Kenosis and Resistance
A previous version of this article was presented to the
Bonhoeffer Group at the American Academy of Religion, November
2003. It represents a concise summary of ongoing research involving
a broader historical argument; please contact the author with any
further questions about research texts. The author is especially
indebted to Charles Marsh, whose own works on Bonhoeffer and on the
civil rights movement as theological drama were the original
impetus for this article. His suggestions along the way have been
 As voices for Christian political resistance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany and Martin Luther King, Jr. in racist America are often looked to for constructions of a theologically significant role for the church in political society. King and Bonhoeffer insist the church understand itself in concrete obligations to those oppressed by secular powers; they warn against any easy distinctions between the body of the church and the wounding of the world. For both theologians this commitment to the world comes with a certain secularization of the church, yet for both this is achieved through an inversion of secular typology, in which public political society comes to bear a theologically complex role within the church. The broadening of the church out into the world is accompanied by a certain intensification of uniquely Christian practice.
 In Bonhoeffer this ecclesial paradox issues finally in his provocative but unspecified call for a "religionless Christianity." One senses a practical missiology and a humble evangelism are somehow held together in that phrase, but just how is famously uncertain. Quickly sketching the outlines of Bonhoeffer's development toward a religionless Christianity, I will argue it has its sense in an ecclesiology that is continually redeveloping space for distinctively Christian political resistance. Through a similar tracing of King's theological development, I will then test Bonhoeffer's kenotic ecclesiology by the specific requirements of King's protest church, suggesting the movement as one lived instance of religionless Christianity. Part of the fruitfulness of this test will be that, if the comparison holds, we will find a strange analogy between Bonhoeffer's abandonment of pacificism and King's adoption of non-violence, and in the analogy's tension, may be able to glimpse how the self-emptying of kenosis can yet offer sufficiently practical political resistance; and, how it is that a religionless Christianity can yet appear as the body of Christ.
 Those who begin a reading of Bonhoeffer from Sanctorum Communio, where the form and content of God's will is thoroughly social, may be taken aback by the time they reach his prison writings, where they find a hauntingly individual responsibility and his proposal for a worldly faith. The theologian who began his theological career proclaiming "The Church is God's new will and purpose for humanity,"1 comes to the end of it (however untimely), asking, "In what way are we…secular Christians, in what way are we…those who are called forth…as wholly belonging to the world?"2 One could rightly wonder whether there is continuity at all between these earlier and later works: It may simply be that observing the withering of the German churches in the face of National Socialism, Bonhoeffer was pressed to give up his earlier views about the specifically Christian sociality to God's revelation. Or, perhaps the horrendous situation of the Third Reich compelled Bonhoeffer to take the world so seriously that his Barthian commitment to think only from the revelation of Christ was modified into a more Niebuhrian realism.
 I think Bonhoeffer stays true to his Barthian commitments, even through the prison years. Indeed, it is his commitment to think from Christ's self-communication, catalyzed in his opposition to Hitler's Germany, which moves his revisions of Christian sociality toward a kenotic ecclesiology.
 Receiving God's action for us, much more having something theological to say about it, is only possible (for both Barth and Bonhoeffer) because the subject of proclamation and of reception is the same, Jesus Christ. Any question about the shape of human subjectivity or the character of God's word thus has its occasion only in complete attention to the person of Christ. Bonhoeffer's revision of Barth in Sanctorum Communio and in Act and Being can be understood as an attempt to modulate that attention more thoroughly by the social character of Christ's personhood. Rather than allow a non-revelational notion of personhood let us talk of persons as if agonistic, Bonhoeffer wants personhood described through Christ's acting for others, so that Bonhoeffer can say human being is always being-for-others, precisely because this is the way Christ is a human being.3 If it is so that "Christ is really present only in community"4 - and not arbitrarily, but because of who God is - then Bonhoeffer has a mandate to recast the hearer of God's word as the church, rather than the individual. The church-community (die Gemeinde) thus becomes both the place of the presence of Christ and the normative mode of authentic human experience. In the early Bonhoeffer it is clear: "The church is God's new will and purpose for humanity."5
 In 1937, ten years after Sanctorum Communio and well into the National Socialist years, Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship. Here, during the struggle of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer confronts German Christians with the absoluteness of Christ's claim. The grace of Christ is a summons to radical obedience. Famously: "It is costly because it costs a man his life; it is grace because it gives a man the only true life."6 Whereas in Sanctorum Communio it was clear that the reality of Christ for us is the reality of the church-community, such that Christ is revealed only within church, in The Cost of Discipleship the presence of Christ appears as a radical call demanding a lonely obedience. Christ's call upon the disciple requires everything of what it means to be human, and may well entail loss of all it previously meant: "[w]hen Christ calls a man he bids him come and die."7
 Bonhoeffer is still insisting that the pattern of human life is known only through attention to Jesus Christ, but now Jesus is cast in his solitude and in the suffering of his mission: "Jesus is a rejected Messiah."8 So too will be his followers: "Despised and rejected by people,"9 even by those who also claim to follow Christ, disciples are tested by their "allegiance to the suffering Christ."10 Prior to any being-for-others there is now apparently a lonely, rejected human, sustained only by the call of Christ upon her.
 One might expect to find counterevidence to this loneliness in Life Together, but here we are instead told that community life is a privilege, a gracious dispensation to experience one of the "last things." Christian sociality appears to bear significance for discipleship only indirectly, in the service of strengthening individual disciples with the Word, as brethren continually strengthen each other with the renewed message of salvation.
 Yet while Life Together is clearly not a return to his earlier themes of Christian social being, it confirms that Bonhoeffer's ecclesiology is developing according to the needs of political resistance. In this same proclamation of the Word, which tears down communities, there is also space for the hope of authentic togetherness. This is how Christian church-communities critique dominant political power: by proclaiming Christ's absolute call, the proclamation itself judges and dissolves any excessive, humanist visions for society. For those still resistant to Hitler's charismatic spell, Bonhoeffer's words, "God hates visionary dreaming,"11 bear a clear political resonance. God hates political visions which seek to bind persons together absolutely, because the only absolute claim on a person is God's, and the Christian community is just where this absolute claim is communicated.
 Christian community thus maintains a theologically and politically significant loneliness. In this shared loneliness, absolutist social visions are disrupted by the presence of Christ, for if "[w]e belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ,"12 then between the disciple and every other person stands the mediating figure of Christ. The solitude in which the savior addresses one becomes a safeguard against domination by the dark power of erotic charisma.13 Jesus saves by abrogating the claims of the world. The resistant church-community appears here relentlessly speaking the word of God to its hearers, enabling lonely disciples to stay alien to a world haunted both by would-be messiahs and ecclesial Peters, by any of those who would not let Christ be the one for others.
 The Ethics at once redoubles this faithful solitude, and yet also makes it clear that the Christian's displacement from society does not have in view a final isolation of humanity. The Ethics amplifies the separation of Christian from society by suspending even responsiveness to social standards of goodness for unhesitant obedience to God's will; but it does not have as its aim the kind of existentialism in which the authentic self just is alienated from the world by its nature. On the contrary, Bonhoeffer's dislocation of self aims to unask just these sorts of final questions about selfhood. By disclosing the isolated self from within the final unity of all creation in God, Bonhoeffer will make both the self and its alienation secondary ethical concerns, focusing the Christian entirely upon the reconciling will of God.
 For Bonhoeffer the priority of self-regard resident in ethical concern for doing good indicates a disordered initial stance: presuming the ultimate reality of the self, self-regard seeks a knowledge of humans that begins apart from their address by God.14 Yet even recognition of this disorder can only be fully recognized in Christ, whose person is the power and perspective of the final unity of the world in God. So it is that the revelation of Christ at once discloses the human condition as isolation and shows this up as unnatural, distorted from created unity.15 The proclamation of Christ accuses individuals of their isolation, but only indirectly, as they discover their own isolation from creation through God's perception of the world as united with God. The call of Christ addresses individuals in a loneliness that is terrible precisely because the call is itself the content of fundamental communion, God's will for unity with the world.
 The church appears here as a piece of the shattered earth testifying to the unified reality of the whole world. The proclamation of Christ is the proclamation of the world, whose violence and suffering are shown up as unnatural by contrast to world's reality as the body of Christ. This is their terror. The church-community is then both the voice of this proclamation and the place where the reconciled body is prefigured, in the association of lonely disciples attracted to one another through the Word they speak.
 Bonhoeffer is still committed to his conviction that, as he says, the "relation of Church to the world is determined entirely by the relation of God to the world,"16 and his attention remains on Christ as the personal subject of that relation, only now he is beginning to locate more completely the bodily church in the figure of the bodily Christ. The church-community which proclaims the body of Christ for the world can only understand its proclamation of cosmic unity insofar as it is shaped after the bodily practice of Jesus: "We shall need above all to direct our gaze to the picture of the body of Christ himself, who became man, was crucified, and rose again. In the body of Jesus Christ God is united with humanity…and the world is reconciled with God."17
 Under the aspect of crucifixion we are reminded that when Bonhoeffer writes "one must bear in mind that the confines of this space are at every moment being overrun and broken down by the testimony of the Church to Jesus Christ" - he refers not only to the church bursting forth into the world, but the world piercing and breaking in upon the body of the church.18 Bonhoeffer has begun to suggest that the church obeys the reconciling will of God by making itself bodily available to the world.
 Yet in his Letters and Papers from Prison we find what might seem an unexpected next move: Bonhoeffer famously ruminating over a "religionless Christianity." At precisely the moment we might expect a renewed call to the church to become substantially embodied, Bonhoeffer seems to evacuate ecclesiology of specifically Christian body. Yet again, however, I think we more properly read Bonhoeffer developing his presentation of the church with a view to the politics of its evangelical mission. If the church is nothing else but that space in the world testifying to the world's reality, then Bonhoeffer wants the worldly embodiment of the church to be entirely modified by its vocation: to proclaim the reality of the world's unity in God. Bonhoeffer begins to wonder what a secular articulation of the gospel might look like in order to pare away the excessive preoccupations of the church with itself, in order to be able to offer authentic testimony.19 His call for an "arcane discipline"20 is not a sheepish concealment of the church before a world come of age, but an attempt to restore the Word of God to the world precisely without evacuating the constitutive practices of that body.21 Bonhoeffer wants to restore the church to its mission of proclaiming the true reality of all creation, and so wants it to be able to proclaim Christ as Lord of the religionless as well.22
 So what does a church modified after the Lord of the world actually look like? Bonhoeffer is soon after executed, having had opportunity only to pose the question, but I am not sure that he would have us dwell too long on its supposed institutional implications. To be primarily concerned with what Christ means for the shape and status of the church is similar to asking what Christ means for the goals and status of the good life: it is to become preoccupied with a self-important (ecclesio-centric) question, betraying already a distraction from God's will for the world. Just as the only concern of the Christian is the will of God, the only concern of the church is disclosing and embodying the will of God. For this church, whoever does the will of the Father are his, and wherever Christ's reality of reconciliation is experienced in being-for-others, and especially in the suffering of vicarious representation, there is the body of Christ. Those who participate in the body of Christ, Bonhoeffer can now say, are those that risk themselves (in body and soul) for those suffering beneath absolutist visions, those crushed by the powers of alienation. Bonhoeffer's call for a religionless church is, I think, a call to give over the body of the church to first practice this givenness of God for others, and in a way rigorously consistent with Bonhoeffer's lifelong meditation on Christ's acting for humanity. In the body of Christ as God's self-communication Bonhoeffer sees the kenosis of God for the sake of the world, and Bonhoeffer's call for a religionless Christianity may be seen as thinking the kenosis of the church for the sake of the world. Just as God's body is broken in order to gather creation into it, so too is the church ruptured in order to gather the world into its fellowship. The church must undergo a sort of death; this is its own costly grace, its participation in the life of Christ.23
 Martin Luther King Jr.'s ecclesiology develops, in ways analogous to Bonhoeffer's, over against ecclesial failures and political opposition. But their development seems to move on opposite tacks: while Bonhoeffer moves from the particular sociality of the church toward making it a more universal concern, and from pacifism to violent resistance, King can be seen to move from an ecclesial universalism toward a more particularist body, and from an uneasy realism to a thoroughgoing pacifism. More concretely, Bonhoeffer's movement might be taken to support the black power stance King steadfastly refuses. Their ecclesiological development is, however, crucially similar in one aspect: they both seem to move toward a kenotic church, a church that is the body of Christ only in its giving itself over to suffering.
 I want then, in this second section, to test Bonhoeffer's ecclesial kenosis by King's non-violent resistance movement. This is an important further query of Bonhoeffer. We will want to know whether in practice a kenotic, worldly church has sufficient body for uniquely Christian political engagement. As we will come to see, King's preaching the gospel through the movement's non-violent resistance suggests the kenotic "religionless" conclusion of the imprisoned Bonhoeffer cannot, at least for the streets of 1960s America, be understood as delivering the church into the hands of the world for its refashioning in more mature terms. Read by the lights of King's movement church, the religionless aspect of kenosis is a specific giving to the world for its own sake - its own sake only as known within the language of Christian proclamation. The movement-church assumed precisely the body the world needed to see, and underwent just the kind of suffering that would redeem the world as it was. The church of the civil rights movement, as King envisioned it, dramatizes the activity of kenosis not as "pure" self-emptying, but as evangelical self-giving, the founding of reconciliation through redemptive suffering.
 In the early stages of the movement, King discloses only a modest mandate for the church. In Stride toward Freedom, his 1958 book reflecting on the significance of Montgomery, and in the sermons and speeches that make up much of the material for that book, King treats of the church chiefly as a particular segment of society, important among several others for the success of the movement. In proper liberal style King wants to bring about reform through existing political structures, and describes the work of the church as largely accommodating people to this reform. So when King says "conquering segregation is an inescapable must confronting the church today," his bold commission for the church - ("to broaden horizons, challenge the status quo, and break the mores when necessary") - amounts to a rather moderate program of civic motivation: using religious education classes to show people the irrationality of racism, the pulpit to "reveal the true intentions of the Negro," and the church's prophetic voice to confirm good citizenship.24
 There are, however, throughout the early King, several stronger ecclesial threads he will later revisit. Not quite latent themes, these are odd paragraphs that seem to sit outside the integral message, but as the passages reappear over King's career, they come to bear new significances as they are homiletically intensified into a coherent ecclesiological chord.
 Three of the most important of these pericopes are "the colony of heaven," redemptive suffering, and agape. Each appears in King's sermons and speeches from 1956 onwards, and while they often seem to hang only loosely with what otherwise seems a civics program for the church, the persistence of these seemingly extraneous theological elements over King's life is striking. I will argue that they indeed come to gain a certain formative priority over other categories, eventually reconceptualizing King's liberalism by a redemptively ecclesial significance.
 The first of these ecclesial pericopes, the separate colony metaphor, is well known from King's exhortation in Stride toward Freedom for the churches to desegregate, in which he appeals to the "dual citizenry" of Christians: "The church must continually say to Christians, 'Ye are a colony of heaven,'" owing "ultimate allegiance to God."25 The passage seems to appear first in a sermon King preaches to Dexter Avenue Baptist, in which King comes across the Pauline phrase, "citizenship of heaven."26 It is a phrase that will continually re-appear in King, along with the "colony of heaven," but comes to require a more demanding allegiance to God as King's perception of church and politics develops.
 The second, and perhaps the most important thread in King's early ecclesial thought, is his certainty that non-violent protest is the way forward. Notably, King first discusses non-violence not as a specific vocation of the church, but rather as a principle of Christian decency observed by the nascent Montgomery protest - something King seems to say to reassure the mass meetings, the public, and himself that violence will not ensue.27 Already impressed in graduate school by the example of Ghandi, he will quickly come to explain nonviolence as the proper manner for the Negro race to claim its citizenship. This distinction between the bodies of race and of church is from the beginning, however, unstable. While it makes sense to appeal to governmental authorities to protect citizens, and to decent people to act rationally, and to religion to soften hardened hearts, it does not follow so neatly that a racial minority group should love others even as they are being beaten. King will eventually have to defend nonviolence as more than a political strategy, as anticipated already by his consistently setting it nearby Easter themes of redemptive suffering.28 Claiming the cross as an expression of God's restoration of community, King sees protestors' bodily assumption of brutality as a cruciform symbol of redemption. King in Montgomery has not yet begun to fully explain non-violence by the full drama of Easter: for King this "unearned suffering is redemptive" primarilybecause it bears the educational possibility of awakening America's conscience.29 It is only later, as it becomes clear the American conscience is largely unmoved, that the cruciform redemptiveness of non-violent action will take on a christoform resonance.
 This eventual move, toward a thorough appeal for the church as the context in which non-violence is most intelligible, is prefigured in King's use of the third ecclesial strand I want to mention from the Montgomery years. King deploys agape from his very first public addresses in order to insist non-violence is not a weak passivity, but is active and practical. It is, he says, an inclusive, community-building force, "an entirely 'neighbor-regarding-concern for other,'" which seeks "to preserve and create community."30 The practices of non-violence and agape seem to be mutually conditioning, for even as King insists that in order to accomplish their political goals, the protestors need to march in love, he finds he must qualify this love biblically: it is the love of God, the love of forgiveness, of the cross, of resurrection, of the Holy Spirit.31 The creative force which drives the racial resistance movement is thus described in centrally Christian symbols, and we have a suggestion that the qualities essential to the political movement only make sense because of and within their use by Christian linguistic communities. In other words, insofar as he casts resistance practices as operations of agape, King opens up this church term to its civil significance, and comes to describe the civil rights movement by a specifically ecclesial characteristic.
 We see here that while the force of King's early addresses is toward civil empowerment of protesting Negro citizens, only aided and abetted by the church, church and movement are, in these three initially extraneous pericopes, intrinsically linked, and the boundary between rendered fluid. King consistently explains the movement with reference to the central activities of the church, and church becomes the place non-violent resistance begins to make transformative sense. Thus even the early King proleptically locates the civil rights movement in the mission of the church.
 After the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, King begins to register disillusionment with much of the church, finding himself most upset not with the reluctant government or racist opposition, but with lack of support from white Christians. That King's frustration is primarily with the church, rather than other parts of the world, suggests he has come to expect the hateful world to be as it is, and is ready to deal lovingly with it; but he had assumed the church would be markedly different. King begins now to deploy his familiar phrase "colony of heaven" to criticize the complicit church, contrasting the church's original calling with its present degeneration.
 Recalling "that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer,"32 King challenges the church to prove its authenticity by its sacrificial spirit, by entering into suffering solidarity with the movement. King had of course already thematized the protestors' suffering as redemptive; what is new is that he is now measuring the integrity of the church by its courage to suffer. Bearing in its body the marks of Christ has become for King a sign of the community of God. Taking stock of who is engaged in civil rights and who hangs back, King points out that the ecclesial life of redemptive suffering is not being lived by the white churches. King says he wonders, as he looks at their church buildings, "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?"33 King seems poised to identify the true church either with the black churches, or with a pure inward church. But this move is called up short by the witness of a few white Christians who stand in solidarity with the movement. King's hope for the visible, universal church is preserved by those who suffer for the world.
 After Birmingham up until his martyrdom in Memphis, King increasingly separates the redemptive body from institutional churches - a move essential to preserving any ecclesial politics. Not only are complicit white churches the problem, but so are complacent black churches; and this double failure is part of the reason for the growing pressure on King to abandon the message of universal brotherhood and its non-violent tactics, and adopt a more challenging, more realistic black power stance. King both refuses and accommodates: he agrees there must indeed be a challenging separation, even one of angry judgment, but for King this cleavage cannot be allowed to run through humanity. Rather it must refer to the church's power against the world. King thus maintains universal brotherhood, but he has come to see the ultimate interrelatedness of universal brotherhood as rooted in a graced separation: the difference of the church from the world preserves an ecclesial hope for the whole earth. The colony of heaven holds itself against the world precisely in order to testify to its created unity. In his final years, even as the movement is struggling, King sees more than ever a "small Christian band [that] continued to teach and exemplify love, convinced that they were 'a colony of heaven'…who were commissioned to obey not man but God."34 The colony of heaven is now clearly identified with the movement, with those who testify to love by non-violence. And it is this practice of the church that gives prophetic power to King's eschatological judgments, that allows King to be to powerfully angry. The church is found among the persecuted, as if in the catacombs, and yet only from here can preached the gospel which shatters worldly powers.
 Proclamation and non-violent practice are now held integrally together. The movement protestors perform the character of God, showing God to be an earthly, historical, hatred-overcoming, violence-transforming love. As on the cross, evil is dramatized, absorbed, and transfigured.35 Only in the movement's testifying against the world does the world stand united - racist governors and bleeding protestors - made brethren in God. King can still say "[w]e are all one in Christ Jesus,"36 but only because there is this drama of agapeic protest, testifying to reality as found only in the body of Christ. The love that non-violent protest embodies is the difference from the world that unites heaven and earth, black and white, American and Vietcong.
 "[O]nly the suffering God can help," said Bonhoeffer, and called for a "religionless Christianity," the kenosis of the church for the sake of the world. In King's understanding of the movement's practice of non-violent protest, I have argued, there is a similar giving over of the church in order to redeem the world: the institutional church empties its congregations out into vicious streets for the conversion of a nation. The church, for both Bonhoeffer and King, is finally Christ's body, broken by the divisions and complicity of the institutional church itself, but more fundamentally broken by the evil of the world. Yet its rupture is how God gives life for the world, how God achieves the proclamation the church makes. The church gives over Godself to be wounded, that sin and violence might be inscribed in God's body, and there overcome and transfigured by love. The body of Christ is broken and emptied out, precisely that all creation might rush in and be redeemed in its unity.
 Bonhoeffer proclaims the church in the vicarious suffering of the lordship of Christ. King leads the church to enact this lordship in the redemptive suffering of non-violent resistance. For both the proclamation of the gospel judges against absolutist social visions by calling the world into the universality of Christ's body. For both, the boundaries of the church are set only in order to shatter them by the in-gathering of the world, the church is made visible only for the world to rush into it. Bonhoeffer in prison calls for the death of the church, anticipating a secular resurrection, which he could not see precisely because of the German church's refusal to suffer. King calls the church to die for the sake of the world, but in anticipation of its resurrection in a transfigured body - a resurrection he already knows in the beleaguered civil rights movement of the late 1960's. This is King's historical answer to Bonhoeffer's call for a religionless Christianity: the church as a cruciform mode of social existence performatively proclaiming God's reconciling power.
1 Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Work, vol. 1), Clifford Green (ed.), Reinhard Krauss (transl.), Fortress Press, 1998 [herafter: SC], p. 141.
2 Letters and Papers from Prison, SCM Press, [hereafter: LP], pp. 280-1.
3 Cf. SC, pp. 35-77, 137-41.
4 SC, quoted from A Testament to Freedom (Kelly and Nelson, ed.s, HarperCollins, 1995), p. 56.
5 SC, 141.
6 Cost of Discipleship, MacMillan, New York, 1963 (transl. R. H. Fuller), p. 47.
7 CD, 99.
8 Quoted from TF, p. 312.
9 Quoted from TF, p. 312.
10 Quoted from TF, p. 314.
11 LT, p. 27.
12 LT, p. 21.
13 Cf., LT, pp. 30-9.
14 E, 21-2; 186-7.
15 E,35-7, 186-8.
16 E, 202.
17 E, 202.
18 E, 200.
19 LP, 280-2, 285-7.
20 LP, 281, 286.
21 LP, 282.
22 LP, 280.
23 "The grace which gave itself to him was a costly grace, and it shattered his whole existence." (On Luther, CD, 51)
24 STF, pp. 182-3.
25 STF, quoted from TH, p. 479.
26 "Paul's Letter to American Christians" (1956), PMLK, vol. III, p. 416 (referring to Phil. 3:20).
27 Says Lischer.
28 Cf. "Non -Aggression Procedures to Racial Harmony" (1956); PMLK, vol. III, pp. 327-8. Also: "The Montgomery Story" Ibid., p. 306.
29 TH, 19.
30 TH, 19-20.
31 TH, 19-20 (my emphases).
32 "Letter From Birmingham City Jail," TH, 300.
33 "Letter From Birminghman City Jail," TH, 299.
34 "Playboy Interview," TH, 348.
35 Cf. "Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom" (1966), TH, 55.
36 "A Christmas Sermon on Peace" (1967), TH, 255-6.
© January 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 5, Issue 1