JAMES BURN: What does it mean to live for others?

At last year’s Bonhoeffer Day conference, our second speaker was James Burn, a social worker in Birmingham, who spoke movingly of the challenges he has faced in his work with some of the most vulnerable victims of poverty and injustice who have been his clients. He reflected on their pain and distress and his response to their situation in the light of what Bonheoffer had written about discipleship …

….. what disturbs me most is not that these things are happening, but that the existence of all of these things are not being labelled as “wrong” and we’re not hearing voices calling for their end. In fact this situation is being normalised and legitimised in the media and made out to be the right thing, justice or necessity. Bonhoeffer warned his readers and listeners to be very wary indeed of easy catchwords, slogans and the like “which take hold of fools like a spell and blind them, leaving them capable of any evil but not of seeing it is evil”.

I read this quote from Bonhoeffer last week and shuddered:

“The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity or historical necessity or social justice is quite bewildering. For the Christian who bases his life on the bible, it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.”

So, it’s clear that we are going in a dangerous direction. So, what has Bonhoeffer taught me about what to do?

I guess this cuts to heart of what Bonhoeffer was about. There’s a whole lot I could say but as many of you will know, Bonhoeffer was clear that trying to change things isn’t just a nice optional extra for people who claim to be following the way of Jesus. Bonhoeffer calls us to a following which has at its centre citizenship, that is both actively challenging together the powers of the day, and performing good works on behalf of the voiceless.

This perhaps runs contrary to much teaching in the church, which calls us to focus on saving souls for heaven, and not worrying too much about the world “out there” but an internal, privatised theology.

Let me just remind you of a few central teachings of Bonhoeffer.

One of the things he wrote that inspires and yet scares me is, “the meaning of living in Christ is to exist for others.” To exist for others. Not to try and help them a bit in the spare time around my own interests, but to live a life entirely for others. Bonhoeffer was as clear about the role of the Church:

“The distinctive function of the church is to participate in suffering, to die itself for the world. The only way of life for the Church is to be for the world in identification and service, to the point if necessary of dereliction and abandon. The church is her true self only when she she exists for humanity…she must take her part in the social life of the world, not lording it over men but helping and serving them.”

Love is not “out there” but in the midst of struggles.

For Bonhoeffer, not only must we resist judging the suffering, but we must identify so much with them that we suffer with them. We must put aside our own lives to serve the world without limits. Until we do that, we are not the Church, according to Bonhoeffer. Rather than withdrawing into our church buildings and inviting the poor in occasionally to get tins and coats, Bonhoeffer was clear that the Church should be without walls and function amongst the poor, “living as a servant in the house of another.”

Bonhoeffer talked about a need for “free and responsible action”. By this he meant not just a bit of voluntary action on the side, but a life orientated around the poor and suffering, involving sacrifice and courage. He talked of having a clear sense of duty to oneself and one’s society. The problems I have outlined are our problems as citizens of this time and country, and ones we have a duty to orient our lives around.

Bonhoeffer talked of the solution to the problem of what to do with life coming in making a “determination to lead a responsible life before God”. Just as Jesus existed as a man for others, we have to do the same. “If we want to be Christians, we must act in responsibility and with freedom and by showing a real sympathy for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behaviour.”

In one of his chirpier moments, Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This is the gravity of the call Bonhoeffer thinks Jesus makes of us. To put aside our lives, our desires, our wishes and our hopes, and live for others as Jesus did.

This may be very challenging, but it’s also quite inspiring. In a world of little purpose, Bonhoeffer gives us a very clear purpose indeed, and a chance to live a life literally full of meaning and purpose.