“Becoming Simple and Wise; Moral Discernment in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Vision of Christian Ethics” by Joshua A Kaiser – a review

The best way to read “becoming Simple and Wise”, a scholarly book of subtly developed distinctions based on a doctoral thesis, is to take it personally.

Kaiser proposes that in his life and works Dietrich Bonhoeffer is trying to understand how can I as  a Christian understand God’s will for me. It can’t be as simple as letting the pages of the Bible fall open on a passage at random and then take it literally. Karl Barth, with whom all Bonhoeffer’s work is in an intense critical dialogue suggested that the key to a Christian life was to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, holding scripture and our times in strategic relation. Essentially we are invited to respond not to an ‘idea” but to a personal ‘call” from God.

The question is how do we recognise and interpret and properly respond to that call. Bonhoeffer insists that we can not just rely on the role of reason or conscience. As Christians we have to keep close to the “Word of God”  located in the Scriptures not least in the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount . He could not escape from the pressure of his own context of an emerging Nazi Germany that had stepped beyond  “general moral principles’ and rationality. In other words we are expected to read the Bible but not to collect ideas or information.  The central point is one of the need to “stop discussing and start obeying” the imperatives of the Sermon of the Mount.

Kaiser’s detailed analysis of what ‘discernment’ is  and how it could work moves into a clear recognition of the need to give time to practice a time of daily meditation, prayer and silent reflection. That need to ‘press the pause button’ in our hectic and over stressed world helps us to learn not to make “every day events and routines into ethical crises” but to get on with ‘doing’. Bonhoeffer’s deep challenge is to  work at changing our ‘mindsets”  The heart of this book is “the place of spiritual exercise” from which we all can learn, bearing in mind that Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted that “Jesus calls his disciples not only when they directly confess his name but also when they suffer for a just cause” and in his “Ethics” this blessing is extended to those who are not Christian.

Kaiser’s book takes us through the complex theology of discernment but to a place of practical daily reflection and consequent action in the context of our own world. It could be a personal hand book.

Chairman’s Report for the year ending 31 October 2014

During the year under review, the second since Project Bonhoeffer was formally incorporated, the Board of Trustees met as planned three times in different cities in the country ( to reflect our nation wide reach) to conduct routine project management business in accordance with the Trust’s aims and objectives. Our agendas focussed on governance and finances of the project. All meetings were quorate and well attended and on each occasion the Trustees reviewed the Trust’s financial health, taking account of the work programme being supported financially and publicly to further the aims and objectives.

The Trustees also took stock of the need of the Trust to operate effectively with proper updated accounts and future business projections and mapped out how the Board’s membership might better carry out its business in the future. A regular review of Board membership has been introduced now that the Trust is firmly committed to ensure a better gender balance and richer mix of younger and older members. Since the Project work centres around supporting young people they do need to have a voice on the Board so that their new ideas can inform future plans and development.

During this year under review (our third operational year) we developed our aims in practice with stronger monitoring and forward planning. The main business of the Board meetings was to ensure that the Trust’s main benefactors, the young people fresh from college and university, were properly employed in worthwhile internships giving them experience of everyday issues of social and economic justice and caring for those in society in need and at the same time were properly prepared and backed up with pastoral care and academic support in reflecting on the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Board of Trustees also focussed on the work of deepening our relationship with our cooperating organisation, The Student Christian Movement of Great Britain (SCM) which manages the running of the internship scheme on our behalf under the title of the SCM “FAITH IN ACTION PROJECT”. The SCM has a budget approved and given by us to manage that major Project on an annual basis. This is a formal contract which the Trustees monitor carefully at, and between, Board meetings. Thus we have been able to take a close interest in its practical workings and carefully monitor and support the scheme as it has developed with further support for study and outreach work.

We raised the profile of the Bonhoeffer Project substantially through our open Conference, our contacts and communications during the year under review and recognise a renewed and wide reaching interest in Britain in Bonhoeffer’s work to which our Project is occasionally called to respond and participate.

During this year the Board sustained the Trust in a healthy positive financial condition and has been able to take a careful longer term view in terms of financial planning and the future development of the Project. SCM are delighted with our practical and carefully measured support and we have been pleased with the way the Bonhoeffer Project is fostering the future development of the work of SCM as it has become more centrally integrated into their own programmes and development.

The Board of Trustees are confident that the Trust is building on a solid foundation and is capable of extending and expanding its reach within the full context of the aims and objectives of Project Bonhoeffer.

Rt Hon John Battle , Chair of the Board of Trustees.


Staying Awake in Gethsemane – Bonhoeffer today

In an essay entitled “Bonheffer’s Christological Take on Vocation” Lori Brandt Hale writes
“In July 1944, one day after the conspiracy’s failed attempt on Hitler’s life( but unbeknown to Bonhoeffer) Dietrich wrote an important letter to his friend and confidant Eberhard Bethge : “Later on I discovered , and am still discovering to this day , that one only learns to have faith by living in the full this worldliness of life…. This is what I call this~ worldliness; living fully in the midst of life’ s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences, and perplexities~ then one takes seriously no longer. One’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane.And I think this is
faith; this is metanoia. And this is how one becomes a human being, a Christian”

( cf ” Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture” edited Keith Johnson and Timothy Larsen).

Elsewhere Bonhoeffer suggested that “The renewal of the Church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time people banded together to do this.” Notably it is a collective task as much as a personal one but Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on ” this~ worldliness” ensures that we become earthed in the daily realities of those who in our midst are suffering.
This immersion in the everyday world is at the heart of his spirituality. He insists that we do not neglect going through “Good Friday realities” and hold to them and do not rush to Easter Sunday too quickly in order to feel saved and through it. The liberation theologian Ignatio Ellacuria a Jesuit priest martyred in El Salvador spoke passionately of the need to take the crucified people down from their crosses and not nail more up. Moreover as we move too quickly into the Easter season we too readily forget that we too collaborate in daily crucifixions by metaphorically holding the nails and hammer or cutting the wood. Bonhoeffer’
s lifetime insistence is that there is no ” cheap grace”.
Having the strength of character to stay wake with Christ in Gethsemane, something his closest disciples failed to do cannot come easy. Interestingly the daily core of monasticism practices in Cistercian Monasteries such as Kirkstall Abbey from 1132-1534 centred around prayer, work and the Lectio Divina, regular practices spelt out in St Benedict’s “Rule”. When asked what was ” contemplation” Abbot Ralph replied that it was about developing the capacity to take a long loving look at reality” rather that escaping from the world. Notably the poet Thomas Hardy writing in the wake of the First World War pointed out that we needed to develop the capacity to ” look the west in the face” and remain human. It was T S Eliot who later reminded us in his “Four Quartets” : “Go,go” said the bird, human beings cannot bear too much reality”. Developing that capacity to take a long loving look at reality ( as opposed to a passing glance at a news bulletin) is an invitation to find the face of the crucified Christ in the every day world we are actually inhabiting.

Do we find the face of the crucified Christ in the faces of those who are poor in our society who now regularly abused and excoriated in the media in a culture that has shifted from the empathy of ” Cathy Come Home” to the judgemental condemnations of ” Benefits Street”. For the first time in recent British history a recession has not increased our society’s compassion for the poor, the vulnerable and unemployed it has amplified an insistence that they are personally responsible for their plight. Listening to, accompanying and taking sides with the poor, with migrants, the imprisoned , those suffering addictions and mental health problems, in fact relating to all those we are asked to associate with and support in the Sermon on the Mount is today to take an unpopular option but it is what Bonhoeffer leads us to do not just to become faithful Christians but real human beings.

Live Simply with the earth?

I can still remember my first electric shock and my father, who was an electrician by trade, insisting that you always need to “make sure that things are earthed” or disasters can happen and not just to the wiring. Failure to “earth” can lead to fires, burnouts and ultimate disconnections.
What comes across most strikingly in Pope Francis’s communications, whether in his sermons, brief “tweetings” or now in his Encyclical “Laudato Si” (“Praise Be” taken from the first words of St Francis’s famous “Canticle of the Sun”) is the strong earthy language he uses. He urged priests to be “shepherds … living with the smell of the sheep”
Now he warns that together climate change , ecological degradation and exploitative global inequality is turning our “common home” into “a pile of filth”. Addressing the environmental issues arising from climate change in this encyclical he reasserts traditional Catholic teaching that the earth is our common inheritance and home but he goes further in insisting that “we have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the poor of the earth and the cry of the poor”.
Some years ago working in parliament on international development I visited both northern Nigeria where the desert is sweeping in and burying the fields and wetlands of the farming and fishing communities and driving them away, and the Dhaka Delta in Bangladesh where the sea is encroaching rapidly inland and the salt water is drowning the rice fields.
Again it is the poor who are paying the highest price. Meanwhile the poor in megacities are reduced to living of the pickings of discarded waste in rubbish dumps and the resources of the developing world “continue to fuel the lifestyle of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future”.
Pope Francis challenges this “cheerful recklessness” and spells out that the rich must begin to pay their “grave social debt “ to the poor and tackle the earth’s rising temperature. He pulls no punches in emphasizing “the rich owe the poor”. In his work “Ethics and Community” the theologian Enrique Dusserl drawing of the writings and lives of the early Fathers of the Church such as St John Chrysosotom who pointed out that extra stored food and clothing in a richer person’s cupboard was stolen from the poor, spelt out that “the life of the poor is accumulated by the rich. The latter live the life of the rich in virtue of the death of the poor”.
What characterises Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical “Laudato Si” is his deliberate fusing together tackling the environmental challenges and tackling poverty. “Hearing the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor” implies urgent and radical ( as in ‘rooted’) action, a transformation of personal lives and international economic and political action; “leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is first and foremost up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthy sojourn”.
Living more simply so that others can simply live?