days before the Allies freed the other prisoners. I don’t want to speak for Bonhoeffer, whom I have not read beyond The Cost of Discipleship, but it seems clear to me that this is a good picture for suffering for the sake of others and for the call. Every Christian cannot be called to be executed by a hostile government–but every Christian must suffer in smaller but significant ways.

This schema reminds me of a scene from Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant. Morris Bober, a Jewish shopkeeper in mid-century New York, employs a gentile assistant, Frank Alpine, who, unbeknownst to his employer, steals from him and who was involved in a robbery attempt that left Morris wounded. They talk about their differences, which quickly brings them around to Judaism:

“But tell me why it is that the Jews suffer so damn much, Morris? It seems to me that they like to suffer, don’t they?”

“Do you like to suffer? They suffer because they are Jews.”

“That’s what I mean, they suffer more than they have to.”

“If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want. But I think if a Jew don’t suffer for the Law, he will suffer for nothing.”

“What do you suffer for, Morris?” Frank said.

“I suffer for you.”

This is an extraordinary scene, one not altogether irrelevant for our discussion of Bonhoeffer. Morris, as a Jew, is meant to suffer for the Law but suffers instead for the sake of another person. He is not a Christian and thus, according to Bonhoeffer, does not know God (Bonhoeffer is quite a bit more theologically conservative than some of the later thinkers who have picked him up, although he’s not what we’d recognize as Evangelical)—but we can learn something about redemptive suffering from him nevertheless. Suffering for the sake of the call and for the sake of others involves being spurned, assaulted, and wronged and allowing it to happen again. The Christian must, like Morris Bober, spiritually employ those who have assaulted him.

Certainly the true Christian should look more like Morris Bober than the sort of self-satisfied, assimilated Christian of today; as Bonhoeffer puts it, “Suffering . . . is the badge of true discipleship,” and “The opposite of discipleship is to be ashamed of Christ and his cross and all the offence which the cross brings in its train.” One must choose: discipleship, with its attendent suffering—or assimilation.

Notice, however, that suffering is a means to an end—and that end, paradoxically, is the end of suffering:

Jesus prays to his Father that the cup may pass from him, and his Father hears his prayer; for the cup of suffering will indeed pass from him—but only by his drinking it. That is the assurance he receives as he kneels for the second time in the garden of Gesthsemane that suffering will indeed pass as he accepts it. That is the only path to victory. The cross has triumph over suffering.

This passage suggests that we will suffer even if we try to assimilate to escape it—true discipleship, with the suffering it entails, is the only real way to eliminate suffering.

Bonhoeffer also demands from followers of Christ a sort of divine alienation: “But in the passion Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory.” In other words, His mere suffering is not enough; He (and with Him, Christians everywhere) must be rejected by the world. Certainly if a Christian fits in with the world around him, he is probably not a real Christian, at least in Bonhoeffer’s economy.

But our world features a complacent Christendom, which cannot even begin to understand the idea of divine alienation: “But this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life committed to Christ.” Take the riches of a worldly Christendom if you will, but don’t confuse them with Christianity.

Alienation ends up having a net positive effect on Christians, as you might expect: “It is Christ’s will that [the disciple] should be thus isolated, and that he should fix his eyes solely upon him.” This is a variation, I believe, on crisis theology—left with no other viable option, the disciple must follow Christ and Christ alone. Bonhoeffer advocates a  leap of faith into obedience to Christ, something that sounds very similar to Kierkegaard’s famous teleological suspension of the ethical. To follow Christ, the disciples “must burn their boats and plunge into absolute insecurity in order to learn the demand and the gift of Christ.” They must leave the world of rational guarantees; if they do not, “the call vanishes into thin air,” and the possibility of faith disappears.

This leap of faith—as Bonhoeffer suggests outright and Kierkegaard at least implies—is inherently alienating. It is something that only an individual can go through: “Every man is called separately, and must follow alone. But men are frightened of solitude, and they try to protect themselves from it by merging themselves in the society of their fellow-men and in their material environment.” And yet it is by this isolating solitude that human beings become true human beings; to assimilate is to remain in the Kierkegaardian ethical sphere and to deny something real and important about who we are. We are called to alienation.

Once the Christian is alienated, he is able to see that he was always already alienated. “The call of Jesus,” says Bonhoeffer, “teaches us that our relation to the world has been built on an illusion. All the time we thought we had enjoyed a direct relation with men and things.” As with suffering, we see that there is no alternative to alienation—it’s just that suffering the proper sort will result in an eventual end to alienation.

Divine alienation results in a completely new model of human-to-human relations. The disciple can no longer relate directly to those around him but must use Christ as an intermediary for his human relations as well as his relationship with God the Father. This has the strange effect of defending the monastic system against a common criticism. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “Intercession is the most promising way to reach our neighbours, and corporate prayer, offered in the name of Christ, the purest form of fellowship.” All of this involves an outrageously and scandalously high Christology on Bonhoeffer’s part: Literally all the disciple has is Christ.

But Bonhoeffer does not advocate a removal from the world; one must, after all, be in it but not of it. The key is that we maintain a realistic view of our horizontal relationships: “There can be no real attachment to the given creation, no genuine responsibility in the world, unless we recognize the breach which already separates us from it.” We give Christ our relationship with the world in order to receive it back from Him, renewed and perfected.

Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the necessity of suffering and alienation is a message today’s Christian world–obsessed with its “rights” and with political action (on both sides of the fence, and don’t even get me started on what Bonhoeffer thinks of political action in the name of Christ)–desperately needs to hear. Until it breaks through to us, we are but self-satisfied and assimilated Christians, not the disciples we’re called to be.

1 thought on “Christian Suffering and Divine Alienation

  1. Well worth the time and the read, Michial. I think the distinction you brought out here on suffering is crucial. I’ve seen the ecstatic notion that suffering is inherently beneficial to the believer in and of itself carried to some frightening extremes in some very noble thinkers. Simon Weil comes to mind. I also found your offhand remarks on Bonhoeffer’s status as an evangelical to be refreshing. The Eric Mataxas biography seems to have reignited that particular controversy.

    Incidentally, I happen to be reading “The Assistant” right now. I’ve loved Malamud’s short stories, but haven’t read any of his novels up until this point.

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