I got some good pushback about the Bonhoeffer quote and the idea that we should first consider others’ brokenness and what they’ve suffered as we evaluate their actions. It caused me to reflect more deeply on the question.
In case you’ve had anything else to think on in the past week, here’s the quote:
“We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in light of what they have suffered.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I guess the place to begin this is to say I hope to God that God does with me what Bonhoeffer describes. I hope that God evaluates my actions with a view to my sinful brokenness and what’s still wrong with me. I hope God views all my malicious thoughts, cruel words, and neglectful, selfish choices with a clear eye that I am the sinful, screwed-up, in-the-process-of-being-redeemed-but-still-a-long-way-to-go…Beloved. I am God’s Beloved. I hope God considers, when I shout at my son Corin later today or punch a wall in frustration or harbor some truly unloving thoughts about our political leadership, not how bad I always am but how much in need of grace I am.
What we have suffered, all of us, is being sinful, broken people in a sinful, broken world. That isn’t “an excuse.” That’s reality. We’re all splintered and shattered in so many ways, though some of us hide it better than others.
When the younger son of the wealthy father, the one who “devoured his inheritance with prostitutes,” came limping and stumbling on bare, bloody feet, the father had choices:
He could ignore the return of his son. Disown him. Leave him to survive however he might. “You get what you deserve.”
He could have the brunt of the Jewish Law, which the son broke in dishonoring his father, brought to bear against this young man now. Likely he could have the boy killed. “You get justice with no mercy.”
He could listen to the begging apology/admission of guilt that his son had composed and take him up on that entreaty, i.e. take the son on as one of his servants, disinherited and humiliated but not left to starve. “You get mercy but no grace.”
Those were all legitimate, legal, reasonable responses to the younger son’s behavior. Just to review, so we don’t gloss over it, the younger son in Jesus’ story goes to the father–no background or context provided by Jesus–and demands his share of the inheritance, i.e. what he would get when his father dies. He is saying, “Hey, I can’t wait until you’re dead so let’s pretend you’re dead now and I’ll get my share.” You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more dishonoring, disrespectful statement.
Again with no explanation, the father gives the son what the son demands. The son liquidates his inheritance into cash and leaves. He spends the money wildly, frivolously, impulsively, hedonistically. We can assume that everything he does with his money directly assaults his father’s values as a God-honoring Jew. He spends it all. Who knows if he had a plan, but just then the “far off country” where he now lived fell into famine. He went from wealthy and epicurean to starving and desperate. He found a job feeding pigs—a mortifying, defiling job for the son of a wealthy Jewish landowner—and still he was starving.
When the young man “comes to himself,” an English translation but possibly my favorite line in the story (except for the father’s running part), he decides to go back home, though he knows it’s not his home anymore.
But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
I’m guessing you see what I’m building toward. Did the father regard the son in light of what he had done or omitted doing, or in light of what he had suffered?
Grace is a scandal.
“What he suffered?” people will object. “Everything he suffered he brought on himself.” The young man deserved consequences, right? Punishment? What, he’s just going to “get away” with all that?
Or did he already pay his consequences?
Many years ago now, I embraced the understanding that we are punished not for our sins but by our sins. It makes all the difference. Does God warn us not to sin because if we do, he will hurt us for it? Or does God warn us not to sin because doing so will hurt us, and God doesn’t want us to hurt? Is holiness not an arbitrary standard but doing the things that make us whole and avoiding the things that shatter us?
Yes, the father could have turned the thumbscrews down much harder. He could have decided that even though his ragged, emaciated son had come through a famine, utter degradation, and failure, he needed further punishment. Or justice demanded it.
But the father did not make that choice. He embraced and restored his son. He dressed him. He kissed him. He interrupted him, to call for a celebration!
The father regarded the son in light of grace, in light of what the son had suffered, in light of the consequences he’d already paid for his horrible choices, and in light of his unwavering love for his child. Grace means he gave the boy good instead of the bad the boy had coming. The father didn’t just refrain from punishing him—he embraced his son and welcomed him home.
I don’t think we can always treat people exactly according to this, as if the father’s treatment of the prodigal were a formula. If someone breaks the law, injuring others, we don’t simply welcome them home and let them know that they’ve already paid the consequences of their crime. They haven’t yet.
It’s also true that we now live in a culture that readily claims victimhood. That means when we try to take Bonhoeffer’s words to heart, when we follow the model Jesus gives us with the father of the prodigal, we must also discern for ourselves as well as take others at their word. I’m not claiming this is easy or obvious. When I try, it will reveal my own prejudices, as well. But it’s a necessary step.
Having said that, here is the difference when we consider others first in the light of what they have suffered: we begin by viewing them with compassion. I have friends who have attacked me, who are attacking my beliefs and ideas. I know we disagree but I don’t think that justifies the criticism or name-calling. Do I retaliate? Do I cut off relationship? I’m actually quite good at cutting someone down in an argument, though it’s a skill I haven’t honed in years (and years). Do I sharpen those swords again? Do I show what a “snowflake” can do?
Or can I regard my friends in light of what they’ve suffered first, before anything else? I have some idea what they’ve suffered. Not everything, of course. Certainly my first “natural” urge is not to ask “What are you going through that you chose to speak to me this way?” I have to restrain and retrain that first urge. But as another friend pointed out, aren’t we all speaking out of lour trauma right now, stuck in the middle of this pandemic?
The center of the Gospel may be that God always sees me with grace, calling me away from my self-destructive sin but as the beloved, so that I can experience life and share life. The center of the Gospel may be that even when I behave as an enemy, God does not treat me as an enemy. God can see through my evil, through the rags and filth and stench that I’ve made of the inheritance I’ve squandered, and still see a beloved child in need of redemption. Dying for that redemption, even though I’m bargaining to be made a servant and not restored as a son.
It’s complicated. We don’t excuse poor behavior, certainly not abuse, even when we understand where it comes from. I’m not suggesting the two choices are attack back or allow horrible treatment. But how different my view when I choose to see my hurting friend who says hurtful things, rather than choosing to see an attacking enemy whom I must defeat.
Truthfully, sometimes the best I can do is remain silent. It feels weak not to retaliate, not to give them “what they have coming.” But that silence may break the cycle of attack and counter-attack. Of escalation. Of violence.
The next step, still way beyond my spirituality, will be recognizing that all humanity are my hurting friends who sometimes say hurtful things. I don’t mean that people won’t hurt us if we just call them “friends.” I mean when we fully commit to loving our enemies, we have no enemies. We recognize that they have attempted to make themselves our enemies, but we refuse to cooperate. At that point, we’re trusting not merely in our kindness but in God’s power to work through our kindness.
As I said, I’m not there. I’m still trying to love my friends who have chosen to treat me as an enemy. But I believe looking through the eyes of the father for his still-beloved prodigal will lead us closer to God. We try to see through these eyes, even if we fail, and fail feebly. Even the attempt and failure can draw us closer to God, can help us become a little more like Jesus. If I’m fully committed to loving my friend, I will also speak the truth in love if they are deceiving themselves about their own brokenness/victimhood/martyrdom. When I put it this way, clearly I can’t do this for a random stranger who thinks he is getting the short end because he’s previously had every advantage and is offended not to continue getting them all.
I hope this doesn’t sound abstract. It doesn’t feel abstract to me. It feels personal and real and hard. But it’s life-giving. It offers us an alternative to fight or flight. It offers a different path than defeating our enemies. It certainly offers us a road less traveled.
If we can even begin to consider the “other” first in terms of their suffering, in terms of the grace we have to offer, then we are growing in grace.
That will be much more satisfying than winning an argument.