The Common Good
May 1994

Disciples of the Incarnation

by Michael Westmoreland-White, Glen H. Stassen, David P. Gushee | May 1994

The witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Christian rescuers of Jews informs our discipleship today.

In the article "Renewing the Heart of Faith" (Sojourners, February-March 1993), Jim Wallis wrote of serious decline in mainline American Protestantism, deep conflict in American Catholicism, a culture war in the evangelical movement, and a crisis of confidence in African-American churches. Without using the words "Southern Baptist," he named our experiences in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as well. We have seen it with our own eyes and felt it in our own hearts. We have been discussing his article and our response ever since.

Attending the quadrennial International Bonhoeffer Conference in 1992, Glen was surprised to see that one-tenth of the participants were Southern Baptists. They met to ask each other, Why is Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaking so powerfully to our emerging spirituality in this time? Soon after, Glen wrote a long letter home to colleagues and students proposing that we focus on a spirituality of incarnational discipleship, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the symbol.

Michael wrote back a lengthy letter arguing for a spirituality of incarnational discipleship—symbolized by Martin Luther King Jr. as well as Bonhoeffer. And having just finished a major project on Christian rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, David felt that what we were saying about incarnational discipleship converged in a remarkable way with what he had learned about the Christian rescuers. We thought this might be the kind of renewal that we, and many churches, need.

We propose to name it incarnational discipleship because we want to be explicit about including the teachings and deeds of the incarnate Jesus of Nazareth, and to emphasize concrete embodiment in our lives and the lives of our churches. (We thought of naming it radical discipleship, but we do not feel that we measure up.)

We feel that the Spirit is using Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Christian rescuers to make the following points—for renewal of the churches, including our own Southern Baptist community.

Christian Discipleship

Sociologists and historians write that many mainline Protestant churches lack a clear direction and suffer from a crisis of identity or failure of conviction. Many evangelical churches, on the other hand, have a clearer identity and conviction but reduce Jesus to a personal savior and a name to be praised—without discipleship, without following Jesus’ teachings and example.

African-American churches are learning that they need to make a difference in people’s lives and in their communities, where needs are profound and where youth have many reasons for discouragement. They see the appeal of the concrete ethics of Islam and realize that they need a concrete Christian ethic. And students in our seminary, after more than a decade of denominational conflict, want a faith with real spiritual power and moral content.

The crying need of our churches is for faithful discipleship to Jesus as Christ and Lord, not creedal rigidity or groundless ethical commotion. This is the central theme of Bonhoeffer’s book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Cost of Discipleship. King also speaks powerfully of following the way of Christ, especially in his book of sermons, Strength to Love. Committed Christian rescuers regularly report that they risked everything to rescue Jews because they believed that specific teachings of Jesus ("love your neighbor as yourself"; "what you did unto the least of these, you did unto me"; the parable of the Good Samaritan) compelled them to do so.

Incarnational Christ-centeredness

Many Southern Baptists are increasingly interested in church growth, and it seems to us that Christ-centered churches that call for conversion grow more than churches with an abstract and impersonal theology. Many U.S. churches have a Christ-centered focus, especially those with heritages from 16th-century Anabaptism and 19th-century revivalism, including our own Baptist tradition. That heritage, and not avant-garde liberalism, resonates with us.

Often, however, evangelical churches have romantic or mythological Christologies that either sentimentalize Jesus or focus on Christ’s divinity to the exclusion of his humanity, the ancient heresies of Docetism and Gnosticism. Jesus is made irrelevant to the concerns of this world and thus trivialized by a theology that supposedly makes him central.

Neither Bonhoeffer nor King had any patience for such Gnostic pictures of Christ. They proclaimed an incarnate and fully human Lord in whom God meets people concretely. While reinforcing our Christ-centeredness, they help us deepen it by correcting a mythological-romantic worship of Jesus that ignores Jesus’ own call to radical discipleship. And they correct an abstract-intellectual form of mainline Christianity that has an ethic too dry and impersonal to move people to faithful discipleship.

Both Bonhoeffer and King were thoroughly Christ-centered; they emphasized not only the cross and resurrection but also the incarnation, including the bodily life, concrete teachings, and sacrificial ministry of Christ. They emphasized that Christ’s body—the church—is to embody the Word in particular and concrete ways.

They saw the cross not only as a sacrifice to God, but as the redemptive love of God in action. They saw the resurrection not as Gnostic escape from the world but as God’s affirmation of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew fulfilling the teachings of Law and Prophets, in whom God was incarnate. It is this identification with the incarnation, cross, and resurrection of Christ that allowed each of them to face their own deaths so courageously.

Both Bonhoeffer and King lived incarnational lives, intentionally venturing out beyond their own cultures and entering into the experiences of other people and different cultures. Bonhoeffer was converted from German nationalism to peacemaking when he traveled abroad, especially by his encounters with the French Reformed pacifist Jean Lassere and the African-American Baptist Frank Fisher. He wrote glowingly of the inspiration he received from engaging actively and regularly in Sunday school, worship, and an afternoon Bible study group at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

King made a similar bridge-crossing identification, entering into studies at a predominantly white seminary and university. Both planned to visit India, the land of Gandhi; both went to jail; both knowingly walked a path that risked death; both were assassinated at age 39. Their lives were an incarnational entering into the experiences of others, and into suffering and death.

Christian rescuers of Jews did the same kind of boundary crossing. The Nazis used both rewards and punishments in an attempt to create an impermeable boundary between non-Jews and Jews throughout occupied Europe. Those who collaborated with the Nazis in apprehending Jews received cash, vodka, sugar. Those who were caught helping Jews received the status of Jews and the consequence of that status—death. Though they were afraid, they were not deterred from their course.

We need incarnational solidarity with the poor and others who are discriminated against, those who suffer, those who are different from us. They teach us about where our securities are and reveal the deeper dimensions of our calling. Without such ongoing contact we lose this essential vision.

Empowering Grace and Delivering Love

In the Calvinist, Anabaptist, and revivalist roots of the Baptist heritage, there is a strong emphasis on amazing grace. This grace-filled forgiveness occurs in a personal relationship with Christ that includes discipleship. At our best we know, as Bonhoeffer said, that this is not "cheap grace." We know, as James wrote, that "faith without works is dead." Our heritage is to baptize believers who commit themselves to a life in Christ.

But our culture—and churches—have become addicted to secular ideologies of greed, self-indulgence, polite racism, patriarchal authoritarianism, militarism, and just plain apathy without compassion. We need a repentance that repudiates these addictions and includes the kind of community that helps us live lives of incarnational discipleship. Any movement for the renewal of the churches in the United States must reject legalism, cheap grace, and sentimental love for a praxis of empowering grace and delivering love.

For Bonhoeffer, "costly grace" meant that grace is not only forgiveness, but also empowerment to faithful obedience and to participation in the redemptive work of God in Christ. His emphasis on Christ taking form in us—on our being conformed to Christ and participating in Christ—is based in grace and inclusion, and points to our being conformed to Christ’s way of love.

Likewise King, especially in his essay "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence," understood that grace requires forgiveness and sacrificial love. How else could so many have sacrificed so much in the face of such discrimination? But he also understood grace as empowerment, and love as deliverance from both the bondage of oppression and the need to oppress. Nonviolence became central to King because he was convinced that racist whites with oppressive power over African Americans were also in bondage to systems of prejudice that could be broken only by the powerful love displayed in nonviolent confrontation.

Both King and Bonhoeffer were evangelistic. They repeatedly called us to conversion and commitment to Christ. Both confessed they were sinners and knew they were disciples only by grace, and they urgently called us all to repentance. Discipleship for them was not "merely ethical"; it was essential to the gospel message of accepting Christ as Lord and Savior.

"Christ bids us come and follow," Bonhoeffer says again and again. King called a whole nation to repentance.

Overcoming Privatistic Captivity of the Gospel

Most Protestants have inherited our secular culture’s limitation of the gospel to the private life of faith while the public life is rendered autonomous, subject to the free reign of secular forces. Our own Baptist tradition picked up this private/public split out of our embarrassment at the contradiction between the gospel and our acceptance and defense of slavery. So we limited the gospel to the private realm and left the public realm under the powers and authorities of racism.

Now many of us are taking some steps to begin to be freed from that captivity. U.S. mainline churches sometimes do speak to the public realm, but often lose their biblical voice as they "discuss social issues." They want to reject superficial piety and legalism, and to be more sophisticated and relevant. It often seems that their underlying theology is either an attempt to be liberal and avant-garde, or is based in a neo-orthodoxy that speaks in elevated theological doctrines but lacks the concreteness of the biblical narrative, community practice, and a personal relationship with Christ.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, intend to speak biblically, but lack full attention to the central biblical mandate of justice and to the Jesus of the gospels and the Sermon on the Mount. As a result, they often confuse loyalty to the Bible with an authoritarian ideology imported from secular politics. Loyalty to Jesus has meant loyalty to a strong pastor, a strong father, a strong nation, a strong military, a strong free enterprise system, and a punitive rather than compassionate approach to those who deviate from the authoritarian norm.

Bonhoeffer says that the concrete Lordship of Jesus Christ does not merely give us an ideal; it defines our reality. He did not want a "God of the gaps," but God at the center of our lives. Other Christians opposed Hitler’s anti-Semitism only when Hitler ordered that Jewish Christians not hold office within the church. Bonhoeffer was the first and clearest to resist injustices against Jews in German society as well.

Other Christian rescuers also rejected a privatized gospel (which would have meant no involvement in such "political" activity as rescuing Jews). They instead ventured into the public realm to help Jews—first to work with Jews for justice and basic human rights; then, in extremis, to work for Jewish survival, one person at a time.

King saw clearly that Christian love meant loving the enemy with disciplined strategies of nonviolence in the struggle for freedom and justice. Day after day and night after night in churches across this land, he taught love and nonviolence to black and white together in the struggle. He combined powerful biblical preaching with a human rights tradition of respect for others of different views.

Struggling Against Racism

We are convinced that much diluting of the Christian gospel comes from a heritage of avoidance. We, and our forebears, have wanted to avoid confronting our lack of compassion and lack of justice in our treatment of African Americans. Until white Christians are willing to speak openly of our defensiveness, confess our sin, and bear fruits of repentance, we will not renew a healthy faith. The Birmingham Confession of 1993, written by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and gathering widespread endorsement, is an effort toward such renewal.

Bonhoeffer learned about the seriousness of racism during his stay in the United States. Ironically, he wrote home that it might seem odd that he was spending so much time in black churches and Bible study groups, "since we have no similar group in Germany." He soon realized there was in fact a similar group—Germany’s Jews.

Bonhoeffer’s incarnational identification with African Americans in Harlem opened his heart to see and identify with the racially oppressed in Germany. It was Bonhoeffer who wrote a confession of German racism that led many in his nation to repent for that racism.

A major finding of research on Christian rescuers is that many saw Nazi anti-Jewish racism as fundamentally irreconcilable with the Christian faith. These Christ-ians rescued Jews, at least in part, to express their visceral revulsion against racist ideology and policies. They believed that a Christian response to Nazi racism required not merely non-cooperation with this anti-Christian ideology but active resistance, crossing Christian-Jewish "racial" boundaries and standing in solidarity with Jews.

King knew racism as daily experience, but his studies at Crozier Theological Seminary and Boston University helped him to understand more accurately that both racism and a commitment to racial justice could be found among whites. This enabled him to appeal to the whole nation as no one else could. It prepared him to teach and model forgiveness and love that would not be overwhelmed by prejudice and discrimination.

Patriotism Without National Chauvinism

Patriotism is far too often understood as uncritical allegiance to the nation and the government. Many Christians have embraced a naive reading of Romans 13, understanding this text as demanding a blind obedience to nationalism and even a yearning for authoritarian government. We have paid too little attention to the warning of Revelation 13 against the beast pretending to be a lamb who teaches Christians to obey the Caesar-beast.

Finding his nation captured by an authoritarian, pro-military, and reactionary movement bent on conquest and genocide, Bonhoeffer found himself called to a patriotism of responsible yet vigorous resistance. He returned to Germany, knowing it might mean his death, because he felt that his responsibility lay there.

We agree with Karl Barth and Heinz-Eduard Tödt that we should focus attention not simply on the later plot to assassinate Hitler, but on Bonhoeffer’s early opposition to Hitler while there was time to prevent the genocide. He was the first church leader to oppose Hitler. Had others joined with him, resistance could have jelled while the opportunity existed.

Eventually, eight years later, he found himself in the horrible position of needing to pray for the defeat of his own nation, and participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler. This conspiracy was so dramatic that it has drawn much attention away from the reasons for his early clarity and courage in resisting.

Research on the rescuers more generally has revealed that an inclusive, democratic, non-chauvinist patriotism proved to be a powerful motivation for a significant number of rescuers. This was the case in Germany, as we have seen with Bonhoeffer, where this kind of patriotism was rare. It also was true elsewhere in occupied Europe, as large numbers of Danish, Dutch, and Norwegian patriots (to name a few) resisted Nazi injustice against Jews in the name of egalitarian and democratic national values. These rescuers demonstrate that patriotism can be a morally constructive force, but not just any kind of patriotism.

King’s situation was closer to any we are likely to experience in the foreseeable future. He opposed many of his government’s policies on civil rights, on the war in Vietnam, and on an economy that locked out whole sections of the populace. He always lifted up the tradition of Jefferson and Lincoln for liberty and justice.

All model a call to governments and to people to live up to their ideals and repent of their sins and injustices. They never forgot that as Christians, they had global identities that transcended the provincialism of nationalistic chauvinism. They are beacons of warning for us now.

Prayer and Spirituality

We know our need for a deeper prayer life, especially since much of modern society is spiritually impoverished. We need prayer that is shared in community—praying and acting together, holding one another accountable, providing much-needed encouragement and support when we would otherwise feel alone, teaching us about ourselves, and keeping us rooted in worship. This guards against the tendency toward individualistic Christianity and a reliance on "cheap grace."

Christian rescuers were frequently empowered by vital spiritual lives that sustained them for the months and even years of rescue activity. Both Bonhoeffer and King knew that true Christian worship and spirituality arise from the context of the world and drive the Christian into the world’s suffering and pain.

While calling for God to be understood not as far away, but as the "beyond in the midst of life," Bon-hoeffer practiced prayer with his students and organized a community devotional life, described in Life Together. He prayed powerfully in prison. He knew that even in a secular "world come of age," there would still be a need for prayer, the "arcane discipline."

After his famous "kitchen encounter" with God, following attempts on his life, King found prayer to be a continual and sustaining part of his life. He also learned to fast regularly, and was contemplating a fast even to the point of death when he answered the call to go to Memphis for the struggle that would end in his assassination.

Neither of these modern martyrs separated spirituality from social action. Their prayer lives led them deeper into the struggle for justice in the world. And their struggle for justice drove them deeper into prayer. Bonhoeffer and King found that the struggle for liberation is one with and not separate from the spiritual life.

ENCOUNTERING BONHOEFFER, the rescuers, and King, and rethinking our faith commitments in light of the witness of their lives, will suggest additional ways that these Christians can act as guides for renewal. And in some areas of the struggle for renewal, we will need other guides.

For instance, we need to struggle against sexism, and neither Bonhoeffer nor King was aware of the problem nor of the ways in which they participated in this injustice. Likewise, neither speaks directly enough to the need for a healthier ecological theology, spirituality, and practice. Our need is for renewal as disciples of Jesus Christ as Lord; in many dimensions, however, we believe Bonhoeffer, the Christian rescuers, and King symbolize the renewal that we need.

Jim Wallis’ essay predicted that the theological convergence will "mean a centeredness on Jesus and his radical proclamation of the reign of God....At the heart of Christian faith is incarnation—God becoming flesh among the poor and the outcast."

Amen, from our corner!

Michael Westmoreland-White is a Ph.D. candidate writing on "Incarnational Discipleship: The Ethics of Clarence Jordan, William Stringfellow, and Dorothy Day." Glen Stassen is professor of Christian ethics and author of Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Westminster/John Knox, 1992). David P. Gushee is assistant professor of Christian ethics and author of The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: A Christian Interpretation (Augsburg-Fortress, 1994). They are at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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