#TheologyinIsolation 5: Love, not fear - Life Together in a time of Coronavirus
Taylor Wilton-Morgan suggests that now is a good time to re-read Bonhoeffer's Life Together
‘You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday’ (Ps. 91)
In Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin (1947), a city paralysed by fear is liberated by one man’s act of protest. In conventional terms, Otto Quangel’s campaign is futile, yet his defiance of a culture premised upon self-preserving collaboration is nothing short of redemptive. Fallada’s masterfully taut, suspenseful prose draws the reader with ever greater intensity into the basic, existential choice faced by his protagonist: with dark terror swirling, what is an authentic human being to do?
One would not wish to draw too hasty a parallel between Otto Quangel’s moral triumph and the Christian response to the pestilence presently visited upon us in the form of COVID-19, yet Fallada’s novel turned my mind time and again to the writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose own remarkable witness to human dignity amidst the murderous anti-humanitarianism of the Nazi regime is well documented. Among Bonhoeffer’s many works is the prophetic little book, Living Together, which just happened to be required reading for ordinands coming up to Westcott in my first year. In my short and somewhat idiosyncratic take, I want to draw attention to three things of which Bonhoeffer reminds us in this text. Namely, that the Christian is never alone, that the Christian is called to inhabit a Christlike character, and that the Christian is always for others. These three pillars, I take it, undergird Christian action and witness in the midst of our current climate of uncertainty and fear.
Firstly, Bonhoeffer begins Life Together by reminding his readers that Christians, wherever and whenever they are, live in community simply by virtue of their being in the Body of Christ, among the communion of saints, united in confession and worship with people all over the world and in ages past and future. This is the community already formed for us in and through Jesus Christ, which, as St Paul reminds us, 'neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation' can tear from us (Rom 8.38). Bonhoeffer can seem a bit scathing about human efforts to ‘create’ community; among his oft-quoted phrases is ‘God hates visionary dreamers’. But here, context is key; Bonhoeffer is writing in 1939, at a time in which human ‘visionary dreaming’ and ‘national solidarity’ have delivered a misanthropic nightmare. His phrasing, then, is sharpened by circumstance, yet its basic point rings true at any time: it is by the grace of God that we are drawn, in the Spirit, into Christ’s prayerful posture vis-à-vis the Father, and it is in God’s own self-revelation and invitation that we locate the ultimate ground of our being as relational. And that not infrequently means submitting the much-cherished ideas we might have about what a ‘successful’ or ‘ideal’ community might look like to the discipline and disruption of God’s presence in prayer.
What does that mean for us today? Being unable to meet as we would normally is of course tough and dispiriting, but it's well to be reminded that our community is made and guaranteed for us in Christ through God's grace. All our (right) efforts to stay connected and in touch – not least in present circumstances by digital and electronic means – proceed from our prayerful acknowledgement that this community exists regardless of our abilities to make it manifest. Christ is with us, which means all of God's people are with us, too, in spiritual communion, in prayer, and in love, because Christ draws all His people into Himself, and speaks with all our voices in the rhythms and cadences of psalmody and scripture. What an amazing insight into how Christian martyrs, ascetics, and missionaries must sometimes have felt! We shouldn't feel bad about leaning on that for comfort, and indeed, Bonhoeffer understands the luxury of deliberate, visible community as a sign and nutritious reminder of the fundamental community in Christ enjoyed by Christians across time and space, whether ‘in company’ or ‘alone’.
Secondly, Bonhoeffer has much to say about the cultivation of Christian character in community. Once again, the psalter is of supreme importance in attuning our ear to the polyphony of creation, and developing our imagination and empathy in response to ‘all sorts and conditions of men’, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. To dwell together ‘in unity’, as Psalm 133 describes it, is to dwell ‘in Christ’, and this means allowing that same self-giving stature to refashion the crusty contours of our own nature incurvatus in se. Here it seems useful to refer to last Sunday’s lectionary, where St Paul spoke to us about 'endurance' and 'character' (Rom. 5.1-11). I must admit, I sometimes find those lines a bit difficult, because they bring back memories of my sports teachers cajoling us freezing schoolboys onto the rugby pitch, with the words "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character...now try harder!". But of course, St Paul wasn't a first-century games master (thank God); these words are about the way in which clinging to the love revealed in Christ, and the ultimate truth of God's love against all the selfish, violent, powerful and seemingly 'real' things of the world is what produces the truly Christian character, founded on a hope we can rely on, because it is a hope given to us by God.
Most significantly for our purposes, this Christian character is one which refuses to be ruled by fear and self-interest, but goes on opening itself to the needs of others: 'The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?' (Ps. 27.1). Formed in the perfect love which casts out fear (1 Jn 4.18), the Christian character refuses to bow to a logic premised upon desperate (and ultimately futile) preservation of self. That's quite a remarkable witness amongst what is, manifestly, a society saturated by fear: fear of death, fear of meaninglessness, fear of strangers, etc. Commenting on the same passage in St Paul, a letter from the Sisters of the Love of God includes these beautiful words: 'What God is concerned to give is not alleviation but the power to go on enduring - to pass through distress and still remain constant - to transcend, to rise above and beyond things so hard to the natural self. To transcend depends on our will and His Gift - our task is to let His Will and His Life live in us. We rise above things just in proportion as He lives our life. There is a wonderful clearing of spiritual sight - the opening our of a whole new world of understanding and confidence for the soul that can trust itself wholly to Our Lord'. These profound words echo Bonhoeffer’s insistence that the cultivation of Christian character is simply an openness to the infusion of God’s grace, to the summons of the Spirit and the inculcation of that ‘same mind that was in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 2.5).
The third point follows from these two things. If the Christian identity is fundamentally bound to the neighbour in Christ, and if the Christian character is inhabited to the extent that hearts and minds are conformed to the pattern of Christ’s self-giving love, then it is clear that Christians must be for others, even, perhaps especially, in the darkest of times. Bonhoeffer himself writes that no community is complete without inclusion of the very weakest link in the chain or network of human society – a startlingly moving comment, given the prevailing political dynamics in Germany in 1939 – and thus we may sense that the Christlike invitation is always being manifested at new margins of vulnerability, delivered to the edges of its own communal solidarities and belonging, in order to make manifest the radical inclusion and love inaugurated in the life of the Incarnate One. Christians are thus to be agents of healing in a very real sense, since they are to be the instruments by which human matter and life are to be made into sites of communication, language, and love; indeed, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘the Gospel is always about healing, because it is always about telling effectively and transformingly how God has inhabited and continues to inhabit this world’ (Holy Living: The Christian Tradition for Today, p.27).
Once again, the removal of familiar habits of gathering for sacramental and scriptural nourishment is deeply painful. Yet we should be able to see that these are means to equip us and form us according to the fullness of Christ’s stature (Eph. 4.13), and thus that we are to draw on and make manifest what they have provided us so regularly over past years, namely the means of our transformation into Christlike creatures for others. As William T. Cavanaugh puts it, nourished as we are, ‘we become nourishment for others – including those not part of the visible Body’ (The Theopolitical Imagination (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002), p.49). The sacramental life, though we may find ourselves temporarily isolated from it, has already initiated in us a movement towards the vulnerable and marginalised. In being conformed to Christ’s Body, the Christian is carried into the motion of God’s ‘option’ and ‘preference’ for the outcast, the vulnerable, and the suffering; Christ’s revelation of himself among the poor and marginalised is to be understood as a judgement on those inequalities and imaginative failings which separate and alienate human beings from each other (Mt 25.40). And now, more than ever, this character of Christian self-giving must reveal itself over and against the culture of fear which is premised upon zero-sum preservation, upon slamming the gates on those most in need, and failing our neighbours by our self-centred habits and imagination.
Nothing about the present situation is easy, and nothing admits easy solutions; sadly, I've already seen examples of various travesties of Christian ministry which either seek to take advantage of the current circumstances for cynical promotion, or which promote deeply irresponsible practices among the faithful, or which try to explain all of this away as an unequivocal sovereign manifestation of 'God's will'. In and amongst these errors, however, is the firm but gentle, assured but humble, witness that we as Christians today can offer: the witness that the steadfast love of the Lord never ends, and thus that the Christian care for the vulnerable will never end, and that we are never alone in our darkness and anxiety. The present circumstances will pass, because all things do; may we in our loving, praying, and serving make manifest in the midst of it what does not pass: the infinite love and grace of God, in whom the whole world has a sure comfort and hope.
Taylor B. Wilton-Morgan is an ordinand at Westcott House