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Readings from the Underside of Selfhood: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Spiritual Formation

 
 

Dahill, Lisa E. Readings from the Underside of Selfhood: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Spiritual Formation. Spiritus: A journal Of Christian Spirituality 1:2(2001), 186-203. ©The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reproduced with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[1] Shirley is a bright, charming woman in her early sixties. She is a member of the congregation I attend in San Francisco and is faithful and active in the life of the church.  As chair of adult education, she seeks out opportunities for her own ongoing learning to nourish her leadership and teaching, and so she enrolled two years ago in a week-long summer course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

[2] She told me of her experience in that class the day the professor lectured on Bonhoeffer's view of how one is to relate to the neighbor, the other, the enemy.  The lecture moved through Bonhoeffer's early writings on the necessity of giving up one's self in favor of the claims of the other, and loving the other instead of the self, and culminated in a reflection on the utterly central Christian stance of loving the enemy, letting the enemy "grasp" a person in a radical claim on one's time and priorities and even one's life. 

[3] Shirley had an unsettling, painful reaction to this lecture, and she was assertive enough to go up to the professor afterward and tell him, "If I had been hearing this theology thirty years ago, I would be dead right now."  She went on to recount how her alcoholic and abusive husband had come home one night extremely drunk, and had gone on a rampage, finally pinning her against the wall with his hands around her throat, strangling her.  She recalled how she had struggled and realized he was truly trying to kill her.  In the brief moments of clarity between this terrifying realization and her imminent loss of consciousness, she had a decision to make.  Raised in a conservative Christian home and taught to obey the male authorities in her life, she was lucky, she said, that her pastor at that time was not preaching Bonhoeffer's theology, that these words were not filling her head that night.  For in that moment, with his hands around her neck, Shirley chose not to let the enemy "grasp" her, and surrender her own claims to his absolute demands.  She summoned all her strength and was somehow able to claw him off her, and run for her life. 

[4] Shirley's story continues to move me deeply, and it crystallizes in dramatic form some of the uneasiness I too have experienced in trying to come to terms with certain aspects of Bonhoeffer's legacy.  I have been reading Bonhoeffer for seventeen years, since my introduction to him in Tübingen, Germany, in 1983-1984.  During seminary and my years in Lutheran parish ministry, I continued to draw nourishment from his compelling vision of a deeply nourishing and thoroughly this-worldly spirituality.  In the doctoral program in Christian Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union, I have studied and taught on Bonhoeffer, and have also had the privilege of serving as translator for volume 16 of the new critical edition of his works.[1]   In all my work on Bonhoeffer, he never fails to move me with the clarity and subtlety of his insight, the human texture of his faithfulness and courage.  In recent years, however, I have increasingly found his insistence on selflessness, his lifelong assertion that holiness, redemption, and the very presence of God are found in turning decisively away from oneself and toward the claims of others, particularly problematic.  Like Shirley, I have experienced aspects of Bonhoeffer's conception of the self and its appropriate spiritual formation to be at odds with the directions my own prayer and Christian discernment were leading me.

[5] This is not, of course, the first time women have noticed a disjunction between their experience and the teachings of respected theologians.  Since 1960, an impressive line of feminist critiques has challenged normative Christian understandings of sin and self, as these understandings have developed in highly androcentric ways.  To date, however, this sort of critical application of gender analysis, within a larger social location critique, has not taken place for Bonhoeffer's writings.  Interpreters continue to follow Bonhoeffer himself in speaking of "the" person, or of "human" sin, as if these could be understood monolithically.  Because most interpreters share Bonhoeffer's general social location as educated white Western males, it is not surprising that they find his analysis intuitively compelling and take for granted its similar applicability to others. 

[6] Yet Shirley's story reminds us that, far from being somehow universally relevant, as is often assumed even to this day, Bonhoeffer's theology of selfhood and spiritual formation depend for their life-giving power on an accurate grasp of the ways in which his own social location shaped his experience and writings, and how these may be appropriated by people in social and psychological contexts different from his. Such critical contextualization is consistent with Bonhoeffer's own lifelong insistence that truth is never abstract, absolute, or fixed, but requires prayerful, concrete discernment in every new context within the flow of highly complex social-historical circumstances.  A reading of Bonhoeffer, therefore, which wittingly or unwittingly universalizes his experience and conception of the self, that is, which fails to take account of the enormous contextual factors shaping these realities, risks missing the heart of his own Christian vision and can have devastating consequences.  Far from empowering resistance to entrenched evil, as his writings themselves intend, such uncritical, universal application of Bonhoeffer's thought to contexts beyond his own can actually condone and reinforce the patterns of (so-called) Christian submission that play right into the hands of evil in abuse.  Nor are these merely academic questions; as Shirley's story demonstrates, "lives are at stake."[2]

[7] In this essay I examine Bonhoeffer's writings on questions of selfhood and spiritual formation from the perspective of women in abusive relationships, like Shirley.  I have chosen this particular audience partly because its perspectives have so long been completely invisible to mainstream theology, with disastrous results, and partly because these women (who are present at every level of church and society) represent a pole of human experience profoundly different from Bonhoeffer's own.  Furthermore, it is specifically around questions of selfhood and its gendered formation that the experience of abused women differs most strongly from Bonhoeffer's and thus offers the greatest possibility of critique.  For all his astute and far-sighted sensitivity to issues of race, culture, class, nationality, and privilege as they shape the Christian spiritual life, Bonhoeffer was apparently quite blind to gender oppression as a systemic reality.[3]  That is, the experience of those whose bodies and spirits bear the devastating brunt of violently enforced systems of male domination was outside Bonhoeffer's theological awareness.[4]   Thus the experience of these women provides an excellent test case for the wider applicability of Bonhoeffer's thinking, and a critical and appreciative reading of him from this perspective can provide a glimpse of strategies by which Bonhoeffer's spirituality might be retrievable also for other marginalized groups.[5]  

[8] I situate this analysis of Bonhoeffer's work within the discipline of Christian spirituality. Sandra Schneiders has defined spirituality broadly as "the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life-integration through self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives."[6]   Within a Christian context, this "horizon of ultimate value is the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ, and the project involves the living of his paschal mystery in the context of the Church community through the gift of the Holy Spirit."[7]   In this essay, therefore, I explore how Bonhoeffer's experience of this Christian mystery and community took shape within the contours of his own concrete particularity, and how his legacy may continue to be revelatory of Jesus Christ for Christians of very different social locations from Bonhoeffer's own, namely for those who struggle with sins of submission. My method is self-consciously interdisciplinary. In addition to engaging in an analysis of Bonhoeffer's writings, and both biographical and historical materials, I draw on feminist psychology to gain access to the complexity of the experience under examination: both Bonhoeffer's own and that of the women through whose eyes I am attempting to read him.[8]

[9] I will look first at Bonhoeffer's articulation of the shape of human selfhood, as that derives from his own experience in powerful and formative ways.  Next, I will briefly examine an alternative version and experience of human selfhood, namely that of women suffering in abusive relationships, drawing on the feminist psychological work of Jessica Benjamin and Judith Herman.  Finally, I will place into mutual conversation these two very different conceptions of the human self and its appropriate movement toward greater maturity or wholeness, seeking especially to point to resources Bonhoeffer provides for the spiritual formation of submissive selves.  My ultimate goal is greater appreciation of Bonhoeffer's insights on spiritual formation for the fuller range of humanity spanning the poles of dominance and submission, based on an awareness of his own concreteness and particularity rather than on the assertion of his universal applicability.[9]

Bonhoeffer and Selfhood  

[10] Born into a culture and family that prized male autonomy and intellectual achievement, Bonhoeffer excelled.  Clifford Green, a prominent Bonhoeffer scholar, has persuasively demonstrated the ways in which the highly cultured Bonhoeffer family fostered critical thinking and ego strength among its members, as well as illumining those aspects of family life that especially spurred Dietrich toward the driving intellectual ambition that marked his early years.[10]  

[11] As a gifted-indeed, brilliant-young thinker groomed throughout his upbringing for a life of public leadership, Bonhoeffer garnered himself early on a great deal of attention and praise for his ground-breaking theological work.  He used the considerable power of his gifts, especially his mind, in an attempt to master reality itself, and to prove the supremacy of his insights in academic debate with others.[11]   Yet his experience of this drive of ambition and ego was an extremely alienating one.  Precisely in this masterful ego, in its relentless attempt to establish itself as the center of the world, Bonhoeffer perceived himself as cut off from God and others in their genuine alterity; instead, he came to realize that the dominating self distorts all of reality into a mere projection of itself.

The individual has torn himself out of the community with God, and thus also with other people, and now he stands alone, which is in untruth. Because he is alone the world is "his" world, the neighbor has sunk into the world of things . . ., and God has become a religious object; but he himself has become his own creator, his own master and property. . . . [But] in the cold silence of his eternal solitude, he becomes anxious about himself and begins to dread. . . the cry of conscience only disguises the mute loneliness of a bleak isolation and sounds without echo in the self-dominated and self-interpreted world.[12]

[11] Earlier, Bonhoeffer describes the "self-confinement and isolation of the very loneliest solitude with its tormenting desolation and sterility."[13]   Green locates numerous passages throughout Bonhoeffer's early writings that echo this description of the painfully isolated ego whose confinement to a self-projected and distorted world is hell itself.  These passages use almost identical language and metaphors to describe this alienated reality: "cold" solitude, the dead "echo" of an utterly isolated cry, the objectification of God and neighbor into projections of the ego, the self at the "center" of this empty world.  Green asserts that the striking convergence of these passages is not accidental: "it is. . . to a large degree a self-portrait of the theologian himself, whose urgent existential concern is expressed in this theology."[14] 

[12] Indeed, Bonhoeffer's direct and indirect descriptions of his own inner experience are replete with the violence inflicted on reality by an isolated ego intent on maintaining dominance.  He employs several variants of the German Gewalt, or "force," showing the heightening intensification of such violence: the Bewältigung (overpowering)[15]  of another person or of reality itself with sheer Gewalt[16],  issuing ultimately in the Vergewaltigung (rape, violation)[17] of that other.  No translator or scholar I have seen has commented on the significance of this latter word choice (Vergewaltigung).  It and its verbal and adjectival cognates are universally translated in English with terms of  "violation" or "doing violence to."  Of course, these are not inaccurate translations, and they convey an element of the brutal force denoted here.  Nevertheless, the word Vergewaltigung simply is the German word for "rape" as well, investing the word with a shocking horror beyond the less graphic "doing violence to."  Any reader of the German would hear this double meaning: Bonhoeffer chooses language that not only connotes but also actually denotes the violent rape of others, of God, and of reality itself on the part of the sinful "man's" ego.[18]   And the fact that (as Green has gone to such lengths to demonstrate) such passages are not merely theoretical for Bonhoeffer, but highly revelatory of his own inner life, suggests that Bonhoeffer chose the term Vergewaltigung because it accurately described the ravaging violence within his own self.

[13] Not surprisingly, then, the liberation he discerns corresponds to the shape of this inner bondage experienced as domination, violence, and painful isolation from others.  Already in his dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, he describes the process by which a person is truly formed: namely, by ethical encounter with an other, a You whose very alterity, reflecting God's own otherness, is what creates the individual as an ethical Person.[19]   The barrier (Schranke) or boundary (Grenze) of another person's concrete and separate being confronts the individual with a reality alien to his or her own, thus drawing the person into what Bonhoeffer calls the state of "responsibility," or of ethical demand for some response.[20]    The You meets the I in this encounter as "demand" on the I.  That is, the I as a "whole person, who is totally claimless, is claimed by this absolute demand."[21]   For Bonhoeffer, the only way out of the sterile and lonely wasteland his "dominating ego"[22]  had created was to experience himself as "totally claimless" in the face of the "absolute demand" of the other. The language of surrender (Hingabe) to this concrete other expresses the longing of the aggressive self to enter a place of actual intimacy, which he finds to be transformative, indeed person-forming.  He himself experienced this surrender and the intimacy it opened for him to be utterly life-changing; his conversion to Jesus Christ in prayer and Scripture in the early 1930s was a gradual but powerful breakthrough of love that drew him into increasingly trustful, risky, and disclosive human friendships as well to the end of his life.  Emerging from the incessant struggle for domination, Bonhoeffer frames this development as a move into submission, of surrendering at last to reality in the form of the concrete divine or human other.  Throughout his life, then, he writes for those whose formation in selfhood is similarly one of alienated isolation and dominance; this is what he clearly means when he speaks of the self, and it has everything to do with his gendered social location.

[14] To claim that Bonhoeffer is writing a highly self-implicating spirituality from a perspective of patriarchal dominance is in no way to disparage him as a human being or a Christian.  Indeed, by all accounts he was a warm, sensitive, and conscientious human being.[23]   On the whole, he appears not to have acted out the tendencies toward violent egotism with which he struggled but to have worked hard in cultivating virtues of humility, receptivity, and patience.  His very sensitivity to the dynamics inherent in his strict patriarchal upbringing may have helped to make him such a perceptive lifelong observer and reporter of their destructive inner reality.  Yet this more precise naming of Bonhoeffer's social location within patriarchy opens up space for a feminist reading that will both mark those aspects of his spirituality inappropriate for the abused, and also retrieve the liberating elements he explores.  I suggest that this is preferable to the usual uncritical reading that attempts to force all of human experience into his, with potentially disastrous results. To proclaim Bonhoeffer's theology of selfhood as if it were true of everyone simply does not correspond with reality.

Women in Abuse: Feminist Psychological Perspectives

[15] The work of Jessica Benjamin, a contemporary psychoanalytic theorist, is particularly helpful in understanding the extraordinarily complex dynamics that shape people into patterns of domination and submission.[24]  Benjamin develops a feminist intersubjective theory that helps make sense of how traditionally socialized boys come to take on elements of a dominating personality. Many of her descriptions of this personality and the experience it engenders (empty isolation, bubble of the self, mastery of reality) read like citations from Bonhoeffer.[25]  Given Bonhoeffer's own articulations of this experience, and Green's comprehensive mapping of them in term of the "dominating ego," it is no stretch to place Bonhoeffer squarely within the realm of those whom Benjamin studies as dominators, that is a particular and not at all universal dimension of human experience.

[16] Shirley's experience and that of millions of other women is very different.  Socialized from birth in patriarchal families and cultures, according to extremely pervasive explicit and implicit gender codes and roles, girls have by and large grown up with a different sense of who they are, who they are allowed to be, and what their tasks and goals in life are to be, than their brothers have done.  Thankfully, this is changing for both boys and girls, as shifts in parenting patterns and women's work create new options for them.  But the fact that brutal and subtle forms of abuse still fill homes, just as violence fills the news and popular media, means that patterns of domination and submission are still well entrenched, still need naming and challenging.  Of course, women can be abusers, and boys and men victims of trauma and abuse.  But Benjamin is tracing the continuities between gender socialization and the psychological problems of domination and submission, which in the overwhelming majority of cases still means male abusers and female victims.[26]   For this reason, I will risk speaking broadly of the experience of women who suffer abuse.

[17] For those girls and women who live with abuse, then, Benjamin's description of the submissive self reads as accurately as the dominating self described by Bonhoeffer.  These human beings live in a world in which their own presence and subjectivity is as thoroughly effaced as Bonhoeffer's was overblown.  The victim of abuse realizes that she "is to lose all subjectivity, all possibility of using her body for action; she is to be merely a thing.  Second, she is to be continually violated, even when she is not actually being used.  The main transgression of her boundaries consists of her having to be always available and open."[27]   Far from bringing her pleasure, as Freud suggested in his studies of masochism, Benjamin notes that "intense pain causes the rupture of the self, a profound experience of fragmentation and chaos."[28]   And indeed this is found to be true in innumerable studies of survivors of abuse.[29]  

[18] Judith Herman, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively with survivors of trauma and abuse, writes:

People subjected to prolonged, repeated trauma develop an insidious, progressive form of post-traumatic stress disorder that invades and erodes the personality. While the victim of a single acute trauma may feel after the event that she is "not herself," the victim of chronic [abuse] may feel herself to be changed irrevocably, or she may lose the sense that she has any self at all.[30]

[19] Persons subjected to chronic torture and abuse in the home manifest symptoms of deep psychological damage, compounded greatly of course in cases where abuse had begun in childhood.  Those whose homes are places of coercive torment and violation develop exhausting forms of hypervigilance, constantly scanning the environment and the abuser for signals of imminent outburst, and expending enormous amounts of energy warding off these explosions, placating the abuser, walking on eggshells, anticipating his every whim.  His demands and moods shape every waking moment, and his rages make sleep impossible, due to endless tirades or coercive sexual demands and because of the nightmares filled with terror that shatter sleep. 

[20] The abuser's voice comes to fill the victim's whole reality, crowding out any needs or feelings or perceptions of her own; these get beaten out of her if she ever dares to defy him.  His rages, insults, surveillance, lies, and threats to herself and/or her children undermine her sense of reality, isolate her, and are backed up with violence should she cross him, even in tiny ways, or threaten to leave.  Her autonomy and human capacity for initiative and freedom are relentlessly and pervasively degraded, from the chaos of living for years or even decades in a hell of unpredictable tyranny.  The more degraded her sense of self becomes, the more incapable she feels of survival on her own.  This is a cycle which leads to death: death of the psyche, death of the self or soul, and very often also physical death: thousands of women are murdered every year at the hands of an intimate other.[31]  

[21] This is manifestly not a path to holiness, freedom, and fullness of life in Jesus Christ.  Yet it is a real-life form of Bonhoeffer's insistence that the self "who is totally claimless, [be] claimed by [the] absolute demand" of the other.  Interpreters of Bonhoeffer need to be extremely careful in interpreting these words to any audience, since patterns of abuse and submission are so pervasive, often so hidden to the observer, and so extraordinarily deeply entrenched.  Such words mean one thing, indeed life itself, to Bonhoeffer; they mean something completely different to a victim of abuse, for this is the very shape and voice of evil itself in her life.  Bonhoeffer's destructive illusion is that the self is omnipotent; for the victim of abuse, it is that the self is "nullipotent," effaced, while the abuser is omnipotent.  Thus Bonhoeffer's form of escape will be extremely different from one who suffers abuse, at times nearly its opposite.

Mutual Interrogation          

[22] In contrast to Bonhoeffer, who needed to turn down the volume of the self in order to hear the other, the person living with abuse needs to turn down the volume of the other (specifically, the abuser) in order to attend to herself.  Bonhoeffer needed to submit his overbearing self to others' differing reality; the abuse victim needs to defy the abuser's consuming reality in order to claim space for her self.[32]   There is a whole universe within her, the uniquely created humanity God brought to life, which has been relentlessly attacked, often since childhood, and never had space to develop.  To a greater or lesser extent, her very self has been suffocated.[33]   Such selflessness is not holy and not to be naively praised.  It is a mark of chronic terror and suffering, and cries out for appropriate and courageous naming, remedy, and healing, for the abundance of life intended for every person, every self.  Authentic Christian spiritual formation demands nothing less than this.  I find three particular areas of significance for the spiritual formation of abused women-self-awareness, self-defense, and self-investment-in which Bonhoeffer can be helpful.[34]

[23] Self-Awareness: The victim of abuse is often so overwhelmed by others' demands as to have very little if any awareness of her own different needs, feelings, or perceptions of reality.  A primary and indispensable need for the entire process of healing, and any Christian spiritual formation, is the gift of holy ground in which such self-awareness can begin to grow, perhaps for the first time in her life.  Such holy ground is made possible in the space that opens up in a safe and trusting relationship.  Benjamin (following Winnicott) speaks of the safe psychoanalysis relationship as just such a "holding space," the transitional space of trust and care that allows a vulnerable self to develop.[35]   In addition, spiritual direction, worship, and prayer are arenas in which the Christian experiences holy ground, a space of embrace in which the unconditional love of God is tangibly and personally felt, allowing the pray-er to experience her own self and its movements and desires as well.  This provides the sheer novelty of a nonattacking other, a gaze that is profoundly loving rather than accusatory or punishing, a space for nascent self-awareness that evokes neither retaliation nor dismissal by the other. 

[24] I find three significant expressions in Bonhoeffer's work of such holy or holding space.  The first is the experience of friendship, which for him was transforming and world-opening, particularly in the practice of mutual confession, a revelation of embracing self-disclosure.[36]  This is a place of safe noncondemning acceptance that makes possible the life-changing self-awareness abuse victims so need. A second expression comes through the sensory imagery (visual, aural, and tactile metaphors) pervading Bonhoeffer's descriptions of the believer's relationship with Jesus Christ, particularly through meditation on the Gospels.  In Discipleship, for instance, he consistently uses the metaphor of gaze: living within the gaze of Jesus, keeping one's eyes focused on Jesus, with no sidelong glances at other realities.[37] 

The image of Jesus Christ, which is always before the disciples' eyes, and before which all other images fade away, enters, permeates, and transforms them. . . . Those who behold Christ are being drawn into Christ's image, changed into the likeness of Christ's form. . . . This is the indwelling of Jesus Christ in our hearts.[38]

[25] He makes similar use of "voice" and "touch/attachment" metaphors; the primary image by which voice metaphors are expressed for Bonhoeffer is that of the call (Ruf) of Jesus, the powerful and personal Word by which disciples are drawn to the Lord.[39]   The metaphor of touch comes through Bonhoeffer's repeated use of the language of Bindung, variously translated as "attachment," "allegiance," "commitment," or "bond," and referring to an exclusive devotion that is the only content of discipleship, a life of being "in touch" with Jesus.[40]    This sort of sensory imagery in spiritual direction and prayer can be very important for victims of abuse, who are violently conditioned to watch the abuser's face for cues of imminent outbursts, to let the abuser's voice fill her soul and body.  In contrast, the gaze, voice, and touch of Jesus provide a healing and utterly trustworthy alternative, drawing the survivor out of the world controlled by the abuser's voice and hateful glare, and into a world in which Jesus' gaze allows her to see herself and reality anew.  Through prayer with the Gospels, Bonhoeffer invites survivors into a holding space, an open space with no other agenda than liberation, healing, and love.

[26] Third, Bonhoeffer's Eucharistic piety and his insistence on Jesus as the servant, the one "for others," can provide resources to help break the gender dynamics sustaining abusive patterns and nourish those who experience physical violation.[41]  Here I am developing a sacramental reading of Bonhoeffer's work that runs against the grain of his own sense of the relative locations of self and other. Bonhoeffer insists that Jesus, as "the one for others," models our own "being there for others," which is our encounter with redemptive transcendence.[42]   But for those who are already "other," whose lives are already poured out for many, Jesus as the one for "others" provides tangible access to a God who is thus "for me."[43]  To state this in slightly different terms, those like Bonhoeffer, whose powerful selves tend to obscure others' reality, learn from Jesus to attend to the other, to be a "person for others" like Jesus.  For those, however, who perceive themselves as no-selves, or for the submerged aspects of any human being, this same Jesus appears as the "one for me"; from him these persons learn to experience themselves as worthy of care and love. 

[27] This has important gender dimensions as well, particularly in the arena of bodily life.  The perception of women as selfless giver and embodied food source is deeply rooted in psyche and culture.[44]  Yet Jesus, the One who is present for all who are "other," as Bonhoeffer reminds us, subverts this equation by inviting women to be receivers of divine life through his flesh, nourishing their own flesh rather than being givers only, consumed by the demands of family, society, or self hatred.  This redeemer breaks conventionally gendered notions of who is self and who is other. Counter to traditions the world over, in which the female cooks and serves and does not eat (is in fact the "eaten") while the male reclines and consumes (is the "eater")-here a male breaks this pattern to give himself as food for women to bless, break, receive, and eat.  And this physical participation in Jesus' bodily life not only draws into healing contact abuse victims' own wounds and crucifixion with his, but reveals as holy even their wounded flesh, allowing a person gradually to perceive her own body as a locus for Jesus' self-revelation.  Paying attention to one's body becomes a form of prayer, a means of attending to the One whose body and blood fully saturate the very cells of the disciple's physical being.  Experiencing and meeting one's physical needs for food, play, sleep, or love becomes a way of coming face to face with the One for others, the One whose flesh feeds all selves, all "others."

[28] This Eucharistic reflection is an extrapolation from Bonhoeffer, who does not develop these themes explicitly. But it is a development much in line with his emphases on the physical communion of Jesus Christ and disciples, and on Jesus' unending devotion to those most in need.  It is an example of ways in which Bonhoeffer's spirituality can nourish those who have been violated-here, by locating them among those "others" for whom Christ is really present.  Thus in these various ways-in human friendship and searching self-disclosure, and in prayerfully attending to Jesus Christ in Word, sacrament, and one's own body-Bonhoeffer's writings provide significant invitations to growth in transformative self-awareness, a key building block of his spirituality.[45]  In his Ethics, he later makes explicit the necessity of such self-awareness for mature Christian life, grounding the discernment at the heart of his spirituality. 
Self-defense:  The ability to defend oneself is a primary capacity of a healthy body and spirit, yet in abuse victims this capacity has been relentlessly attacked.  Physical problems, often quite serious and exacerbated by the incapacity to care for oneself, mirror the ways in which verbal and emotional abuse destroys the person's capacity for self-defense.  Herman writes: 

Many survivors have such profound deficiencies in self-protection that. . . the idea of saying no to the emotional demands of a parent, spouse, lover, or authority figure may be practically inconceivable. . . .[They] continue to permit major intrusions without boundaries or limits.[46]

[29] There are many forms of self-defense needed, from this capacity to say no at any level to various demands, to asserting the power of anger in making needed change, to ending relationships destructive of one's humanity.  All these forms of self-defense depend on healthy psychological boundaries; in abusive relationships, however, these boundaries are overpermeable, enmeshed. This is where Bonhoeffer's emphasis on the centrality of clear boundaries for Christian communities is so helpful.  Most explicitly in Life Together, but discernible throughout his published writings, his insistence on the necessity of boundaries in all relationships, especially Christian ones, is a gift of protection for those whose attackers know no bounds.[47]   Jesus Christ is the boundary for Bonhoeffer between persons, so that I cannot relate to another except through Christ. Thus I cannot exploit or attack another except by coming face to face with the One who protects the selfhood of every other, and who protects my selfhood from all would-be attackers as well.  Furthermore, this Jesus Christ who protects the vulnerable has the power to call a person out of an abusive situation.  His voice draws people from the nets that entangle them and into a costly, joyful life of astonishing freedom in following him.

[30] Bonhoeffer's presentation in Discipleship of a God who invites persons into a radical break with the old life may seem impossible or overblown to those whose lives are filled with contentment, but it is good news indeed for those who need to get out of abuse.[48]   This is a far cry from traditional Christian pastoral care of the abused, which counsels that suffering under another's attack is "just your cross to bear."  In Bonhoeffer's world, both the abused and abuser are called out of that old life for good and set into a world in which boundaries are clear, in which each person's life, at every turn, runs up against the reality of Jesus Christ who alone leads persons into life-giving relationships with others.  And finally, Bonhoeffer's participation in the conspiracy against Hitler shows his courageous capacity to say no to evil: whether the tyrant is Adolf Hitler or the domestic abuser, Bonhoeffer's witness provides resources for real resistance, including even an ethics of tyrannicide should life itself be at stake.[49]

[31] Self-investment: Finally, the victim or survivor of abuse has great problems with self-investment, understood both as investment in the self in self-care, and investment of the self in the world in free and creative ways.  Bonhoeffer too had theological problems with self-investment in the first sense, that is, self-care and -attention.  For him, as for much of the dominant Christian tradition, the self is something to be repudiated, not invested in.  Yet for those who live on the underside of selfhood, real investment in the self may be the most radical and audacious aspect of all in following Jesus.  Those of the "wrong" gender, race, class, or sexual orientation who have been taught all their lives that their selves are defective, ugly, and inferior do not need to become more selfless but more defiant in claiming the selves they are given.  Even those like Bonhoeffer who are socialized into dominance find as they progress in the spiritual life that their own sense of self begins to shift from a false self of mastery, which they have attempted to flee, into a truer and more authentic self able to love and be loved, to act, and to rest.[50]   It is no coincidence that Bonhoeffer hesitantly gropes toward a way to include the self in love only toward the end of his life.  At the height of his resistance activity, with its unimaginable pressures and looming threat to his and his friends' very lives, that is, he begins to speak positively of self-love for the first time.  In a 1941 letter to his close friend Eberhard Bethge, who he feared was in danger of collapse under all the strain, he quotes approvingly a term he had recently read, namely "selfless self-love."[51]   Reflected within the context of an abiding friendship, his genuine care for Eberhard, he was learning to see the dangers of the uncompromising selflessness he had been endorsing for so long.  Also, he and Eberhard as conspiracy members were now no longer located among the privileged but among the threatened and marginalized-a shift in perspective that may well have allowed him to recognize the subversive importance of claiming self-care more explicitly.  This move to the underside, what he names in 1942 the "incomparable. . . view from below," is one he comes to cherish, and it transforms his thinking in crucial ways. 

[32] The term "self-investment" includes attention to both self and other, in a way that traditional language about "self-offering" or "pouring out the self" doesn't.  Investing in oneself and investing of oneself are inseparable, but for victims of abuse it is the first that is the creative growing edge, the risky new venture of faith.  Can Bonhoeffer's witness and spirituality help abuse victims recognize, name, and resist the intimate enemy who terrorizes them-can they help them see self-investment as, in and of itself, a form of radical discipleship?  I hope so. These brief reflections suggest glimpses of a concretely liberating reading of Bonhoeffer for many who are violently oppressed; perhaps they reflect directions he himself might have developed, had he survived his own journey through the underside of history.

Conclusion

[33] Clearly, Bonhoeffer was a commanding personality all his life.  Despite ceaseless attempts in his writings and prayer to foster utter self-surrender to others, he never remotely modeled the passive acquiescence this might seem to endorse.  From his university days, when he pulled out of voluntary military training exercises because he couldn't stand to submit to someone else's orders, to the end of his life, when under intense Nazi interrogation he first experienced forced submission, his nature was consistently that of the authority.  Had he taken completely to heart his own writings on the necessity of absolute surrender to the other, it seems doubtful he would ever have been able to mobilize organized public ecclesial resistance to the Nazis in the face of tremendous antagonism; help found the Confessing Church; serve as a leader in broader international circles galvanizing ecumenical support; push through a structured, monastic rule of life for a Protestant seminary; or muster the creative energy necessary to audaciously re-think fundamental categories of theology, spirituality, and ethics in a time of desperate struggle.

[34] We see, therefore, that Bonhoeffer's professed theology of radical personal surrender to the claims of the other is in fact set within a life whose actual contours look very different.  His experience of Jesus Christ liberated him from the sterile isolation of his commanding ego as its own god and allowed him to taste the sweetness of divine and human intimacy for the first time in his life-indeed, even to humble himself emotionally and spiritually in the deep honesty required in a life of confession, prayer, and discernment.  This, not the force of his personality, was the only way to life for him.  Yet it is clear that the depth of his spiritual vision and the power of his witness derive also from just this capacity for authoritative self-presentation in the world. To preach his theology of the transcendence of the Other to those whose posture is already one of self-abnegation does a grave disservice to his spiritual vision as a whole.

[35] Bonhoeffer's writings disclose a spirituality profoundly and concretely Christian: rich in prayer, friendship, and gratitude, and courageously, incarnationally engaged in the struggles and needs of the world. As a Christian who resisted evil in a time of tremendous ambiguity and complexity, Bonhoeffer reminds all who suffer abuse of the need for a well-discerned perception of reality, of the importance of courage in taking risky action according to the call of God, and of the necessity of rooting this-worldly faith in prayer and community. This examination of his work from the perspective of abused women also serve to caution us all against the tendency to oversimplify the relative place of self and other in the Christian spiritual life, especially regarding the careless use of undifferentiated language of "selflessness," "self-renunciation," or "self-transcendence."  Shirley's story invites us to consider carefully the concrete social location/s of our likely audiences as well.  Ultimately our consideration of these issues draws us into the mysteries of human relationality, social configurations, and the very structure of the psyche itself, whose extraordinarily complex dynamics of domination and submission, resistance and surrender, make these questions unendingly provocative.  We are reminded again of the gift of listening carefully to long-silenced voices in ourselves and others, and of the transformations that can result when they are well heard, transformations of dominant notions of self, other, sin, power, and the actual redeeming work of Jesus Christ in real human lives.

 

[1]  Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke (hereafter DBW), ed. Eberhard Bethge et al. (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1986-98). In English, they are in the process of being translated, appearing as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (hereafter DBWE), gen. ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996- ). The volume I am translating is Konspiration und Haft: 1940-1945 (DBW 16), ed. Jørgen Glenthøj, Ulrich Kabitz, and Wolf Krötke (1996).

[2]  Christie Cozad Neuger, "Narratives of Harm: Setting the Developmental Context for Intimate Violence," in In Her Own Time: Women and Developmental Issues in Pastoral Care, ed. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 86.

[3]  Several short studies trace Bonhoeffer's attitudes toward women. See Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz, "'Die Ehre der Frau, dem Manne zu dienen': Zum Frauenbild Dietrich Bonhoeffers," in Wie Theologen Frauen sehen, ed. Renate Jost and Ursula Kubera (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Verlag, 1993), 98-126; Renate Bethge, "Bonhoeffer and the Role of Women," Church and Society 85 (July/August 1995): 34-52; René van Eyden, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Understanding of Male and Female," in Bonhoeffer's Ethics: Old Europe and New Frontiers, ed. Guy Carter et al. (Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1991), 200-207.

[4]  Throughout his life, he explicitly defends patriarchy (which he terms "patriarchalism") as belonging to the very creation itself, prior to the fall. He distinguishes "patriarchalism understood as punishment" (after the fall) from the "good and necessary" patriarchalism of the primal creation (Sanctorum Communio, ed. Clifford Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens, DBWE 1 (1998), 97; see also 205, 207, 263). Thus for him it is not women's subordination itself that is the mark of human sin but precisely women's chafing at this God-ordained hierarchy, that is, their seeing it as a punishment!

[5]  The significance of this reading, therefore, is not limited simply to its applicability to abuse victims and survivors. Rather, those who suffer abuse represent an extreme instance of patterns of submissive selfhood found in various configurations throughout traditional Western female socialization, as well as in the subjugation of nondominant males. Thus many women who never endure physical assault, or men who do, may find elements of this analysis pertinent to their own experience as well, to the extent that their socialization or subsequent relationships have participated in the same dynamics of silencing and submission.

[6]  Sandra Schneiders, "The Study of Christian Spirituality: Contours and Dynamics of a Discipline," Christian Spirituality Bulletin 6 (Spring 1998): 1, 3.

[7]  Schneiders, "The Study of Christian Spirituality, 3.

[8]  Regarding the study of spirituality, Schneiders notes, "Spirituality as an academic discipline is intrinsically and irreducibly interdisciplinary because the object it studies, transformative Christian experience as such, is multi-faceted." Schneiders, "The Study of Christian Spirituality," 3.

[9]  This emphasis on the particular in Christian experience is of primary importance for the discipline of Christian spirituality. See, for example, Schneiders, "A Hermeneutical Approach to the Study of Christian Spirituality," Christian Spirituality Bulletin 2 (Spring 1994): 10f.; and Michael Downey, Understanding Christian Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997), 119ff.
It is also one of the key contributions of Bonhoeffer himself, whose entire life work reflects a highly incarnational and closely reasoned preference for the actual over the ideal, correspondence with concrete reality just as it is, and rejection of systems of abstraction or universalization. He develops this idea most fully in his Ethic (DBW 6: 260-69). Thus this essay's Christian spirituality approach is uniquely "Bonhoefferean" also, in its attempts in both critique and constructive retrieval to try to do justice to the complexity of concrete human experience around these questions of selfhood, gender, and spiritual formation.

[10]  Clifford J. Green, Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999).

[11]  See, for example, Green, Bonhoeffer, 78. Here Green writes, "The man with the 'autonomous self-understanding' who considers himself capable, by his own knowing, of finding the truth about human existence and placing himself in that truth...subjects everything to his own authority and power, dominating and violating reality; he 'masters' other people, nature, and even God."

[12]  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being (hereafter AB), trans. H. Martin Rumscheidt, ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd., Jr., DBWE 2 (1996), 137-41. I am deliberately citing this text in the version used by Green, who alters the newly published, inclusive-language translation of Act and Being in order to revert to the masculine-language pronouns of the German original. He does this to emphasize his thesis that Bonhoeffer's writing here is self-referential; that is, that the experience referred to is that of Bonhoeffer himself (Green, Bonhoeffer, 92; see also note 36 on page 78).]

[13]  AB 42.

[14]  Green, Bonhoeffer, 79. In reference to Act and Being, from which these passages are taken, Bonhoeffer's closest friend Eberhard Bethge writes in his biography, "This highly abstract discourse, which the uninitiated are hardly able to follow, concealed a passionate personal involvement. Bonhoeffer's deepest feelings were involved" (Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography [hereafter DB], trans. Eric Mosbacher et al., rev. and ed. Victoria J. Barnett [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], 134).

[15]  Akt und Sein, ed. Hans-Richard Reuter, DBW 2 (1988), 36, 58, 61.

[16]  Akt und Sein, 144f, 149.

[17]  Akt und Sein, 89f, 136, 152.

[18]  Note that in his Ethik, Bonhoeffer himself uses the term in both senses: that is, both in reference to bodily rape (179, 212f., 296) and in its metaphorical sense of extreme violation (among others, see 107, 134, 168, 178, 217, 258, 268, 342); p. 168 refers also to the Vergewaltiger, the rapist/violator. Ethik 168, 178, and especially 134, including also note 37, are examples in which the literal and metaphorical meanings are very nearly indistinguishable. All page citations from Ethik, ed. Ilse Tödt et al., DBW 6 (1992).

[19]  Sanctorum Communio, 45ff., 49ff., 54-57.

[20]  Sanctorum Communio, 45, 47, and passim.

[21]  Sanctorum Communio, 54.

[22]  Green, Bonhoeffer, 111 and passim.

[23]  In the Portrait that opens his biography, Bethge writes, "Dietrich's smile was very friendly and warm. . . .In conversation, he was an attentive listener, asking questions in a manner that gave his partner confidence and led him (sic) to say more than he thought he could. Bonhoeffer was incapable of treating anyone in a cursory fashion. He preferred small gatherings to large parties, because he devoted himself entirely to the person he was with. . . .[His ability to work with great focus] was accompanied by a willingness to be interrupted, and even a craving for company when playing music....He liked talking to children and took them seriously" (DB xvii-xviii). Many of the anecdotes related in I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann and Ronald Gregor Smith, trans. Käthe Gregor Smith (London: Collins, 1966), confirm these statements in reminiscences about Bonhoeffer's gifts for friendship and warmth.

[24]  Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).

[25]  This sort of language occurs throughout Benjamin's book in reference to the dominating or aggressive form of selfhood traditionally formed in boys. Cf. Benjamin, 64ff., 67f., 70f., 83f., 163, 190f. Here are characteristic phrases and images with clear resonance to Bonhoeffer's descriptions of the human person: the experience of "the self encapsulated in a closed system-the omnipotent mind" (67), "unable to make 'live' contact with outside reality" (68) from within "the bubble of the self" (195). The "omnipotent self [is] imprisoned in his mind, reflecting on the world from behind a wall of glass" (190). The deepest wish of such a person is "to get outside the self into a shared reality" (73), "to break the encasement of the isolated self" (83). This sort of dominating self is marked by "grandiosity and self-absorption...flying off into space [with]...no limits, no otherness. The world now seems empty of all human life, there is no one to connect with, 'the world is all me'" (70f.). Later in the book, she notes that the "damage...[inflicted] on the male psyche...[is] disguised as mastery and invulnerability" (161).

[26]  Statistics repeatedly indicate that "95 to 98 percent of battered spouses are women." Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church's Response (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 108.

[27]  Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, 56f.

[28]  Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, 61. For Freud, see "The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924)," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works 19 (London: Hogarth Press, 1953- ), 155-72. Benjamin cites also Leo Bersani, Baudelaire and Freud (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977) at this point.

[29]  The characteristic effects of domestic violence as described in the following paragraphs are drawn from various sources, especially Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence-from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 74-95. For additional psychological research, see for example, Jana L. Jasinski and Linda Williams, eds., Partner Violence (Wellesley, MA: Stone Center: 1998). For theological and pastoral considerations on the subject of domestic violence, see among others Neuger (cited in note 2); Cooper-White, "Battering" (100-125); and Carol Adams and Marie M. Fortune, eds., Violence Against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook (New York: Continuum, 1995).

[30]  Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 86.

[31]  Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar, 102.

[32]  To use the language of Sanctorum Communio, the abuser needs to grow in the direction of the "openness" of the self toward others, while the abuse victim needs to learn to recognize and protect her own "closedness." Cf. Sanctorum Communio 65-80.

[33]  Bernice Martin, "Whose Soul Is It Anyway? Domestic Tyranny and the Suffocated Soul," in On Losing the Soul: Essays in the Social Psychology of Religion, ed. Richard K. Fenn and Donald Capps (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995), 69-96. Another theorist uses the image of "silencing" of the self to describe the effacing which occurs in depression: Dana Crowley Jack, Silencing the Self: Women and Depression (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991). Finally, Janet Jacobs explores the "endangered" self with particular attention to women suffering violence: "The Endangered Female Self and the Search for Identity," in The Endangered Self, ed. Richard K. Fenn and Donald Capps (Princeton, NJ: Center for Religion, Self, and Society, 1992), 37-46.

[34]  For material concerning spiritual formation of victims of violence, see in addition to those texts already cited Mary Jo Barrett, "Healing from Trauma: The Quest for Spirituality," in Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy, ed. Froma Walsh (New York: Guilford Press, 1999), 193-208; and Mary John Mananzan et al., eds., Women Resisting Violence: Spirituality for Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996).

[35]  Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, 41ff., 46 (footnote), 126ff. This language of the safe "holding space" was developed by D. W. Winnicott; see for instance "The Capacity to Be Alone," in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (New York: International Universities Press, 1965).

[36]  See Theologie und Freundschaft: Wechselwirkungen: Eberhard Bethge und Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Christian Gremmels and Wolfgang Huber (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1994). For Bonhoeffer's understanding of the transformative power of confession, which for him took place within the context of this friendship, see Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, DBWE 5 (1996), 108-18.

[37]  See Theologie und Freundschaft: Wechselwirkungen: Eberhard Bethge und Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Christian Gremmels and Wolfgang Huber (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1994). For Bonhoeffer's understanding of the transformative power of confession, which for him took place within the context of this friendship, see Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, DBWE 5 (1996), 108-18.

[38]  Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 281, 286.

[39]  Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 57-76, 199ff., and passim.

[40]  Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 59, 62, 74, 85-87, 89, 116, 118, 125, 127, 133f., 150, 153, 170.

[41]  Bonhoeffer does not develop a sacramental spirituality as explicitly as his focus on the living Word, but he does cherish the Lord's Supper and in particular its physicality in uniting Christians' flesh with Jesus' own and that of one another. See, for example, Life Together, 29, 117f. On his sense of Jesus as the one "for others," see DBW 8:558.

[42]  This is Bonhoeffer's view, and his interpreters develop it as well. See, for example, Tiemo Peters, "Der andere ist unendlich wichtig," in Die Präsenz des verdrängten Gottes: Glaube, Religionslosigkeit und Weltverantwortung nach Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Christian Gremmels and Ilse Tödt (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1987), 166-84.

[43]  Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 1952), was the first to posit woman as the primordial "other."

[44]  Caroline Walker Bynum has written of the Middle Ages' fertile interweavings of these themes with Christian imagery. See her Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). The association continues in contemporary American culture as well, as victims of eating disorders, for instance, testify in wrenching and complex ways.

[45]  DBW 6: 267, 294f., 323-29.

[46]  Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 112.

[47]  Life Together 41, 43ff.

[48]  Bonhoeffer, Discipleship 58, 61ff., 78ff., 92-99.

[49]  DBW 6:272ff. Bonhoeffer's reflections on tyrannicide are never, in any way, intended to justify the terrible sin of murder but rather to provide ethical tools to help those embroiled in inescapable guilt to discern the leading of God in responsibility for the coming generation. See Green's analysis of this material in his section entitled "Christian Ethics, Coup d'Etat, and Tyrannicide," Bonhoeffer, 304ff.

[50]  The terminology of true and false self emerged first in the work of psychologist Karen Horney. D.W. Winnicott developed it further, as did Thomas Merton in the area of spiritual formation. See Karen Horney, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (New York: Norton, 1937), 119-20, and Neurosis and Human Growth (New York: Norton, 1950), 168; D.W. Winnicott, "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self," in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (New York: International Universities Press, 1965); on Merton, see Anne Carr, A Search for Wisdom and Spirit: Thomas Merton's Theology of the Self (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).

[51]  DBW 16:65, also 71; Bonhoeffer is citing Josef Pieper, Zucht und Maß: Über die vierte Kardinalstugend (Leipzig, 1939), 16f. See also DBW 8:417f., letter of May 6, 1944.

 

End Notes

1  Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke (hereafter DBW), ed. Eberhard Bethge et al. (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1986-98). In English, they are in the process of being translated, appearing as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (hereafter DBWE), gen. ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996- ). The volume I am translating is Konspiration und Haft: 1940-1945 (DBW 16), ed. Jørgen Glenthøj, Ulrich Kabitz, and Wolf Krötke (1996).

2  Christie Cozad Neuger, "Narratives of Harm: Setting the Developmental Context for Intimate Violence," in In Her Own Time: Women and Developmental Issues in Pastoral Care, ed. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 86.

3  Several short studies trace Bonhoeffer's attitudes toward women. See Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz, "'Die Ehre der Frau, dem Manne zu dienen': Zum Frauenbild Dietrich Bonhoeffers," in Wie Theologen Frauen sehen, ed. Renate Jost and Ursula Kubera (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Verlag, 1993), 98-126; Renate Bethge, "Bonhoeffer and the Role of Women," Church and Society 85 (July/August 1995): 34-52; René van Eyden, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Understanding of Male and Female," in Bonhoeffer's Ethics: Old Europe and New Frontiers, ed. Guy Carter et al. (Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1991), 200-207.

4  Throughout his life, he explicitly defends patriarchy (which he terms "patriarchalism") as belonging to the very creation itself, prior to the fall. He distinguishes "patriarchalism understood as punishment" (after the fall) from the "good and necessary" patriarchalism of the primal creation (Sanctorum Communio, ed. Clifford Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens, DBWE 1 (1998), 97; see also 205, 207, 263). Thus for him it is not women's subordination itself that is the mark of human sin but precisely women's chafing at this God-ordained hierarchy, that is, their seeing it as a punishment!

5  The significance of this reading, therefore, is not limited simply to its applicability to abuse victims and survivors. Rather, those who suffer abuse represent an extreme instance of patterns of submissive selfhood found in various configurations throughout traditional Western female socialization, as well as in the subjugation of nondominant males. Thus many women who never endure physical assault, or men who do, may find elements of this analysis pertinent to their own experience as well, to the extent that their socialization or subsequent relationships have participated in the same dynamics of silencing and submission.

6  Sandra Schneiders, "The Study of Christian Spirituality: Contours and Dynamics of a Discipline," Christian Spirituality Bulletin 6 (Spring 1998): 1, 3.

7  Schneiders, "The Study of Christian Spirituality, 3.

8  Regarding the study of spirituality, Schneiders notes, "Spirituality as an academic discipline is intrinsically and irreducibly interdisciplinary because the object it studies, transformative Christian experience as such, is multi-faceted." Schneiders, "The Study of Christian Spirituality," 3.

9  This emphasis on the particular in Christian experience is of primary importance for the discipline of Christian spirituality. See, for example, Schneiders, "A Hermeneutical Approach to the Study of Christian Spirituality," Christian Spirituality Bulletin 2 (Spring 1994): 10f.; and Michael Downey, Understanding Christian Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997), 119ff.
It is also one of the key contributions of Bonhoeffer himself, whose entire life work reflects a highly incarnational and closely reasoned preference for the actual over the ideal, correspondence with concrete reality just as it is, and rejection of systems of abstraction or universalization. He develops this idea most fully in his Ethic (DBW 6: 260-69). Thus this essay's Christian spirituality approach is uniquely "Bonhoefferean" also, in its attempts in both critique and constructive retrieval to try to do justice to the complexity of concrete human experience around these questions of selfhood, gender, and spiritual formation.

10  Clifford J. Green, Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999).

11  See, for example, Green, Bonhoeffer, 78. Here Green writes, "The man with the 'autonomous self-understanding' who considers himself capable, by his own knowing, of finding the truth about human existence and placing himself in that truth...subjects everything to his own authority and power, dominating and violating reality; he 'masters' other people, nature, and even God."

12  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being (hereafter AB), trans. H. Martin Rumscheidt, ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd., Jr., DBWE 2 (1996), 137-41. I am deliberately citing this text in the version used by Green, who alters the newly published, inclusive-language translation of Act and Being in order to revert to the masculine-language pronouns of the German original. He does this to emphasize his thesis that Bonhoeffer's writing here is self-referential; that is, that the experience referred to is that of Bonhoeffer himself (Green, Bonhoeffer, 92; see also note 36 on page 78).]

13  AB 42.

14  Green, Bonhoeffer, 79. In reference to Act and Being, from which these passages are taken, Bonhoeffer's closest friend Eberhard Bethge writes in his biography, "This highly abstract discourse, which the uninitiated are hardly able to follow, concealed a passionate personal involvement. Bonhoeffer's deepest feelings were involved" (Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography [hereafter DB], trans. Eric Mosbacher et al., rev. and ed. Victoria J. Barnett [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], 134).

15  Akt und Sein, ed. Hans-Richard Reuter, DBW 2 (1988), 36, 58, 61.

16  Akt und Sein, 144f, 149.

17  Akt und Sein, 89f, 136, 152.

18  Note that in his Ethik, Bonhoeffer himself uses the term in both senses: that is, both in reference to bodily rape (179, 212f., 296) and in its metaphorical sense of extreme violation (among others, see 107, 134, 168, 178, 217, 258, 268, 342); p. 168 refers also to the Vergewaltiger, the rapist/violator. Ethik 168, 178, and especially 134, including also note 37, are examples in which the literal and metaphorical meanings are very nearly indistinguishable. All page citations from Ethik, ed. Ilse Tödt et al., DBW 6 (1992).

19  Sanctorum Communio, 45ff., 49ff., 54-57.

20  Sanctorum Communio, 45, 47, and passim.

21  Sanctorum Communio, 54.

22  Green, Bonhoeffer, 111 and passim.

23  In the Portrait that opens his biography, Bethge writes, "Dietrich's smile was very friendly and warm. . . .In conversation, he was an attentive listener, asking questions in a manner that gave his partner confidence and led him (sic) to say more than he thought he could. Bonhoeffer was incapable of treating anyone in a cursory fashion. He preferred small gatherings to large parties, because he devoted himself entirely to the person he was with. . . .[His ability to work with great focus] was accompanied by a willingness to be interrupted, and even a craving for company when playing music....He liked talking to children and took them seriously" (DB xvii-xviii). Many of the anecdotes related in I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann and Ronald Gregor Smith, trans. Käthe Gregor Smith (London: Collins, 1966), confirm these statements in reminiscences about Bonhoeffer's gifts for friendship and warmth.

24  Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).

25  This sort of language occurs throughout Benjamin's book in reference to the dominating or aggressive form of selfhood traditionally formed in boys. Cf. Benjamin, 64ff., 67f., 70f., 83f., 163, 190f. Here are characteristic phrases and images with clear resonance to Bonhoeffer's descriptions of the human person: the experience of "the self encapsulated in a closed system-the omnipotent mind" (67), "unable to make 'live' contact with outside reality" (68) from within "the bubble of the self" (195). The "omnipotent self [is] imprisoned in his mind, reflecting on the world from behind a wall of glass" (190). The deepest wish of such a person is "to get outside the self into a shared reality" (73), "to break the encasement of the isolated self" (83). This sort of dominating self is marked by "grandiosity and self-absorption...flying off into space [with]...no limits, no otherness. The world now seems empty of all human life, there is no one to connect with, 'the world is all me'" (70f.). Later in the book, she notes that the "damage...[inflicted] on the male psyche...[is] disguised as mastery and invulnerability" (161).

26  Statistics repeatedly indicate that "95 to 98 percent of battered spouses are women." Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church's Response (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 108.

27  Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, 56f.

28  Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, 61. For Freud, see "The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924)," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works 19 (London: Hogarth Press, 1953- ), 155-72. Benjamin cites also Leo Bersani, Baudelaire and Freud (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977) at this point.

29  The characteristic effects of domestic violence as described in the following paragraphs are drawn from various sources, especially Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence-from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 74-95. For additional psychological research, see for example, Jana L. Jasinski and Linda Williams, eds., Partner Violence (Wellesley, MA: Stone Center: 1998). For theological and pastoral considerations on the subject of domestic violence, see among others Neuger (cited in note 2); Cooper-White, "Battering" (100-125); and Carol Adams and Marie M. Fortune, eds., Violence Against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook (New York: Continuum, 1995).

30  Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 86.

31  Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar, 102.

32  To use the language of Sanctorum Communio, the abuser needs to grow in the direction of the "openness" of the self toward others, while the abuse victim needs to learn to recognize and protect her own "closedness." Cf. Sanctorum Communio 65-80.

33  Bernice Martin, "Whose Soul Is It Anyway? Domestic Tyranny and the Suffocated Soul," in On Losing the Soul: Essays in the Social Psychology of Religion, ed. Richard K. Fenn and Donald Capps (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995), 69-96. Another theorist uses the image of "silencing" of the self to describe the effacing which occurs in depression: Dana Crowley Jack, Silencing the Self: Women and Depression (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991). Finally, Janet Jacobs explores the "endangered" self with particular attention to women suffering violence: "The Endangered Female Self and the Search for Identity," in The Endangered Self, ed. Richard K. Fenn and Donald Capps (Princeton, NJ: Center for Religion, Self, and Society, 1992), 37-46.

34  For material concerning spiritual formation of victims of violence, see in addition to those texts already cited Mary Jo Barrett, "Healing from Trauma: The Quest for Spirituality," in Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy, ed. Froma Walsh (New York: Guilford Press, 1999), 193-208; and Mary John Mananzan et al., eds., Women Resisting Violence: Spirituality for Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996).

35  Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, 41ff., 46 (footnote), 126ff. This language of the safe "holding space" was developed by D. W. Winnicott; see for instance "The Capacity to Be Alone," in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (New York: International Universities Press, 1965).

36  See Theologie und Freundschaft: Wechselwirkungen: Eberhard Bethge und Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Christian Gremmels and Wolfgang Huber (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1994). For Bonhoeffer's understanding of the transformative power of confession, which for him took place within the context of this friendship, see Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, DBWE 5 (1996), 108-18.

37  See Theologie und Freundschaft: Wechselwirkungen: Eberhard Bethge und Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Christian Gremmels and Wolfgang Huber (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1994). For Bonhoeffer's understanding of the transformative power of confession, which for him took place within the context of this friendship, see Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, DBWE 5 (1996), 108-18.

38  Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 281, 286.

39  Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 57-76, 199ff., and passim.

40  Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 59, 62, 74, 85-87, 89, 116, 118, 125, 127, 133f., 150, 153, 170.

41  Bonhoeffer does not develop a sacramental spirituality as explicitly as his focus on the living Word, but he does cherish the Lord's Supper and in particular its physicality in uniting Christians' flesh with Jesus' own and that of one another. See, for example, Life Together, 29, 117f. On his sense of Jesus as the one "for others," see DBW 8:558.

42  This is Bonhoeffer's view, and his interpreters develop it as well. See, for example, Tiemo Peters, "Der andere ist unendlich wichtig," in Die Präsenz des verdrängten Gottes: Glaube, Religionslosigkeit und Weltverantwortung nach Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Christian Gremmels and Ilse Tödt (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1987), 166-84.

43  Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 1952), was the first to posit woman as the primordial "other."

44  Caroline Walker Bynum has written of the Middle Ages' fertile interweavings of these themes with Christian imagery. See her Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). The association continues in contemporary American culture as well, as victims of eating disorders, for instance, testify in wrenching and complex ways.

45  DBW 6: 267, 294f., 323-29.

46  Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 112.

47  Life Together 41, 43ff.

48  Bonhoeffer, Discipleship 58, 61ff., 78ff., 92-99.

49  DBW 6:272ff. Bonhoeffer's reflections on tyrannicide are never, in any way, intended to justify the terrible sin of murder but rather to provide ethical tools to help those embroiled in inescapable guilt to discern the leading of God in responsibility for the coming generation. See Green's analysis of this material in his section entitled "Christian Ethics, Coup d'Etat, and Tyrannicide," Bonhoeffer, 304ff.

50  The terminology of true and false self emerged first in the work of psychologist Karen Horney. D.W. Winnicott developed it further, as did Thomas Merton in the area of spiritual formation. See Karen Horney, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (New York: Norton, 1937), 119-20, and Neurosis and Human Growth (New York: Norton, 1950), 168; D.W. Winnicott, "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self," in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (New York: International Universities Press, 1965); on Merton, see Anne Carr, A Search for Wisdom and Spirit: Thomas Merton's Theology of the Self (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).

51  DBW 16:65, also 71; Bonhoeffer is citing Josef Pieper, Zucht und Maß: Über die vierte Kardinalstugend (Leipzig, 1939), 16f. See also DBW 8:417f., letter of May 6, 1944.

 

 

© August 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics 
Volume 3, Issue 8