Who is my neighbor?
an essay on
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic treatise, Life Together, has been a staple of Christian
literature for decades and promises to continue as a great favorite of Christian readers. Bonhoeffer
writes to Christians about the way to live biblically in community, whether that community is a family
or a monastery. He touches all areas of community life, the reading of the Word, devotions, prayer,
worship, work, meals, etc., and his primary objective is to show how community practices can be
structured to reflect not just Christian values, but Christian realities of life. In particular,
he shows how the presence of Christ within us and our community is a minute-to-minute concern in
the daily life of a Christian, both alone and in relationships.
I think that when I first read this book thirty-five years ago, I was most impressed with Dietrich
Bonhoeffer’s notion that Christians best relate to one another through Christ in us seeing Christ
in the other. At the time, I rejected that notion. Now that I have lived the experience, I am much
better equipped to understand what Bonhoeffer means.
The first impression one forms of Life Together is that Bonhoeffer is completely over the limit in what
he recommends (orders, is more like, for he writes with an imperative tone). He certainly examines the
matter of Christian life in community at a very detailed level: how meals are to be taken, who should
read the Scriptures, who should pray, and so on. One may suspect, as I did, that this is another mad,
Prussian (he was actually from Breslau) disciplinarian, trying to regiment every hour, every minute of
the day, and, truth be told, there may be something a little compulsive about Bonhoeffer’s approach, at
least as he writes about it.
But the core of the book is a fascinating struggle with the methods and means of true Christian life and
devotion. How do we live unto God and not the world, especially within community? When one seeks detailed
answers to this question, one finds that our human, sinful nature is weak and needs much support, from
guidance, habit, and regime. Meanwhile, the world has many snares. What Bonhoeffer provides turns out
to be immensely practical and down-to-earth advice. It should be no surprise that the bulk of this advice
derives directly from Jesus’ instruction, for this is what Bonhoeffer has developed his thoughts from.
A case in point, chosen almost at random, is Bonhoeffer’s comments on the "ministry of listening":
“The first service one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just
as love of God begins in listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to
listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but lends us His ear. So it
is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.”
One sees in this simple excerpt the firm connection between the theological foundation and the simplest
imaginable practice. The whole book is like that.
One point that troubled me on my first reading (thirty-five years ago, recall) was Bonhoeffer’s position
on singing. He believed that all singing in the Christian community should be unison, subordinating the
individual into the group. His position is that the singing of hymns and holy songs should be an allegory
of the unity the community shares in Christ, with all art and individuality submerged in the whole. As a
well-trained singer, I resisted this idea strenuously, for it seemed clear to me that great music gives
glory to God just as simple singing can, and to require devotional singing to be carried out only in unison
is an absurd restriction.
In the intervening years, I have had the experience of singing Gregorian chant (which I had not done at
that point in my life). I must admit that the practice of unison singing is very demanding. Moreover,
I believe I understand how unison singing can be emblematic of our unity in Christ, and if this is the
primary value to be expressed in communal singing, then I see how it works. I can also see how part
singing, and other ensemble forms, also have a place in communal singing, symbolizing, as they do, our
various roles in the Body of Christ. Just as the woman anointed Jesus with an absurdly expensive perfume,
so the glorification of God demands our best art. Perhaps Bonhoeffer simply never had a satisfactory
singing experience apart from the context of unison, monastic singing.
But apart from such small, detailed objection, what Bonhoeffer has written resonated with me on my more
recent reading, particularly those parts that have fallen within the range of my experience. It is a
mistake to think that his thrust is primarily towards communal life in a monastery; family life also
presents the opportunities for devotion that he writes about, and he explicitly indicates family life in
more than one instance. But there are also lessons for the traditional church community as well, limited
as that context is in the most common present practice.
The relevance to church life arises in Bonhoeffer’s ideas about community through the technique he uses to
connect practical life with theological foundations. By theological foundations, I mean the knowledge we
have of God primarily through Scripture and through the witness of the Holy Spirit. In our churches, if
we were rigorously to derive the behavior and program of the church from scriptural foundations, in detail,
we would see (and of course, in those churches where this has happened, we have seen) enormous growth in
the power and depth of fellowship, the spreading of the Gospel, and the thrust of the fellowship into the
I should conclude by making it clear, that Bonhoeffer’s book is not about making rules, however Scriptural.
He is not a legalist. When rules are necessary, he connects them to Scriptural admonitions. But the primary
emphasis is on ministry, from the grand generalities to the simplest detailed relationship, and mostly the
latter. Life Together is about grace, harnessed within the individuals in community, expressed in
their relationships and ministry to one another. As such, it summarizes the Gospel in action within the
community of believers as well as anything yet written.
This is a beautiful book, simply written, easy to understand, though not easy to live by. But we have our
Lord to help us with that.
RMA, September, 2000
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
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