I'm currently reading and loving Bonhoeffer's Ethics Some obvious references to National Socialism aside, it seems to me that it could have been written in the 21st century. Certainly, I keep coming across passages that strike me as astonishingly relevant.
One of the things I am loving about Bonhoeffer's approach is that he refuses to moralise about the world without bringing the church into the closest solidarity with the world. It is not an ethics that points to the flaws that stand outside the people of God; at least, not without recognising that the church bears responsibility for those very flaws. Hence there is a long passage of confession of sin, from the church's perspective. The paragraph on sexual ethics particularly struck me:
"The church confesses that it has not found any guiding or helpful word to say in the midst of the dissolution of all order in the relationships of the sexes to each other. It has found no strong or authentic message to set against the disdain for chastity and the proclamation of sexual licentiousness. Beyond the occasional expression of moral indignation it has had nothing to say. The church has become guilty, therefore, of the loss of purity and wholesomeness among youth, It has not known how to proclaim strongly that our bodies are members of the body of Christ."
Tell me that couldn't have been written yesterday. How have we still not found any guiding or helpful word - any strong or authentic message - to speak into the mess that is 21st century sexual ethics (or lack thereof) in the West? What are we to do about it?
One thing we must not do (or perhaps, one thing that we must stop doing) is become fanatics,
"Fanatics believe that they can face the power of evil with the purity of their will and their principles. But the essence of fanaticism is that it loses sight of the whole evil, and like a bull that charges the red cape instead of the man holding it, fanatics finally tire and suffer defeat" (my emphasis).
Every time we chase down the particular red cape issues of sexual ethics - most recently, for example, gay marriage - we risk missing the whole evil: we miss noticing that our culture stands estranged from God and fallen away from Christ. Nothing, to my mind, captures the efforts of evangelical Christians to engage with ethical issues in wider society quite so well as the image of the bull charging here and there, always targeting the cape and never the man who stands behind it. Always hitting the issues, and never The Issue.
It seems to me that the road to real ethical engagement with society is a road that must begin with our own confession of guilt, and not only ours but that of our society - because their guilt belongs to us as those who did not speak a strong message, the message of Christ. This is a burden, but not an unbearable one, because guilt confessed is judged and borne away in Christ - and in Christ there is new life to be had and shared and proclaimed.