February/March 2016 - Vol. 84

Ecce Homo 
Ecce Homo! Behold the Man!
 It was precisely the cross of Christ, the failure of Christ in the world,
which led to His success in history

by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Ecce homo!Behold the man! In Him the world was reconciled with God. It is not by its overthrowing but by its reconciliation that the world is subdued. It is not by ideals and programs or by conscience, duty, responsibility and virtue that reality can be confronted and overcome, but simply and solely by the perfect love of God.

Here again it is not by a general idea of love that this is achieved, but by the really lived love of God in Jesus Christ. This love of God does not withdraw from reality into noble souls secluded from the world. It experiences and suffers the reality of the world in all its hardness. The world exhausts its fury against the body of Christ. But, tormented, He forgives the world its sin. That is how the reconciliation is accomplished. Ecce homo!

The figure of the Reconciler, of the God-Man Jesus Christ, comes between God and the world and fills the center of all history. In this figure the secret of the world is laid bare, and in this figure there is revealed the secret of God. No abyss of evil can remain hidden from Him through whom the world is reconciled with God. But the abyss of the love of God encompasses even the most abysmal godlessness of the world. In a manner which passes all comprehension God reverses the judgement of justice and piety, declares Himself guilty towards the world, and thereby wipes out the world's guilt.

God Himself sets out on the path of humiliation and atonement, and thereby absolves the world. God is willing to be guilty of our guilt. He takes upon Himself the punishment and the suffering which this guilt has brought on us. God Himself answers for godlessness, love for hatred, the saint for the sinner. Now there is no more godlessness, no more hatred, no more sin which God has not taken upon Himself, suffered for an expiated. Now there is no more reality, no more world, but it is reconciled with God and at peace. God did this in His dear Son Jesus Christ. Ecce homo!

The Despiser of Men

Ecce homo!Behold the God who has become man, the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world. God loves man [human beings]. God loves the world. It is not an ideal man that He loves, but man as he is; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find abominable in man's opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, the real man, the real world, this is for God the ground for unfathomable love, and it is with this that He unites Himself utterly.

God becomes man, real man. While we are trying to grow out beyond our manhood, to leave the man behind us, God becomes man and we have to recognize that God wishes us men, too, to be real men. While we are distinguishing the pious from the ungodly, the good from the wicked, the noble from the mean, God makes no distinction at all in His love for the real man. He does not permit us to classify men and the world according to our own standards and to set ourselves up as judges over them. He leads us ad absurdum by Himself becoming a real man and a companion of sinners and thereby compelling us to become the judges of God. God sides with the real man and with the real world against all their accusers. Together with [human beings] and with the world He comes before the judges, so that the judges are now made the accused.

But it is not enough to say that God comes to men's help. This assertion rests upon an infinitely more profound one, and one whose significance is still more impenetrable. This is the assertion that in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ God took on manhood in the flesh. God secures His love against any suggestion that it is not genuine or that it is doubtful or uncertain, for He Himself enters into the life of man as man and takes upon Himself and carries in the flesh the nature, the character, and the guilt and suffering of man...

The news that God has become man strikes at the very heart of an age in which both the good and the wicked regard either scorn for man or the idolization of man as the highest attainable wisdom. The weaknesses of human nature are displayed more clearly in a time of storm than in the smooth course of more peaceful periods. In the face of totally unexpected threats and opportunities it is fear, desire, irresolution and brutality which reveal themselves as the motives for the actions of the overwhelming majority.

At such a time as this it is easy for the tyrannical despiser of men to exploit the baseness of the human heart, nurturing it and calling it by other names. Fear he calls responsibility. Desire he calls keenness. Irresolution becomes solidarity. Brutality becomes masterfulness. Human weaknesses are played upon with unchaste seductiveness, so that meanness and baseness are reproduced and multiplied ever anew. The vilest contempt for mankind goes about its sinister business with the holiest of protestations of devotion to the human cause.

And, as the base man grows baser, he becomes an ever more willing and adaptable tool in the hand of the tyrant. The small band of the upright are reviled. Their bravery is called insubordination; their self-control is called pharisaism; their independence arbitrariness and their masterfulness arrogance. For the tyrannical despiser of men popularity is the token of the highest love of mankind...

It is only through God's being made man that it is possible to know the real man and not to despise him. The real man can live before God, and we can allow the real man to live before God side by side with ourselves without either despising or deifying him. That is not to say that this is really a value on its own account. It is simply and solely because God has loved the real man and has taken him to Himself. The ground for God's love towards man does not lie in man but solely in God Himself. And again, the reason why we can live as real men and can love the real man at our side is to be found solely in the incarnation of God, in the unfathomable love of God for man. 

The Successful Man

Ecce homo!Behold the man sentenced by God, the figure of grief and pain. That is how the Reconciler of the world appears. The guilt of mankind has fallen upon Him. It casts Him into shame and death before God's judgement seat. This is the great price which God pays for reconciliation with the world. Only by God's executing judgement upon Himself can there be peace between Him and the world and between man and man. But the secret of this judgement, of this passion and death, is the love of God for the world and for man.

What befell Christ befalls every man in Him. It is only as one who is sentenced by God that man can live before God. Only the crucified man is at peace with God. It is in the figure of the Crucified that man recognizes and discovers himself. To be taken up by God, to be executed on the cross and reconciled, that is the reality of manhood.

In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done. Success heals the wounds of guilt. There is no sense in reproaching the successful man for his unvirtuous behavior, for this would be to remain in the past while the successful man strides forward from one deed to the next, conquering the future and securing the irrevocability of what has been done.

The successful man presents us with accomplished facts which can never again be reversed. What he destroys cannot be restored. What he constructs will acquire at least a prescriptive right in the next generation. No indictment can make good the guilt which the successful man has left behind him. The indictment falls silent with the passage of time, but the success remains and determines the course of history. The judges of history play a sad role in comparison with its protagonists. History rides rough-shod over their heads. With a frankness and off-handedness which no other earthly power could permit itself, history appeals in its own cause to the dictum that the end justifies the means.

So far we have been talking about facts and not about valuations. There are three possible attitudes which men and periods may adopt with regard to these facts.

When a successful figure becomes especially prominent and conspicuous, the majority give way to the idolization of success. They become blind to right and wrong, truth and untruth, fair play and foul play. They have eyes only for the deed, for the successful result. The moral and intellectual critical faculty is blunted. It is dazzled by the brilliance of the successful man and by the longing in some way to share in his success. It is not even seen that success is healing the wounds of guilt, for the guilt itself is no longer recognized. Success is simply identified with good. This attitude is genuine and pardonable only in a state of intoxication. When sobriety returns it can be achieved only at the price of a deep inner untruthfulness and conscious self-deception. This brings with it an inward rottenness from which there is scarcely a possibility of recovery...

The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard. Such thought is a denial of eternal justice. Neither the triumph of the successful nor the bitter hatred which the successful arouse in the hearts of the unsuccessful can ultimately overcome the world...

It is out of pure love that God is willing to let man stand before Him, and that is why He sentences man. It is a sentence of mercy that God pronounces on mankind in Christ. In the cross of Christ God confronts the successful man with the sanctification of pain, sorrow, humility, failure, poverty, loneliness and despair. That does not mean that all this has a value in itself, but it receives its sanctification from the love of God, the love which takes all this upon itself as its just reward. God's acceptance of the cross is His judgement upon the successful man. But the unsuccessful man must recognize that what enables him to stand before God is not his lack of success as such, not his position as a pariah, but solely the willing acceptance of the sentence passed on him by the divine love. It was precisely the cross of Christ, the failure of Christ in the world, which led to His success in history, but this is a mystery of the divine cosmic order and cannot be regarded as a general rule even though it is repeated from time to time in the sufferings of His Church.

Only in the cross of Christ, that is, as those upon whom sentence has been executed, do men achieve their true form. 

The Idolization of Death
Ecce homo!
Behold the man who has been taken to Himself by God, sentenced and executed and awakened by God to a new life. Behold the Risen One. The "yes" which God addresses to man has achieved its purpose through and beyond judgement and death. God's love for man has proved stronger than death. By God's miracle there has been created a new man, a new life, a new creature. "Life has secured the victory. It has overcome death." God's love has become the death of death and the life of man. Humanity has been made new in Jesus Christ, who became man, was crucified and rose again. What befell Christ befell all men, for Christ was man. The new man has been created.

The miracle of Christ's resurrection makes nonsense of that idolization of death which is prevalent among us today. Where death is the last thing, fear of death is combined with defiance. Where death is the last thing, earthly life is all or nothing. Boastful reliance on earthly eternities goes side by side with a frivolous playing with life. A convulsive acceptance and seizing hold of life stands cheek by jowl with indifference and contempt for life.

There is no clearer indication of the idolization of death than when a period claims to be building for eternity and yet life has no value in this period, or when big words are spoken of a new man, of a new world and of a new society which is to be ushered in, and yet all that is new is the destruction of life as we have it. The drastic acceptance or rejection of earthly life reveals that only death has any value here. To clutch at everything or to cast away everything is the reaction of one who believes fanatically in death.

But wherever it is recognized that the power of death has been broken, wherever the world of death is illumined by the miracle of the resurrection and of the new life, there no eternities are demanded of life but one takes of life what it offers, not all or nothing but good and evil, the important and the unimportant, joy and sorrow; one neither clings convulsively to life nor casts it frivolously away. One is content with the allotted span and one does not invest earthly things with the title of eternity; one allows to death the limited rights which it still possess. It is from beyond death that one expects the coming of the new man and of the new world, from the power by which death has been vanquished.

The risen Christ bears the new humanity within Himself, the final glorious "yes" which God addresses to the new man. It is true that mankind is still living the old life, but it is already beyond the old. It still lives in a world of death, but it is already beyond death. It still lives in a world of sin, but it is already beyond sin. The night is not yet over, but already the dawn is breaking.

The man whom God has taken to Himself, sentenced and awakened to a new life, this is Jesus Christ. In Him it is all mankind. It is ourselves. Only the form of Jesus Christ confronts the world and defeats it. And it is from this form alone that there comes the formation of a new world, a world which is reconciled with God.

This excerpt was originally published in German as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, edited by Eberhard Bethge, et al., by Chr. Kaiser Verlag / Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh, in 1998; Band 6, Illegale Theologenausbildung: Sammelvikariate 1937–1940, edited by Dirk Schulz. First English-language edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6, published by Fortress Press in 2009, translated from the German edition edited by Dirk Schulz ; English edition edited by Victoria J. Barnett; translated by Victoria J. Barnett … [et al.]; supplementary material translated by Douglas W. Stott.  
For another English translation of this work, see Meditations on the Cross by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pages 47-59,edited by Manfred Weber and translated by Douglas W. Stott, copyright © 1996 Kaiser/Gutersloher Verlagshaus, in Gutersloh. English translation Westminster John Knox Press 1998. 

Bonhoeffer at
                              Tegel PrisonDietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and a founding member of the Confessing Church. He was the first of the German theologians to speak out clearly against the persecution of the Jews and the evils of the Nazi ideology. In spring of 1935 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was called by the Confessing Church in Germany to take charge of an “illegal,” underground seminary at Finkenwalde, Germany (now Poland). He served as pastor, administrator, and teacher there until the seminary was closed down by Hitler's Gestapo in September,1937.

In the seminary at Finkenwalde Bonhoeffer taught the importance of shared life together as disciples of Christ. He was convinced that the renewal of the church would depend upon recovering the biblical understanding of the communal practices of Christian obedience and shared life. This is where true formation of discipleship could best flourish and mature.

Bonhoeffer’s teaching led to the formation of a community house for the seminarians to help them enter into and learn the practical disciplines of the Christian faith in community. In 1937 Bonhoeffer completed two books, Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. They were first published in German in 1939. Both books encompass Bonhoeffer’s theological understanding of what it means to live as a Christian community in the Body of Christ.

He was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo in April 1943. On April 8, 1945 he was hanged as a traitor in the Flossenburg concentration camp. As he left his cell on his way to execution he said to his companion, "This is the end – but for me, the beginning of life."

photo of Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel prison, summer 1944;
source: Christian Kaiser Verlag

(c) copyright 2016  The Sword of the Spirit