The Cost of Discipleship, the Cost of Being a Woman and Other

Let me just get this out of the way: I am not really enjoying this quarter. This is good information. Sitting with this discomfort is educational, insightful. But not fun or juicy or exciting. I surprise myself every week with just how Not Christian I am. Oh, do I miss the practices and mindsets of the previous two quarters! I can’t not practice, so I lightly say my prayers and do a few breathing exercises. But oh, how I miss my practice.

Revisiting things that once held meaning for me is both tedious and informative. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. I studied Bonhoeffer in college. I wrote my senior history thesis on him. And I barely remember anything about him, other than: influential Lutheran German pastor, who resisted the Nazi co-option of the German church and joined the resistance movement, eventually being sent to concentration camps, where he was killed just days before the liberation. I believe I wrote about how he reconciled his Christian pacifist ideology with joining the resistance movement, which worked to assassinate Hitler. At least, I think it was. You might remember that my memory from this stretch of my life is minimal, at best.

I remember really liking The Cost of Discipleship. I’ve kept a copy on my bookshelf all these years. I connect Bonhoeffer with integrity in my mind, with doing the right thing in trying circumstances, with staying true to one’s beliefs and treating his fellow prisoners, as well as his captors, with dignity and love. Those thoughts haven’t changed one bit in my re-reading. However, I’ll be removing this book from my library. I can’t understand what about it I could have possibly found edifying (ha! great Christian word there).

Before we go any further, let me admit: I haven’t finished the book. I only re-read the first third. I can’t do it. I just don’t care. Besides Bonhoeffer being far more traditional and conservative than I remember, his book is basically by a man for men who need a male saviour.

In the beginning of the book Bonhoeffer writes about how grace has been cheapened. I think he would weep were he to witness the rise of mega-churches, prosperity gospel preaching, and mainstream American evangelicalism (which I think is basically cultural Christianity and not much connected with the gospels). “The real trouble is that the pure Word of Jesus has been overlaid with so much human ballast – burdensome rules and regulations, false hopes and consolations – that is has become extremely difficult to make a genuine decision for Christ.” (p. 35)

The majority of the first part of the book is about obedience: obedience to The Call, to Jesus. Let it be known that obedience has never been my strong suit. Rules apply to me only if I like the rules. This has been a sticking point for my spiritual development my whole life. But I also have a romantic view of discipleship. I intellectually recognize the wisdom that obeying can have – I’d better, I’m a parent! But the extent to which Bonhoeffer insists we obey Jesus – no questions, just following – worries me. Bonhoeffer writes about the ways in which we use our questions to attempt to ‘outsmart’ our would-be saviours, to avoid the hard work of Becoming (my language). He makes a really good point here. But the opportunity for maturation is not the point. He goes on to say that “…only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.” (p. 63) “Doubt and reflection take the place of spontaneous obedience.” (p. 73) Yikes.

While I can see that excessive questioning can be a form of self-delusion and avoidance of actually doing the Work, I think it is healthy to question. In fact, I think it is our duty to question. Jesus challenged the Powers that Be, the status quo. The implication that we ought never question our spiritual authority (be that God or the Bible – a document put together by men, even if I agree that it is divinely inspired, or a pastor) because we are only sinful humans steals our human agency from us. Many Christians don’t have a problem with this. I believe the example of Adam and Eve in the garden is all most people need to say ‘yup, humans can’t be trusted.’ But Jesus was also fully human, even if he was infinitely wiser than we are by virtue of being also fully divine,* he was still fully human, and he was not satisfied with the status quo. Blind obedience is problematic for all living things. It is even more problematic for women and other marginalized people.

Women suffer uniquely in communities where questioning is discouraged. The kind of Christianity described by Bonhoeffer may win points for its integrity, but not for its compassion or sense of community. The pastors in Christianity like this are almost always male, and if a woman were to question her lot in life or her struggle then she would likely be told that she is questioning God’s Order. I have no sources to cite from this particular book, but after years of studying feminist theology and from living my own life I know there are scores of books (and blogs) that address this very phenomenon. God (who is He and male) knows best, the Bible (in spite of being written 1900 years ago in a specific time, place and culture) is the Way It Should Be, and Pastor (likely male) knows if you’re being obedient. All Others need to tow the line and know their places.

Obedience usually leads to a discussion of suffering, and this book does not disappoint. Like Roman Catholic theology, suffering is the center of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity. The point of Jesus is rejection and suffering. His crucifixion “must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity…” (p. 87) Why?? Why does giving of self have to equate with rejection? I reject all of this as completely untrue! Even in a Christian context I reject this as Not True. I believe that Jesus could have still accomplished the Christian message if everyone present at that time was mortified by his execution, if his followers and fellow Jews hadn’t rejected him but had instead embraced him. Suffering is NOT a divine necessity.

Suffering occurs in this life. We cannot have life without suffering. Learning to make sense of that is important, whether or not we follow a spiritual path. Jesus, by being part of this human existence and by fighting the Powers That Be, had to embrace suffering. What is to me the heart of the Christian message is that when suffering and death and rejection occur (because they occur to us all at some point, in some form) resurrection is possible. Suffering is not the core of the message, resurrection is. We rise again, in glory. We rise again, glorified.

“Suffering, then, is the true badge of discipleship” (p. 91) says Bonhoeffer. Once again women and other marginalized people lose out when this is the core of a theology. We already have noted the culture of not questioning. A woman in an unhappy marriage, a slave being a …well, slave, a child being abused by his parents – they are true disciples because they are not questioning the systems of the status quo and are enduring their suffering. People who choose not to suffer are then considered disobedient, less faithful, not True Christians. People who choose not to suffer are denying Jesus, in this context. Who are true disciples of Christ, according to Bonhoeffer? “They simply bear the suffering which comes their way as they try to follow Jesus Christ, and bear it for his sake.” (p. 109, emphasis Bonhoeffer’s) How can we bear anything for Christ’s sake? If he bore all for us, what can we possibly bear for God? How does our suffering improve or profit anything?? It profits nothing. I see it as a way to prove that one person is holier than another, or worse, a way to keep women and other marginalized people in their place.

I have no problem with a theology that has place for suffering, but when it is the crux of the faith then the only way into heaven is through suffering. To that I say, every one deserves in to heaven then, because everyone suffers. Or, change the fulcrum on which the tradition balances. I choose not to be obedient or to suffer, not in the Christian context, not according to patriarchal tradition of Western civilization. I will not be obedient to a deity or spiritual leader that insists I deny my own suffering, that I increase my suffering, that I submit to patriarchal status quo systems of injustice, on the flawed logic that we live in a fallen world and only Jesus will make it better…. in the world to come.

To some it may seem like I’m taking Bonhoeffer way out of context or addressing him in anachronistic terms. He was man writing during World War II. When he says things like “What can the call to discipleship mean to-day for the worker, the business man, the squire and the soldier?” (p. 38) am I being a deliberate trouble maker by pointing out that he has excluded women from the list? Sure, a woman is a worker, but so are business men. I believe he is listing by class. He doesn’t mention the mother, which might be the main ‘job’ of women at that time. No, women are left out of this entire discussion of discipleship.

In this book there is an entire chapter titled “Woman.” Great! I thought, here he will address the 51% of the population! No. It’s an entire chapter on Jesus’s teaching on divorce and whether male disciples should marry. This chapter is not about women at all. If this is the only context for women, then we are merely equated with male desires and functions.

After getting to this point in the book I just threw my hands up and decided it’s time to move on. This is one of the reasons I quit my PhD program. I am beyond tired of this sort of theology: written by men for male believers in a male saviour who saves men.

*I actually think we – all of us – are fully human and fully divine already and that the point of the Incarnation was revealing that to us. The work of the spiritual life is to embrace both, to be Whole.

16 responses to “The Cost of Discipleship, the Cost of Being a Woman and Other

  1. Thanks for sharing, this is very interesting. I have only had a bit to do with Bonhoeffer, his story and the movie, but I always thought he had an interesting story… the way he died with so much humility and grace. Some people see this as being weak by simply giving into those who humiliate you and your faith, but I think his obedience to the end is definitely something which has challenged people. On your note, I have always found some of the Lutheran theology from his era to be a bit strange. You have a good point with suffering and faith. I agree it is not a necessity to suffer to ‘qualify for heaven’ or get the ‘gold star’. However, something I find inspiring is when people with a deep faith can find joy in suffering. Everyone suffers, but having an eternal mindset reminds us that whatever we go through it is but a breath in the wind.

    Also, the other thing is obedience. I don’t think Obedience to Jesus means accepting the ‘status quo. In fact I think it is exactly the opposite (which is why people believing this may face more rejection than one with the ‘status quo’ view). For me, being obedient to Jesus is being a voice for the voiceless, standing up for the marginalized, and standing up for justice, against things like poverty, and human trafficking. I think Bonhoeffer definitely stood up to the ‘status quo’ of the nazzi regime of his time. Unfortunately, a lot of the time in the church, it is the opposite (as you have pointed out). Along the lines of the quote from the book you gave, I think the church has been too overlaid with ‘culture’ or human ballast, and needs to get back to the core of who Jesus is, and what he stands for. A lot of the time the church seems to adopt cultural philosophy (i guess so they can fit in better) without questioning it. A good example of this is the exclusion of women from some activities back in his era. It would have been great if the church stood up and decided to be counter cultural in that situation. Having said that, I am continually encouraged visiting churches and seeing communities where they do “get it” and are more accepting the way Jesus is…. Such as churches among the urban poor, drug colonies, and sex workers in Thailand, or churches among the unaccepted low class of India. That’s what I love about my faith, seeing glimpses of when it actually does work. More often it doesn’t, because at the end of the day we are all human… but when people let God step in with grace, it is amazing. The hard part is to not ruin it by being the selfish, self centered, proud people we all are.

    Sorry, that turned out to be a bit longer,
    but thanks for your blogs, Its great stuff to read and think about

    • Hello Ro! I am very glad for your perspective, so thank you for writing in.

      While my opinion of Bonhoeffer’s theology and writing may have changed, my high opinion of his work as a pastor and agent of resistance has not. I absolutely think his sacrifice, his efforts, are worthy of review. His poetry reveals a lot of humility. He did suffer for his beliefs – and I hope that in the face of injustice we too would suffer on behalf of justice and compassion. I think learning to endure suffering with grace and strength is an important life skill. Because life has so many moments of suffering, and for some suffering is not just in moments but a daily experience. I do not understand the forms of Christianity that use that as its focal point. Jesus suffered so that we did not have to. Jesus suffered in our place. Why, oh why, should we heap even more suffering upon the world?? It makes no sense – and not even in a ‘the infidels will mock Jesus’ sort of way. It doesn’t even make theological sense within its own tradition.

      I love your definition of obedience. You come at Jesus with much more of a social justice angle on things, and I love that. I also am grateful for your father and your family in that I have seen that evangelical elsewhere in the world is not the same as it is in the US. Christianity even at its best isn’t a good fit for, but ‘Christian culture’ even less so! Although, a strong argument can be made that anyone in the Western world lives within a Christian culture. Keep fighting the good fight, cousin.

  2. With my only Christian education being one of osmosis/pop culture, I have to say the whole “Jesus suffered for your sins” to be one of the most confusing aspects of his (what…gospel? story? not sure of the right word).

    What I do get is the theme of resurrection, of miracles, but the suffering baffles me. I don’t understand how that equates to some benefit or gift to humankind.

    I also shudder at the thought that obedience=a true believer. It’s that kind of rhetoric that turns me off of organized religion.

    • I think the suffering part comes out of a theory of juridical and/or economic justification (atonement). Basically, Yahweh needed a sacrifice, since in the old temple Judaism people would take animal sacrifices to atone for their sin, either individual or communal. So, since humanity is inherently sinful (due to the DNA altering screw up of Adam and Eve, and due to the systemic sin we are stuck in) there isn’t an animal big enough to atone for that. So Yahweh sends himself in human flesh and then sacrifices himself to himself. ……You know, the more I write about this the more it just sounds absurd.

  3. “you are not Sinners, you have not done any sin, you are all söns of God. You are divine souls”
    – Swami Vivekananda

    • Well, we could debate the idea of sin as it is used here. I do think we humans are flawed and do a lot of things we need to repent/seek forgiveness/fix, but we are not inherently flawed, sinful beings. So to this quote I say: amen!

  4. Brilliant essay; brilliant observations. I’ve spoken with friends several times over the years about the concept of suffering within Christianity, but I’ve not thought of it from this particular perspective of women and ‘others’. I’ll be sharing this link.


    • Thank you. Much has been written about the concept of suffering in Christianity and how that is no good for ‘others.’ But usually it’s written in a very academic way. I believe the core of any healthy religion is liberation – that may look different in different contexts and may have different emphases, but when we are whole, when we are in touch with divinity, we are liberated and that has an effect on how we interact with the world. If something in our traditions is keeping us suffering, in fear or shame, then we must seek an exit or re-work that piece. But of course, this is much easier for people with any sort of privilege than it is for the most greatly marginalized!

  5. I read the whole post. It seams as if you as in an inner struggle with yourself to reconcile “dogma” with “logic”. Yes, religion is a male tool; it’s no major revelation. But there’s more to this than just simple minded patriarchical irritations you face.

    You speak a lot about “questioning” yet you have no problem accepting a god who no one knows for sure whether he existed or whether he was in fact a magic performing artist, a con-man? If I tell my friend that I saw a man walking on water last week, he’d no way believe me. But when we talk about this man who existed 2 centuries ago walking on water, everyone seems to have learned to not challenge it. They have learned to “tolerate” it(dogma) over “logic”.

    Most abrahamic religions started out almost surely as political-philosophical rebellions of local nature against the prevailing state and ruling systems, and were only later found out to be useful by imperialist visionaries and given their state-linked organized shape.

    Moses took monotheism up as a tool of rebellion against the prevailing egyptian regime and later on the jews used it as a doctrine to reclaim rights to canaanite regions and lands which some of them perhaps left in search of employment in egypt.

    The early Christians almost surely were one of the many politically radical jewish groups fighting to reassert their independence from rome, but their simplifying message was found attractive by influential sections of the roman state which led to at least one emperor seeing the potential in restructuring christianity as an imperialist organized tool.

    Most of us are taught that there were two schools of thought in the west when in fact there were three. The anglo-american(capitalist), the russian orthodox(socialist) and the third one which is collection of individual movements as diverse as norse paganism, gardnerian wicca, the order of the golden dawn and the theosophical society which have limited(if any) ideological affinity to either judeo-christianity or socialism. All these movements hinged around the search for a deeper, lost truth and source of identity that had been suppressed by the post-constantinian rise of christian imperialism. Yet many remained on the fringes of their respective societies, marginalized and trivialized as occult absurdities by the far more powerful adherents of judeo-christianity or socialism. Even today, anyone bandying these names around is considered to be some kind of conspiracy theorist. As long as these third-school movements remained scattered at the fringes of society, they were easy to malign and ridicule.

    Who knew that political maneuvers(with religion as a tool) of history would have been interpreted the way they are today.

    • I’m not sure what your point is. Are you familiar with my blog, or did you only read this entry? Because, you might not be aware but I have studied religion for many years, personally and academically.

      “just simple minded patriarchical irritations you face.” Also, way to completely disregard the suffering that patriarchy has wrought in the world. It’s not just me that has been ‘irritated’ by the kyriarchy.

      • I’m not sure what your point is

        I already said this in the first line of my last comment. You’re making up a narrative out of thin air to bridge the gap between “what it is” and “what you like it to be”. I was talking about the habit of many practitioners who indulge in “reconciliation” when they begin to fall out of love with their beliefs. You quoting those texts and later questioning them at face value gave it away.

        I’m not an advocate of any patriarch system. I agree that it is significant issue. I simply wanted to show you a macro perspective to religious studies minus the mystical mumbo jumbo, the patriarchy, the obvious.

        Usually I don’t knock heads with the religious one. But since you were “questioning” in this whole blog post, I thought I could hint you with a clue to help you move further forward.

        • I am very aware of the ‘third school’ that you mention. I don’t think you are very familiar with this blog or my project. What do you mean by saying that I am ‘making up a narrative out of thin air’? If you think I am a Christian you are mistaken.

          If you were trying to show me a new perspective, then your writing is not clear at all. The first line of your last post is ‘I read the whole post.’ Sure, it’d be nice if dogma and logic lined up, but only atheists make that happen, and I am not an atheist. But I will still question bad theology, just as I will enjoy good theology.

          • I don’t think you are very familiar with this blog or my project.

            Actually I have followed your writing ever since you took up hindu studies. What kept confusing me was that you kept each foot on each side of the line. You’re not into dogma, I figured that part out from your arguments.

            But I will still question bad theology, just as I will enjoy good theology.

            This line sums up everything.

            btw, I’m not an atheist. I believe that humans don’t have the substantial capacity to conclude whether any celestial being does exist or not. Hence, I’m neither an atheist nor a believer simply because I do not have an answer to that question.

            At best, one can point out to tell tale signs like the solar system which follows rules(whose?) defeating the arguments of big bangs and similar ideas based on the concept of the “random” nature of the universe. My best guess is that we are confusing the “inventor” with a noun called “god”.

            Keep writing. Opinions are a source of ideas.

    • Oh thank you so much Katharine! I admit writing publicly is nerve wracking. I never feel like I have enough uninterrupted time to fully express what I’m trying to say, and then also edit. Writing while parenting is so messy!

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