John Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and participating in the reality of God becoming real

“It’s already done. You just have to find a way to make it real.”

This is John Lewis, Georgian congressman and civil rights icon, explaining his approach to effective social action in an interview with Krista Tippett, recorded during the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage that Lewis led in 2013.

You might remember that back in the day (i.e. just before his inauguration), Donald Trump lashed out at Lewis for opposing his presidency and boycotting the inauguration. He tweeted that Lewis was "all talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!"

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In fact, Lewis was one of the most prominent leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He repeatedly put his life on the line for freedom and equality, on freedom rides and sit-ins. He was a chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And he led the first Selma march on Bloody Sunday, where he suffered a skull fracture at the hands of advancing Alabama State Troopers, who assaulted marchers with clubs, whips, and tear gas.

In his interview with Tippett, Lewis says that, in the long struggle that is non-violent social action: “I discovered that you have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward, that it’s already done. That it’s already happened.”

You have to “live as if you’re already there!”

When I first heard this, I was immediately reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. I realized that what Lewis was describing—what he had embodied so strongly—was an essentially Bonhoefferian approach to social action.

Bonhoeffer (as some will already know) was a German theological prodigy and Nazi resister. Ethics is widely considered his magnum opus, even though he never saw it to completion—having been executed, just before the end of the war, for aiding a conspiracy that sought to assassinate Adolf Hitler and topple the Third Reich. Ethics had to be pieced together, and published posthumously, from the notes and manuscripts he left behind.

In one of those manuscripts, “Christ, Reality, and Good. Christ, Church, and World” (DBWE, 47-75), Bonhoeffer insists that Christian ethics isn’t about being good or doing good. Rather, it’s about participating in God’s reality revealed in Christ, and in its becoming real in the world around us.

“Good,” he tells us, is not a quality belonging to discrete persons—to their particular wills, intentions, actions, or to the consequences of their actions. “Good is not the agreement of some way of existence that I describe as reality with some standard placed at our disposal by nature or grace. Rather, good is reality, reality itself seen and recognized in God.”

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-074-16 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
[CC BY-SA 3.0 de (
via Wikimedia Commons
In the person of Jesus Christ, God and world are brought together. In him both find their ultimate reality. And this reality “becoming real among God’s creatures” is what Christian ethics is all about. Where other ethics might speak of the relation between ought and is, or idea and realization, Bonhoeffer’s theological ethic speaks of “the relation between reality and becoming real, between past and present…or, to replace the many concepts with the simple name of the thing itself, the relation between Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.”

Those who seek to force the realization of unreal, and therefore unrealistic, ideals onto a stubborn and recalcitrant world are eventually overcome by discouragement and pessimism. On the other hand, those who abandon the chase after ethical ideals (the futile attempt to “[make] real something that is unreal”), and who instead pursue only “that which serves reality usefully and purposefully,” end up surrendering to the world as it presents itself. Sooner or later, they give up the fight.

According to Bonhoeffer, a truly Christian ethic follows a different path. It does not seek what is unreal (what ought to be), but what is real (what is). The reality with which it deals, however, is not “the vulgar concept of that which can be empirically established.” It is the reality of the world as it is found in Jesus Christ—the reality of the world “always already borne, accepted, and reconciled in the reality of God.” Following Bonhoeffer’s Christian ethic means seeking to live according to this reality, and participating in its becoming real and visible in the world.

Those who follow this path will not cow to the world as it presents itself—surrendering to its stubborn pseudo-realities. And in spite of whatever discouragements they encounter, they will not finally succumb to pessimism. They will endure in faith, confident (as Lewis says), that what they are “moving toward, that it’s already done.”

Bonhoeffer challenges us: “With what reality will we reckon in our life? With the reality of God’s revelatory word or with the so-called realities of life? With divine grace or with earthly inadequacies? With the resurrection or with death?”

Sitting down at lunch counters, as though they had as much a right to be there as anyone, and riding desegregated buses through the American South, in brazen defiance of the so-called reality of white supremacy, John Lewis and other members of SNCC and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) were living according to the reality of God disclosed in Jesus Christ, and participating in its becoming real and visible in the world. They were choosing to reckon with the reality of God’s revelatory word, with divine grace, with the resurrection. They acted with confidence, because they knew that that what they were moving toward was already done, and they just had to find a way to make it real.

By Federal Bureau of Investigation
[Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Of course, this was, and is, not an easy fight. The “so-called realities of life” war against the reality of God’s revelatory word. Even in their unreality, falsehoods like white supremacy, American exceptionalism, or the priority of profit over life, community, and ecology, have (at least for now) a very real and destructive impact in the world. It has always been a costly choice.

Yet in every generation we must choose. Will we live according to God's reality? Or according to the falsehoods and pseudo-realities that so often pass for truth at our press conferences and on our Facebook feeds? Will we reckon with "God’s revelatory word or with the so-called realities of life? With divine grace or with earthly inadequacies? With the resurrection or with death?”

May we reckon with the world as it is in Jesus Christ—“always already borne, accepted, and reconciled." And may we find a way to make it real.


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