Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Real Humanity: Regarding Others in Their Suffering

In my last post I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer on how to regard others. I’ll share the quote again, but in a better translation from the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works collection.

The danger of allowing ourselves to be driven to contempt for humanity is very real. We know very well that we have no right to let this happen and that it would lead us into the most unfruitful relation to human beings. The following thoughts may protect us against this temptation: through contempt for humanity we fall victim precisely to our opponents’ chief errors. Whoever despises another human being will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing of what we despise in another is itself foreign to us. How often do we expect more of the other than what we ourselves are willing to accomplish. Why is it that we have hitherto thought with so little sobriety about the temptability and frailty of human beings? We must learn to regard human beings less in terms of what they do or neglect to do and more in terms of what they suffer. The only fruitful relation to human beings—particularly to the weak among them—is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them. God did not hold human beings in contempt but became human for their sake. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papersfrom Prison.

Following Bonhoeffer, I said, “The Church always ought to regard others the same way that God regarded humanity in Christ. The Father did not regard the world according to what it did or didn’t do, but according to what it suffered.”

Bonhoeffer elaborates on the nature of contempt for humanity in his Ethics. He explains that both the wicked and good human fall into contempt for humanity thus: “We exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, [while] God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings.” The wicked despise humanity by taking advantage of its frailty and temptability for their benefit. The good despise humanity by withdrawing from others in disgust at the other’s frailty and temptability. In a sense, Bonhoeffer is saying that we require others to meet a standard of super-humanness (inhuman), which we ourselves couldn’t meet, before we will love them by entering into community with them. True love acknowledges real humanity and wills “to enter into and to keep community with them,” regardless of the price. It is a love that does not find the significance of one’s humanity in successes or failures, but in God’s love for a real humanity.

Contempt for humanity boils down to a desire for perfection that finds its way by leaving behind humanness—finitude, contingency, and frailty. God considered it worth the price to live with and die for real humanity. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly . . . God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ did for us . . . While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5.6-10, NRSV). Perfecting this humanity is not ceasing to be human in deification. Jesus’ perfection came through suffering, which means that perfection was humbly remaining contingent to God in faith. Even in the resurrection, humans are still human. Perfected humanity is not self-sustaining individuality with no regard for others. It is complete vulnerability to God and in a community of brothers and sisters that exists in trinitarian love that gives itself for the other in forgiveness and truth. Too often the goal of perfection is based on an idea of human potentiality devoid of human reality. No goal for humanity can leave behind a human because of the risk their frailty or temptability presents—the risk their humanity poses.

So, if we were to rephrase Bonhoeffer it would look like this:

When we regard others according to what they do or neglect to do (according to their successes and failures) we are passing a judgment upon them that measures their humanness according to some standard beside real humanity. To regard others according to what they suffer confronts us with the other’s real humanity. God did not embrace humanity outside of true humanness. Only a love that will exist with others in their real humanness can hope to experience the reconciliation and newness of life in Christ.


  1. I find contempt for humanity disgusting and totally beneath me. :-)

    More seriously, its interesting that one of the things driving the Nazis was eugenics and the desire to create a master race of supermen. Epic fail, but some of those ideas are still quite popular.

    1. That's exactly one of the things Bonhoeffer was drawing on here. Eugenics is an attempt to 'fix' the world by destroying what is authentic to humanity--vulnerability and frailty. I think that such ideas persist, at least in different forms, is why Bonhoeffer's words are especially relevant for today still.

    2. Hey Geoff. When I read your first blog the immediate question I had you addressed in this one! I appreciate you! :)

    3. Hey Luis! I appreciate that you took the time to read this and that you enjoyed it! Hope all is well.