Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Liberation Theology

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Theology of Liberation is a source of hope for the world's downtrodden, particularly in underdeveloped countries. From his theology of liberation has sprung emulators, and many liberation theologians sing his praises. Born out of an era of hate and war, his liberation theology contrasted Adolf Hitler's aims of violence and genocide. Bonhoeffer's four segments of theology, solidarity with the oppressed, a suffering God, non-religious, this-worldly Christianity, and the servant church, serve as a framework for third world countries in their endeavors to improve life. To advocate these aims for Christianity, Bonhoeffer offers three steps to advocate, starting with protesting, followed by protecting the victims, and lastly, bringing down the government. As a parallel to Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador followed a similar path in his country. Bonhoeffer's segments of his theology of liberation and steps to advocate can be seen in Romero. Their approaches come together in their dealings with the idolatry of national security and acting as the voice of the deprived. Finally, Bonhoeffer and Romero act as models for today's political affairs, such as militarism.

One of the major problems of the church is a lack of perspective from those in a privileged position. There is a divide between the commanding people in the church and the oppressed victims. Bonhoeffer's solidarity with the oppressed urges the ecclesiastical and political leaders to look at the world from the other side, a "view from below." To see through the eyes of the victim gives the upper classes a glimpse of the suffering of the oppressed. Explaining the importance of understanding the point of view of the poor, Bonhoeffer said, "There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled -- in short, from the perspective of those who suffer." With this alternate view, the privileged may have an inclination to help those in need.

Bonhoeffer continues with sympathy for the poor, who are Jesus Christ, and the Christian's responsibility to welcome the beggars and homeless. Privileged Christians should help their neighbor, as Jesus is within them. During his stay in America, Bonhoeffer found the connection between poverty and racism. Bonhoeffer saw the oppression of African-Americans in the United States as a comparison to the prejudice against Jews in Nazi Germany. Again, he made the portrayal of Jesus Christ in the "least of people" who lack human rights. Christ's presence in these people is a challenge to Christians to help those in need. For the Jews, Bonhoeffer asks, "Who will speak up for those who have no voice?" He believed attacks against the Jews were tantamount to attacks against Christ, and he supported the anti-Nazi movement, despite the danger of the government.

Bonhoeffer's solidarity with the oppressed can be also seen in Romero's struggles in El Salvador. Called by his people, "the voice of those who have no voice," Romero defended the oppressed poor, fighting to improve the problems faced by the lower class. The Archbishop had a bond with the poor, similar to Bonhoeffer's bond with the poor he formed during his times in Barcelona and Harlem. When murdered bodies were discovered, Romero spoke up and asked why they murdered were of the poor and why they were killed without a trial. Romero acted appropriately as the religious leader, confronting the evils against the poor that he observed.

From solidarity with the oppressed, Bonhoeffer's next segment of his theology of liberation is the theology of a suffering God. As Jesus gave his life for all Christians, His followers must reciprocate "not only [in] the promise of resurrection, but the paradoxical power that proclaims life in the midst of death and confesses that God's love overcomes all forces of evil." Both Jesus and Christians must perform sacrifices, and God suffers along with the sufferers. To portray God on a more human level, Bonhoeffer brings Him to Earth through His suffering as His way to help us. Like people, God also has weakness, and "only the suffering God can help." As Bonhoeffer said there must be solidarity with the oppressed, God shows His solidarity by suffering with the poor and provides a looming presence.

For Romero, the suffering God could be seen in the cross, which represented the horrors of the world that continued to occur. Christ's suffering on the cross is ongoing, symbolizing his constant struggle during his life and after. "From the beginning of Jesus' public life, these denunciations brought in their frequent attacks upon him (Matt 2: 1-2). They brought personal risk and even persecution. The persecution was to go on through the whole of his life until, at the end, he was accused of blasphemy (Mar 14:64) and of being an agitator among the masses." Christ remains on the cross as long as injustice exists, and Romero fought against the injustice until he was martyred. Romero received an eloquent tribute when Director of the Council on Theology and Culture of the Presbyterian Church in the United States said, "His resurrection is not a future event. It is a present reality. His is life for us now, and that is why we must defeat the forces of death in El Salvador and wherever Jesus continues to be crucified." Just as Jesus suffers on the cross, Romero suffers in his death and will continue to suffer until oppression ends in El Salvador and the rest of the world.

From the suffering God, Bonhoeffer's next segment of his theology of liberation is a non-religious, this-worldly Christianity, which is the intertwined relationship between religious life and secular life. During Bonhoeffer's experiences in Nazi Germany, he witnessed a separation of Christian values when dealing with the government. Rather than voicing concerns about the government conflicting with religious values, Christians remained silent, avoiding from punishment for disobeying the government. In reaction to the inactivity of fellow Christians, Bonhoeffer said, "Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior." Christianity should take on a non-religious, this-worldly approach where institutionalized religion is shunned, and Christians become involved in the problems faced in the country. Wary of Christian's faint-heartedness, Bonhoeffer said, "The 'religious act' is always something partial, 'faith' is something whole, involving the whole of one's life." To be true Christians, they must incorporate faith with everyday life.

Like Bonhoeffer, Romero faced danger if he spoke out in support of his Christianity and contrasting the government. Realizing the danger of his mission for Christ, Romero continued at the risk of his life. He reasoned his approach by saying, "Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell people of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others " Undaunted, Romero carried on the church's role in secular life, sacrificing his life for serving others.

Serving others directly relates to the final segment of Bonhoeffer's liberation theology, the servant church. In Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer observed churches that acted in their own self-interest, "refusing to take 'risks for others.' " As Jesus served others, Bonhoeffer said, "The church is the church only when it exists for others." Unfortunately, when churches do begin to help those in need, they are reprimanded for their efforts by the national security state. Nevertheless, the servant church should act like Jesus, to serve others despite penalties that they may face. In El Salvador, Romero asked for a similar effort from the church, "to burst the chains of its bondage to political and social ideologies a church like Christ existing solely to serve people."

To accomplish the goals of his theology of liberation, Bonhoeffer presented three steps to advocate. First, the oppressed must speak out and protest the repression that they face. Bonhoeffer said, "To confront the state boldly and to demand an explanation of the unjust laws." Romero followed this first step in angry protests and "denouncing injustice and informing the peoples of the world of the true nature of the repression of his people." Bonhoeffer's second step is to protect the victims, "even if they do not belong to the Christian community." He questioning of murders of people in his country and why they occurring without trials. The third and final step of Bonhoeffer's steps to advocate is to bring down the government. Romero attempted "to jam a spoke in the wheel" by writing President of the United States Jimmy Carter, asking him to end the arming of El Salvador's military because a "systemic violation of human rights" had escalated. In Nazi Germany, the decision to engage in a violent act to liberate a nation, a people, a world from the killings that went on during the Hitler era became necessary because religious life and secular life combined to indicate a need to halt the progress of the Nazi movement as it threatened the freedom of the world.

Standing in opposition to Christianity's prosperity in Nazi Germany and El Salvador was the idolatry of national security. To keep the peace, Bonhoeffer pointed out, the security state resorted to violence, spreading its influence over the churches. Religion posed a threat to national security, therefore, had to be suppressed. Bonhoeffer criticized the national security state, saying, "Everyone not at one with the state is declared a national enemy, and the requirements of national security are used to justify assassinations, disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment, acts of terrorism, kidnappings, acts of torture ." With the interest of national security, the government approves such crimes. Romero went a step further, suggesting that the upper class greedily kept the security state in place in order to safeguard their place in the social hierarchy.

This national security state connects to the rampant militarism that dominates world politics today. "The idolatry of national security with its consequent militarism and cult of violence as a means of solving national and international problems" is a point that can be seen in the United States, specifically military exports. While the government keeps military spending high, military exports are also being increased. As the United States ships newer military technology out to the world, danger increases, as does the American need to have the top-of-the-line military weaponry. Military expenditures increase, citing the danger to national security, at the cost of budget spending on programs such as schools and health care. The viscous cycle continues, as the race of militarism quickens, and the national security state is maintained. However, other government programs lack the necessary funds to improve. They are left in the dust of the newest airplane fighters cruising across the sky.

Still applicable in present day, Bonhoeffer's theology of liberation is a source of hope for oppressed people during any era. The impact Bonhoeffer had on Romero is unmistakable, and the positive influence of liberation theology can be seen in underdeveloped countries. Bonhoeffer's four segments and three steps to advocate are helpful beginnings for countries looking to improve their quality of life. Following Bonhoeffer's liberation theology is a movement in the right direction for a downtrodden country.

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