Taking a Knee: Bonhoeffer on Jonathan Issac’s Gospel Stance: Part 2 (Ultimate and Penultimate)

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In Part 1 of this series, I introduced the actions of Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic relating to the Black Lives Matter initiative in the NBA. I then primarily engaged the criticisms made of Jonathan’s actions by the Christian pastor Rasool Berry. I critiqued Rasool’s quick jump to associate Jonathan’s actions with naivety and spiritual immaturity, and I also took issue with the social justice underpinnings of Rasool’s argument against Jonathan’s convictional actions. My hope in engaging these issues first was to prepare our discussion for what I believe to be a more accurate assessment of what was taking place in relation to Jonathan’s statement concerning why he did not wear a Black Lives Matter t-shirt and why he did not kneel during the national anthem. Rather than reposting his statement, I’ll simply summarize his words as a statement presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the reason he did not participate in the actions of solidarity that his community was participating in around him. This is especially noteworthy because Jonathan himself is a black man, and it would seem counterintuitive to the cultural moment for him to not stand in solidarity for the sake of proclaiming a desire for a less racist and prejudice society.

            The fact that he put forth the Gospel as the reasoning behind his actions is noteworthy in how it relates to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statements about the ultimate and penultimate. Bonhoeffer writes these thoughts in relation to the ultimate (All passages taken from the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6: Ethics):

“The ORIGIN AND ESSENCE of all Christian life are consummated in the one event that the Reformation has called the justification of the sinner by grace.” Pg. 146

“Here the length and breadth of human life are concentrated in one moment, one point; the whole of life is embraced in this event. What happens here? Something ultimate that cannot be grasped by anything we are, or do, or suffer.” Pg. 146

“The whole of the past is embraced by the word “forgiveness”; the whole of the future is preserved in the faithfulness of God.” Pg. 147

“The word of God’s justifying grace never leaves its place as the ultimate word. It never simply presents itself as an achieved outcome that could now just as well be placed at the beginning as at the end…. The word remains irreversibly the ultimate; otherwise it would be degraded to something calculable, a commodity, and would be robbed of its essential divinity. Grace would become cheap; it would not be a gift.” Pg. 151

So, we recognize that the ultimate is the Word made flesh, the perfect life of Jesus, and the death and resurrection of Christ, our Lord. This is the end and the beginning of all things that we experience in this life, which brings us to the nature of the penultimate:

“Concretely, from the perspective of the justification of the sinner through grace two things are addressed as penultimate: being human [Menschsein] and being good [Gutsein].” Pg. 159

“The hungry person needs bread, the homeless person needs shelter, the one deprived of rights needs justice, the lonely person needs community, the undisciplined one needs order, and the slave needs freedom. It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need.” Pg. 163

“What happens here is something penultimate. To give the hungry bread is not yet to proclaim to them the grace of God and justification, and to have received bread does not yet mean to stand in faith. But for the one who does something penultimate for the sake of the ultimate, this penultimate thing is related to the ultimate.” Pg. 163

Penultimate things speak to the reality that we live in a broken world; to the reality that our physical, emotional, relational, and psychological needs are real and have moral weight in our lives. In relation to our current cultural moment, recognize that the penultimate addresses realities such as racism, police brutality, gang violence, rioting, rape, sexism, property destruction, abuse of power, human-trafficking, domestic abuse, murder, theft, and countless other signs of the Fall. Penultimate principles and actions seek to deal with these realities with protests, reform movements, physical and emotional solidarity, social service, hospitality, and many other acts in time and space.

But how are these two related, the ultimate and penultimate? Doesn’t one clearly trump the other? And doesn’t it depend on the context as to which one does trump the other? Or is it the political party or denomination of the Christian that dictates how this choice is made? Bonhoeffer clarifies this relationship for us, first reminding us of the foundation:

“Since God’s justification by grace and by faith alone remains in every respect the ultimate word, now we must also speak of penultimate things not as if they had some value of their own, but so as to make clear their relation to the ultimate.” Pg. 151

“The ultimate and the penultimate are closely bound to one another. From this perspective the task is to strengthen the penultimate through a stronger proclamation of the ultimate and the protect the ultimate by preserving the penultimate.” Pg. 169

 The relationship between them isn’t always so clear when seeking to be faithful to the ultimate in moments that feel very beholden to penultimate actions. Bonhoeffer spells this tension out when addressing how the ultimate might be extended into reality in a form that is cloaked in the penultimate:

“Thereby we also ask whether the word, the gospel, can be extended in time, whether it can be expressed in the same way every time, or whether here, too, the ultimate differs from the penultimate. To make this quite clear: why, precisely in completely serious situations—for instance, when facing someone grieving deeply over a death—do I often decide on a “penultimate” response, such as a kind of helpless solidarity in the face of so terrible an event, expressed through silence, instead of speaking the words of biblical comfort familiar to me, which are at my disposal?” Pg. 152

“Isn’t it occasionally, perhaps, a more genuine reference to the ultimate—which God will speak in God’s own time (to be sure, likewise only through a human mouth)—to remain consciously in the penultimate? Won’t the penultimate now and again be appropriate precisely for the sake of the ultimate, and mustn’t this be done with a good conscience instead of a burdened one? This question embraces not just a single case but basically the entire range of Christian common life, especially the broad area of Christian pastoral care. What was said about the particular case holds for countless other situations in the daily common life of Christians, just as it does for the Christian preacher’s dealing with the congregation.” Pg. 152-153

We see here a recognition by Bonhoeffer that the Gospel doesn’t have to always be verbally spoken, the ultimate verbally referenced, in order for one’s words or actions to point to the Gospel. However, we also see that Bonhoeffer recognizes this as an occasional occurrence rather than the status quo in life. Bonhoeffer wrote that Christians are drawn to two extremes in relation to the ultimate and penultimate. He calls the two extremes radicalism and compromise: “The relationship between the penultimate and the ultimate in Christian life can be resolved in two extreme ways, one “radical” and the other as compromise, noting right away that compromise is also an extreme solution” (Pg. 153). Concerning the temptation of radicalism Bonhoeffer writes:

“The radical solution sees only the ultimate, and in it sees only a complete break with the penultimate. Ultimate and penultimate stand in mutually exclusive opposition. Christ is the destroyer and enemy of everything penultimate, and everything penultimate is the enemy of Christ. Christ is the sign that the world is ripe to be consigned to the fire. Here there are no distinctions; all must come to judgment. In the judgment there is only one division: to be for or against Christ.” Pg. 153

“Everything penultimate in human behavior is sin and denial. Faced with the coming end there is for Christians only the ultimate word and ultimate behavior. What will happen to the world as a result is no longer important; the Christian has no responsibility for that. The world must burn in any case.” Pg. 153

“The ultimate word of God, which is a word of grace, becomes here the icy hardness of the law that crushes and despises all resistance.” Pg. 153

Radicalism, as expressed here, sounds like the fundamentalism of my youth. It sounds like the rejection of all movies and music that do not proclaim the name of Jesus. It sounds like every mention of social reform that threatens the very idea of a respectful posture towards the institutions created and sustained by God for our flourishing. This sounds like the matter-of-fact proclamation that I heard often in the 1980’s that “it’s all going to burn.” What’s interesting is that Bonhoeffer doesn’t deny that it’s all going to burn but he reminds us that we still have a responsibility to the reality that we live in. That said, Bonhoeffer has a proper critique to offer against the notion of compromise:

“The other solution is compromise. Here the ultimate word is divorced in principle from all that is penultimate. The penultimate retains its inherent rights, but it is not threatened or endangered by the ultimate.” Pg. 154

“The ultimate stays completely beyond daily life and in the end serves only as the eternal justification of all that exists, as a metaphysical cleansing of the indictment that burdens all existence. The free word of grace becomes a law of grace reigning over all that is penultimate, justifying and preserving it.” Pg. 154

Bonhoeffer sees them both as a false religion, as a detraction from the unity of a proper understanding of the ultimate and penultimate:

“Both wrongly absolutize ideas that are necessary and right in themselves. The radical solution approaches things from the end of all things, from God the judge and redeemer; the compromise solution approaches things from the creator and preserver. One absolutizes the end, the other absolutizes what exists. Thus creation and redemption, time and eternity, fall into an insoluble conflict; the very unity of God is itself dissolved, and faith in God is shattered.” Pg. 154

“Christian life is a matter neither of radicalism nor of compromise. The fight over which of the two views is more serious is pointless when confronted with Jesus Christ, in whom alone there is real seriousness, for this exposes how unserious both solutions are.” Pg. 154-155

There is much to condemn in both approaches, and I have no doubt that we can all think of fellow Christians that hold to one of these narratives and approaches to the Christian life. It’s probable that many of us have fallen into both categories at various times in our lives. The temptation, I think, is to accuse our fellow Christian of representing one of these types of extremes, and no doubt that there is real substance to the fact that they might be falling into one of these extremes. In further defining what the extreme of compromise looks like, Bonhoeffer paints a relational picture that I tend to see all over the internet these days:

“Compromise always arises from hatred of the ultimate. The Christian spirit of compromise comes from this animosity against the justification of the sinner by grace alone. The world, and life in it, must be protected from this invasion into its domain. One must manage the world only by worldly means. The ultimate is to have no say in the formation of life in the world. Even to ask about the ultimate, to try to establish the authority of God’s word for life in the world, is regarded as radicalism, as a lack of love toward the given orders of the world and toward those who are dependent on them. Freedom from the world, which is Christ’s gift to Christians, and renunciation of the world (1 John 2:17) are accused of being unnatural and opposed to creation, an estrangement from, or even hostility toward, the world and humanity. Instead, accommodation to the point of resignation, or to a trite worldly wisdom, is passed off as genuine Christian openness to the world and love.” Pg. 156

But we must be careful not to project this prognosis onto every person that feels led to kneel in solidarity or march in protest. We must be gracious to listen to their cause and give them the benefit of the doubt that they are not putting their trust in such initiatives, that they have not replaced the Gospel with another good news simply because they are seeking to meet a challenging world with thoughtfulness and action. But neither should we jump to the conclusion that someone is a radical simply because they decided that the time was ripe to present the Gospel rather than take a knee.

            Only God sees directly into the hearts of his children. Only He knows our intentions and our commitments as we make decisions concerning how to represent Christ Jesus in this world, His world. Only the Spirit, in affirmation of the Word, can guide us individually as to when to speak clearly of the ultimate or to speak indirectly of the ultimate through penultimate actions and words. But we can personally reflect on whether or not our penultimate commitments do actually flow from, and point to, the ultimate. We can also question our brothers and sisters as to why they felt led to approach the reality that they were confronted with in the manner that they did. We can give them the benefit of the doubt. We can also reprove them gently when we feel that they have misrepresented the ultimate in their approach. In order to engage these responsibilities well, we must thoroughly know the scriptures AND the needs of our world. Let us gather, learn, and discuss the ultimate in a way that compels us to see is it actively called for in the penultimate.

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