The Location of Christianity

Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his little book Life Together in a most provocative way:
The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work.
This seems to be missional Christianity at its most basic: Renouncing the "privilege of living among other Christians" and rejecting the "seclusion of a cloistered live" to live "in the midst of enemies."

When I ponder this what strikes me is how little Christians talk about "loving our enemies." This was, one could argue, the most distinctive aspect of Jesus's teaching and ethic, the foundational principle of the Christian way of life. We should be pounding this point home Sunday after Sunday. It should be our guiding light, the standard and goal of all our spiritual formation efforts. Love your enemies. Forgive your enemies. Bring peace to your enemies. This is our mission and work.

But you hardly hear a word about this in our churches.

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10 thoughts on “The Location of Christianity”

  1. Why, if we were to start preaching and practicing "loving our enemies", we might wind up inviting them to church or even *gasp* sharing dinner with them. And, whatever would we do when these enemies were no longer our enemies? We'd lose lots of sermon material if that were to happen...

  2. I find that many are too wounded to consider loving enemies. Others divide the world between the good and the evil, believing the evil enemies must be destroyed. Loving enemies is the one place where we most need to read the Bible literally and where we most fail to do so.

  3. In Girardian terms, much of Christianity is still, for lack of a better word, "pagan" in nature, still based upon scapegoating. And the Christian-media-capitalistic-political complex needs enemies to keep anger and indignation stoked.

  4. I do
    political advocacy work, and part of the tension I feel here is loving enemies
    without justifying evil. "Love the sinner, hate the sin" isn't a
    terrible starting point, but I don't think it gets us where we need to go.

    thoughts that go beyond "love the sinner, hate the sin"

     (1) Identifying our enemies as "not of
    flesh and blood" could potentially serve to reduce scapegoating, in that
    we don't ultimately make any human our enemy. Still, saying that people are
    "demon possessed" doesn't seem much better than calling them demons (and the fact that this accusation
    was raised against Jesus should give us a good Girardian pause).
    Still, taking all of that in-group/out-group dialectic into account, we can’t
    love our enemies without having enemies, even though this process lets us
    imagine a redeemed world in which the category of enemy is abolished, instead
    of being dialectically subverted. But while we are still in the “not yet” we
    still need enemies, to love.

    (2) Loving
    enemies, genuinely, truly, deeply and in practical ways, strikes me as an
    amazing way to confront evil. Throughout the history of the church, the witness
    of martyrs has moved a lot of people not because we have had martyrs who are
    willing to die for the cause (lots of people have always had those), but
    because so many of those martyrs have followed the example of Jesus and spoken
    love, mercy and forgiveness to those who killed them. Or we can think of the
    non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement as a form of resistance in a similar
    vein. These are "big" examples of something that can play out in a
    much more minimal, mundane, way in our daily lives. But loving enemies, as our
    means of resisting evil, seems central to the Christian witness throughout
    history. Contrary to our intuitions about it, it seems to work much better than
    the alternatives(at least sometimes), and to have a transformative effect on politics, culture and

    (3) I’m quite
    fond of the notion that evil doesn’t have any independent existence of its own.
    This goes back at least to Augustine’s notion that evil is just a deficiency of
    the good, and that it lacks being, in the same way that darkness is simply the
    absence of light. This notion makes space for both traditional concepts of evil
    (after all, at this point Augustine's notion _is_ a traditional concept of evil), and for
    contemporary skepticism about devils, etc.

    This understanding
    also fits nicely with the notion that loving our enemies is the most effective
    and proper way to confront evil: if we can draw out what is genuinely good in
    them, on this understanding, then the nothingness of evil will collapse in on
    itself. Or if we cast light into the darkness, the darkness vanishes. This is definitely not a final word on the matter, but there is some
    research that fits in with this metaphor. My favorite example is some research
    conducted by an experimental economist who I saw speak once: she and her
    research team wanted to understand the most effective way to get people who are
    being mean to their children in check-out lines to be kind to them. Her
    research assistants actually went to grocery stores and tested a variety of
    techniques, and the most effective, by far, was for the research assistants to
    praise the child.

    Learning to
    love our enemies and cast out darkness, even in tiny practical ways…that sounds
    fun and exciting! And worth researching more practical examples of.

    (And the no
    fun caveat: I don’t suppose we can demonstrate through research that Augustine
    is right. But his thought, here, can inspire a practical research program that
    seeks useful and reproducible examples of something like this happening.)

  5. It is critical for us to note that Jesus' first teaching on love in the Gospel of Matthew is that we are to love our enemies.  Of course, the mistake would be for us to interpret this as saying we are to love those whom we call enemy.  After all, at this point in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has made it abundantly clear that there is no room for hatred or malice in the hearts of true citizens of his kingdom.  Therefore, He is referring to those people who call us enemy, especially those who do so because we follow Jesus.

    Here's a quote:

    "What does it means to love? Jesus is very clear about this, saving us from the risk of thinking that love is only some sentiment we must feel for those who call us enemy or from the rationalization whereby we perpetuate violence for their “ultimate greater good” in the name of love. Rather, he shows us again that out of pure hearts flows an active love that touches every aspect of our lives. Standing before our enemies, having relinquished our right to fight back in kind or even defend ourselves, we are called to demonstrate our love for our persecutors by praying for them. Consider the implications of that. True loves means that we will stand between them and the judgment of God, which they fully deserve, and plead with God in their defense. We are to be for our enemies—the very people who least deserve or desire our love— what Christ is for us, who are even more undeserving of his love. What a magnificent, terrible and beautiful image of love! Imagine a world in which Christians truly lived this way, not only in the face of the threat of death, but in every moment in every relation- ship. If this is the love we must have for our enemies, what could surpass it? This is the love we are to have for everyone, just as it is the love that Christ so freely gives to all.

    "Love. It is toward this end that Jesus has been leading us all along. It is at the heart of his intentions from the dawn of cre- ation and guides us to his final work. Love. Far from mere affection or attraction or loyalty, it is the inconceivable grace in which we are unable and unwilling to distinguish between sister and executioner. Love. It is the offensive grace in which we would extend the hope of forgiveness to both the child and the molester. Love. It is the unparalleled grace in which we find our- selves willing to give even our very lives for others with only a hope, but no promise, that they will repent. Love. It is the cross of Christ. It is Christ." -from "The Cost of Community"

  6. I don't agree with that last line at all.  And it probably goes to a problem of definition.  Does bringing peace to your enemies mean: a) being a pacifist with regard to the world and rubber stamping the way they live or even seeking to emulate it, or b) declaring law and gospel, "repent, for the Kingdom of God is near"?  The one is a false peace or as Bonhoeffer would say, cheap grace.  The other calls for renewal and living the new life in the midst of the unbelieving world.  Bonhoeffer's call for location is about living your confession - in Lutheran terms we believe, teach and confess these things - in the midst of the world which denies, indoctrinates against and refutes Christ, both his law and his gospel.

  7. The lens is always easier focus outwardly than inwardly, isn't it? If we could effectively practice the opposite, then we might gain a deeper understanding of, "I must decrease, so He may increase." John the Baptist gave us a wonderful example of how to consider our fellows.

  8. Thanks for sharing these insights.

    I don't recognize the Christianity you often critique, however. I hear plenty about forgiveness, peace,and love toward enemies in church. All the time. And not just in the excellent congregations I've been part of--also in the ruthlessly mocked parachurch movements I've been blessed by. From pop-evangelical Promise Keepers to liturgical renewal movements, we talk a lot about loving and actively serving enemies. We don't do it well--who does?--but we celebrate those who are doing it better, and we try to emulate them, and we practice, and we hold each other accountable.

    I can say personally that the moments in my life of deepest awareness of God have come when, after intense prayer, God has given me the ability to forgive, to bring peace, to reconcile, with those who had hurt me. And why did I do it? Because, in church, I was surrounded by disciples who shared their stories of doing it--and who taught, unrelentingly, that any "bad blood" between me and my enemies was a gaping hole in my own faithfulness.

    Again, thanks for sharing the insights.

  9. Isn’t “Church,” where most of the enemies are?  Outside the church is mostly indifference.  Anyway as I often quote from Derrida:  “Something has not yet arrived, neither at Christianity nor by means of Christianity. What has not yet arrived at or happened to Christianity is Christianity. Christianity has not yet come to Christianity.” (The Gift of Death, pg 29.).  I can personally vouch for that in my own life and church, and “missional” is a problematic term given where the condition of christianity.  Yet, they may be my enemies, but they are still my brothers and sisters.  Obliged.    

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