A friend from church has been reading my essays on Life Together and asked a question, “How is Trust Developed in the church’s life together when church is one of the primary ways of learning and giving love”. It is this question that I want to explore from the viewpoint of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It will require (re)defining terms, reorienting our view to see the world through Bonhoeffer’s eyes. Once we do these things, we will have a handle on the nature of Bonhoefferian trust. From there, we can see how trust is cultivated and how it is destroyed.
For Bonhoeffer, he writes very little on relational trust while expending a great amount on trust of God. This is insightful. To understand relational trust in Bonhoeffer’s world, one must understand how Christ operates in Christian community. Jesus is not an ideal to strive towards in community, or a person that stands far off commanding love of people we cannot stand, instead he is the center of Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes,
Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ.
At the center of Christian community is Christ and this has profound implications. I love my brother or sister, “for Christ’s sake”. Christ-centered relational love is focused on and a response to Christ’s love. Human love is different in that its object of love is “the other person”. This love wants “direct contact” with this other person; it then has hungers that the lover desires from the object of love. It is here that human love fails; no person can receive Christ’s love without Christ. And no person can love another human directly that will not hurt the other person. At its worse, human love wants to own— “capture by every means”—the other. Even if it means that force is necessary; the lover has wants and eventually demands them from the one loved.
Bonhoeffer paints a picture of Christian community where Christ’s work is the compelling reason that we are together. He has redeemed us, so we are part of one family. As each person interacts with another person, he or she consciously and intentionally interacts with the one to be loved whil having his face upon Jesus. He loves because of Christ; he serves because of Christ; he listens because of Christ; he is gracious because of Christ. At the center of Christian relationships stand Christ.
This is why I can find the best in the other because I see Christ in him. This is why I can love my enemy because I see Christ in him. This is why community is not a club to come and go as one pleases. Instead, it is the place where Christ dwells. If I want to see him, I must see him in others. For Bonhoeffer, Christ in others is the surest way to experience Him. When my brother loves me, forgives me, helps me or speaks the words of biblical reproof or consolation, it is Christ who is speaking and Christ who is acting. This is why your actions matter!
It is here that we can begin to build Bonhoeffer’s understanding of interpersonal trust in Christian community. In Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer defines trust as, “placing our lives into the hands of others”. It grows as the brother or sister that I trust, reveals Christ to me in situation after situation. This is Christian trust according to Bonhoeffer. In a community centered solely on Christ’s presence and salvific love, where our interactions are interactions with Christ, we dare to trust Christ in the other. As we live this way, trust flourishes.
Sometimes, the best way to understand something is to see the opposite of it. For Bonhoeffer, the opposite of trust is mistrust. This is when I put my life in your hands and Christ is absent but you alone is present. The result is betrayal. Where this happens, “we live so poisoned by mistrust that we almost die from it”. This means that Christian community can be the vehicle of Christ’s love and acceptance where trust flourishes. Or it can be a place where all the brokenness and pain of human relationships invades the community of love.
I will end this essay with some of the ways mistrust grows in Christian community.
1) When we deal directly with a person and not in light of Christ in him, we do a great disservice. Even with the best of intentions, we end up feeding off this person or using himuntil there is nothing left. We cannot love our brother apart from the mediating reality of Christ.
2) Gossip kills Christian community. If by trust, my brother shares a sin, a weakness or a suffering with me and I share it with another, trust is diminished. It is triply dangerous. The one who gossips find out that he is not following Christ in the relationship. The one the gossiper shares with feeds off of betrayal and often becomes sick on it and enters into the sin of slander. And if the one gossiped about finds out about the gossip, he now knows that you can’t be trusted; he is ruined by the poison of betrayal; he has looked and Christ has not been found in you. Most often those who have left the church have encountered gossip and it has crushed trust in the church.
3) Slander is how the enemy destroys Christian community. Slander in the Greek is a derivation of the word “diablos”. it is the speech of our enemy. Slander happens when I take from what I hear from a third person but have not experienced myself to be true about another person. It happens when given the choice between believing the best—which is love—or believing the worse, I believe the worst and then share it with others. Slander happens when I do not consider the other side of the story from the involved parties. Slander happens when we stand silently when a brother or sister is being dealt with apart from the view and power of Christ. Wherever it is present, Satan is on the move. When unity—collective trust in Christ and one another—is not found, often it is because of slander.
Trust is essential for community. It is only possible if Christ is at the center. He alone enables us to dare to unveil what is true and he alone empowers us to receive the vulnerable gift. Through him, we become his agents of good. May this vision encourage us and challenge us. Christian community is centered on Christ.