May it be said of you: Bonhoeffer on the death of the city and the conversion of the Church


It is a somewhat grey morning. It is spring, but the flowers are not yet in bloom. The sky is overcast, and yet I feel the spirit of life is moving in me. As I order the things on my desk and begin today's first task--preparing for this Sunday's service--my heart is stirred by two things: Any day now my daughter, Olivia Joey Sarang, will be born, and I have been tasked with proclaiming God's promises. Every morning I have the same ritual. I fix a pot of fresh coffee, open a book, and spend about an hour or so reading and pray for guidance. This morning I was studying the history of city development and how both our modern cities and countrysides have been plagued by urbanization. As Murray Bookchin puts it, urbanization has caused us to become cities without citizens. Cities once were places where culture happened, where we gathered to learn how to be citizens together, with common dreams and common lives, where we celebrate life together and learn how to be whole and good--fully human. The countryside was an agrarian area where the cycles of life were shaped by the seasons. Where the human connection with the earth was one of friendship and mutual nourishment. With the rise of urbanization, now our cities are places of anonymity and our rural areas are spreading suburbs, no longer connected with the earth or each other. We are people living in shared spaces without community. We live in neighborhoods but we no longer know how to be neighbors.

As I read, I couldn't help but think to myself that I had read a similar lament from one of my favorite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Trying to wrap my head around  today's tasks, I couldn't quite get it out of my head: God's promises of life; the loss of our human community and our connections to the earth.

So here is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to say in his "Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge, May 1944," in Letters and Papers from Prison.

I wish you could grow up in the country; but it will not be the countryside in which your father grew up. People used to think that the big cities offered the fullest kind of life and lots of pleasure, and they used to flock to them as though to a festival; but those cities have now brought on themselves death and dying, with all imaginable horrors, and have become fearsome places from which women and children have fled.

Here, it seems, Bonhoeffer is describing the rise of industrialism and the filth and poverty it brought upon the cities of the late 19th and early 20th century. Perhaps he was alluding to a phenomenon similar to what caused white middle-class folks to leave the American cities and convert the surrounding farmland into the suburban villages of the 1950s. This process of urbanizing both the cities and the countryside continued to grow until our cities became nutrition deserts riddled with poverty and our countrysides covered with shopping malls filled abundantly with goods consumed by depressed and lonely people who no longer know how to make things or how or where the things they consume are made.

Bonhoeffer continues:

The flight from the cities will mean that the countryside is completely changed. The peace and seclusion of country life have already been largely undermined by the radio, the car, and the telephone, and by the spread of bureaucracy into almost every department of life; and now if millions of people who can no longer endure the pace and the demands of the city life are moving into the country, and if entire industries are dispersed into rural areas, then the urbanization of the country will go ahead fast, and the whole basic structure of life there will be changed. The village of thirty years ago no more exists today than the idyllic South Sea island. In spite of [humanity's] longing for peace and solitude, these will be difficult to find. But with all these changes, it will be an advantage to have under one's feet a plot of land from which to draw the resources of a new, natural, unpretentious, and contented day's work and evening's leisure...

I am preparing my sermon for this week and I'm supposed to be prayerfully asking in my heart: "What message does God have for the church?" Instead, I'm asking myself: "What kind of world am I bringing my daughter into? What can I do? How should we live so we can help her find life?"

And then I hear Bonhoeffer's closing words to his god-child, a prayer from Proverbs, to pray and wait for God's timing. "May it be said of you..." he says, "that your righteousness shines bright like the dawn."

 Today you will be baptized a Christian. All those great ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be spoken over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out on you, without your knowing anything about it. But we are once again being driven right back to the beginnings of our understanding. Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian Discipleship--all these things are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them. In the traditional words and acts we suspect that there may be something quite new and revolutionary, though we cannot as yet grasp or express it. That is our own fault. Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to [human beings] and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among [humanity]. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action. By the time you have grown up, the church's form will have changed greatly. We are not yet out of the melting-pot, and any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification. It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when [people] will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming--as was Jesus' language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God's peace with [humanity] and the coming of [God's] kingdom. "They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it" (Jer. 33:9). Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God's own time. May you be one of them, and may it be said of you one day, "The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter till full day" (Prov. 4:18)

[The image in this post is "...and the world stood still" by New Zealand Impressionist artist Ariel Hu.]