Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric Answer to Empire

The focus of the Book of Revelation, along with other apocalyptic literature in the New Testament, is aimed at resisting empire. The Roman Empire is pictured as the Beast doing the bidding of the Serpent (Rev. 13) and the means of defeating this power is through the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 12 and 19). No entity today explicitly identifies as empire or would recognize itself as the Beast, so the nature of empire may not be readily evident to its subjects. The United States, born as it was in resistance to the British Empire, may not acknowledge that instituting slave labor, partaking of genocide of native peoples, colonization of other lands (e.g., Hawaii, Alaska, the Philippines, etc.), constitutes its identity as empire. Empire enfolded within the church may make naming the Beast even more difficult. The MAGA cult would equate American greatness with Christian greatness, melding church and empire. Or, it may be that it is not any particular national entity but global capital that represents empire in our day and age. If empire is equated with power and money, transnational corporations now control the bulk of wealth, including the power of the media (the news media, but also marketing and advertising). Media, in all of its various forms, shapes and determines the perception of reality (e.g., the case of Rupert Murdoch in his support of Margaret Thatcher, Rudolph Guliani, and Donald Trump, and his simultaneous support in Hong Kong of the central communist government). Perceptions may vary, but the point is reality is obscured by the matrix of empire which always undergirds the powerful.

 To maintain Christocentrism contains the answer to empire may not be very helpful (apart from explanation and qualification), considering the failure of Lutheran Christocentrism in its resistance to German National Socialism. Luther affirmed the centrality of Christ, captured in his slogan “Christ alone” (solus Christus) which is the culmination of “Scripture alone,” “faith alone” and “grace alone.” Luther laid the foundation of Christocentrism in acknowledging God suffered in Christ and in his insistence the cross is the only approach to God. As he explains in the Heidelberg Disputation, “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25).[1] Rather,  “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”[2] The theologian of glory would begin with his own wisdom and imagine he can come to God on the basis of the invisible things of God rather than the suffering of the cross. This results in confusing good and evil: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” [3]

A major problem though, is that like Augustine, Luther held to the notion of two kingdoms, and his Christocentrism applied to the kingdom of God and not the temporal/secular realm ordered through God ordained government. The Sermon on the Mount may work in church but it will not work on the battlefield, in the courtroom, or in the government’s suppression of evil. The Christian lives in both of these realms and so, must sort out the one from the other so as to avoid conflicted obligations. The way to do this, is by recognizing Christian ethics and obligations are for the kingdom of heaven and not the kingdoms of this world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, faced with the failure of the German church, accused it of being a silent witness to “oppression, hatred, and murder,” and of failing to aid “the weakest and most defenceless brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.”[4] The church was only concerned, he argued, with its safety and material interests and had become, by its silence, “guilty for the loss of responsible action in society.”[5] Faced with this failure, Bonhoeffer takes Luther’s Christocentrism beyond Luther by grounding all of reality in the incarnation. The incarnation is definitive of the center of God’s activity, constituting a singular reality: “The most fundamental reality is the reality of the God who became human. This reality provides the ultimate foundation and the ultimate negation of everything that actually exists, its ultimate justification and ultimate contradiction.”[6] Christian life and Christian ethics are not to be centered on some other world, but in this world. Bonhoeffer sees the split as giving rise to a split in ethics and a dividing up of Christian commitment. The Christian life becomes a means of escape – a kind of “redemption myth.” “Unlike believers in the redemption myths, Christians do not have an ultimate escape route out of their earthly tasks and difficulties into eternity. Like Christ . . . they have to drink the cup of earthly life to the last drop, and only when they do this is the Crucified and Risen One with them, and they are crucified and resurrected with Christ.”[7]

Christ gives himself completely for the world and the Christian is called, not to another world or another kingdom but to this world: “The world has no reality of its own independent from God’s revelation in Christ. It is a denial of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ to wish to be ‘Christian’ without being ‘worldly.’”[8] By “worldly” Bonhoeffer means a commitment to this world: “The earth that feeds me has a right to my work and my strength. . . . I owe it faithfulness and thanksgiving. . . . I should not close my heart . . . to the tasks, pains, and joys of the earth, and I should wait patiently for the divine promise to be redeemed, but truly wait for it, and not rob myself of it in advance, in wishes and dreams.” As Peter Hooton comments: “Bonhoeffer does not give up on heaven, but he thinks it wrong—indeed unchristian—to divert ourselves with thoughts of another world until we have fully satisfied the demands of this one.[9] As Bonhoeffer writes, “Only when one loves life and the earth so much that with it everything seems to be lost and at its end may one believe in the resurrection of the dead and a new world.”[10] Christ’s death and resurrection do not point to life in some other place, but speak of redemption and new life in the place he died and was raised. Only with this understanding can we recognize we are not to flee this world and its suffering, but we are to face it and so share in his suffering and thus share in redemption.

An ethics willing to use evil on earth for the greater good in heaven, is neither incarnational nor Christian. Rather than a divided reality or a division between heaven and earth, Bonhoeffer pictures all of reality centered on the incarnation of Christ. Christ opens up the world to us, in a new way. We are no longer bound by alienation and isolation but we are graced with a new form of human relatedness and community. As Brian Watson writes, “Now that Christ has redeemed the world, a new humanity restored by the grace of God and exemplified by Jesus is bursting forth in this world and this life.” Bonhoeffer replaces the dictum “God became human in order that humans might become divine” with “the view that Christ’s humanity makes true humanity possible – now human beings as they were intended are exemplified by Jesus himself.”[11]

Bonhoeffer’s notion of a “worldly Christianity” is also captured in his notion of a “religionless Christianity.”  Religion, according to his definition, is preoccupied with otherworldly or heavenly obligations, personal salvation, and the tendency to see God as the solution only to problems we cannot solve. Religionless or worldly Christianity is focused on new life with God and the sharing in Christ’s suffering.  Where religion presumes to share in the power of this world, religionless Christianity embraces the reality of being pushed out of this world of power: “God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering!”[12] Where religion “directs people in need to the power of God in the world” (to God as deus ex machina), the Bible reveals “the powerlessness and the suffering of God” and only this suffering God can help.[13] This suffering in and with the world speaks of a total commitment, not to a divided reality, but to the reality of the incarnation.

At the same time, through Christ, there is a breaking open of the human “I” or ego which is otherwise deluded by isolation and alienation. Christ breaks open the path to others and our true humanity is recognized and comes to life in his humanity. There is “no way from us to others than the path through Christ, his word, and our following him.”[14] Religion, grounded as it is in pride, closes off suffering together with Christ and thus closes off access to relationship and communion with God and others. As Bonhoeffer recognized very early, the religious instinct is simply the formalization of the human instinct “to acquire power over the eternal.” Religion is “the most grandiose and most gentle of all human attempts to attain the eternal from out of the anxiety and restlessness of the heart.”[15] Religion, in its pride, is an isolating escape from suffering, while true humanity is something shared and never solitary as there is no such thing as an isolated, autonomous individual. Jesus Christ, the truly human one, is “the human being for others” and this human connectedness is the experience of the presence of God. This immanent experience is the experience of transcendence. This is neither a rejection of God’s good creation nor is it the typical ecclesial predisposition to dominate it. God’s presence is not in “some highest, most powerful and best being imaginable,” but rather “a new life in ‘being there for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus” in the world.[16]

This being there for others is also the definition and parameter of the church. Bonhoeffer considers the German Protestant church, no church at all. Even the Confessing church is consumed with its own survival and thus “has become incapable of bringing the word of reconciliation and redemption . . . to the world. So the words we used before must lose their power, be silenced, and we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings. All Christian thinking, talking, and organising must be born anew, out of that prayer and action.” [17] This will not and cannot arise from “religion” or the God of the religious imagination. We have rather to “immerse ourselves again and again, for a long time and quite calmly, in Jesus’s life, his sayings, actions, suffering, and dying in order to recognise what God promises and fulfils.”[18]

This filling out of Luther’s Christocentrism pits the Christian against empire (whether the empires of the state, the empire of religion, or the empire of wealth) in the willingness to share in the suffering of Christ and refusing the double standard of an otherworldly ethics.  Christ suffered under the Roman state, and he suffered at the hands of the religious, and thus, instituted a new life of “being there for others” in the world. Rather than offering escape or reconciling himself to empire, Christ challenged and defeated it, and calls his followers likewise, to overcome the world by being in the world. Christ as a singular reality opens God and the world to us simultaneously, as it is in the world that God meets us and saves us.  


[1] Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 22. https://bookofconcord.org/other-resources/sources-and-context/heidelberg-disputation/

[2] Luther, Thesis 23.

[3] Luther, Thesis 24.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, (Fortress Press, 2004), 139. Cited in Peter Hooton, “Beyond, in the Midst of Life: An Exploration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in its Christological Context” (PhD dissertation, St Mark’s National Theological Centre, School of Theology, CSU, 2018), 90.

[5] Ethics, 140. Cited in Hooton, 94.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, (Fortress Press, 2004), 223. Cited in Brian Kendall Watson, “The Political Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Ethical Problem of Tyrannicide” (2015). LSU Master’s Theses. 612. https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_theses/612

[7] Letters and Papers, 447–48. Cited in Hooton, 90.

[8] Ethics, 99. Cited in Watson, 14.                                             

[9] Letters and Papers, 448. Hooton, 91.

[10] Letters and Papers, 213. Cited in Hooton, 89.

[11] Watson, 14.

[12] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John de Gruchy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010),  478–79. Cited in Hooton, 87

[13] Letters and Papers, 479. Cited in Hooton, 87.

[14] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, eds. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 95. Cited in Hooton, 12.

[15] “Sermon on Romans 11:6,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vols. 1–17 ;10: 481–82. Cited in Hooton, 190.

[16] Letters and Papers, 501. Summed up by Hooton, 92.

[17] Letters and Papers, 389. Cited in Hooton, 94.

[18] Letters and Papers, 515. Cited in Hooton, 95.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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