Updated: Dec 14, 2021
Recently, I was on a social media group where a member had just posted that they were leaving. It seems that they had felt offended by another member, and that their response was to leave in an angry manner. Others on the group descended into the predictable circle of reactivity: some siding with the leaving member, others with the person who allegedly caused the offense. At the end of the day, the member did leave- but not before everyone had entered into a shouting match of emotional recriminations. I never did find out what was at the heart of the disagreement.
This scenario is likely familiar to you. Our discourse, and our ability to be with each other, have been in decline for some time. The pandemic lockdowns, which both isolate us physically and drive us more online simultaneously, have only made this kind of behavior worse. It seems like the current mode of relationships our culture will tolerate are only those that are free from conflict. This often means they are with only like-minded people, especially where politics and theology are concerned. To choose to stay in conversation and community with those who differ from us seems to be a good we are in danger of forgetting altogether.
What does this have to do with spiritual practices? The sadness of the conflict above turned my mind back to the teaching of Dietrich Bonhoeffer concerning what he terms “the ministry of bearing.” Basically, it is a call to learn to put up with one another because of who we are in Christ. In this article, we will consider the spiritual root of our present societal dysfunction, seek to understand the call to Christians as regards “the other person,” and look at how we might actually practice the ministry of bearing in our hyper-connected yet strangely alienated day and age.
Where We Find Ourselves At- and Why
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is said to have remarked that “Hell is other people.” It seems we agree. In 2020, Time magazine highlighted a new study that shows “heightened feelings of distrust, dislike and disdain for people who belong to the opposing political party in America.” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reports that this polarization is a global problem, not merely an American one. We see it in our streets and in our social media feeds, don’t we?
People of faith understand that the roots of this enmity are spiritual, however, and ancient. It’s nothing new. From our initial alienation from God in the Garden (Gen 3), to the murder of Abel by Cain (Gen 4:1-16), to the tribalistic separations that result from the folly of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), we see that the story of human life is one marked by division- “us” versus “them,” “in” versus “out.” That this continues even after the coming of Christ is shown by Paul’s urging “if possible, so far as it lies with you, live at peace with all,” and John’s teaching that “Anyone who does not love is still in the realm of death… Children, love must not be a matter of theory or talk; it must be true love which shows itself in action.”
The call is clear, and what we are too often actually doing in spite of that call is sadly clear as well. What’s the way forward? As friends of Jesus, is there a spiritual practice that can help us in this part of our vocation?
The Ministry of Bearing
This brings us to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his classic work Life Together. In the chapter entitled “Ministry,” he spends several pages on the practice he describes as “the ministry of bearing.” While it is worth a read in its entirety, we can summarize it as follows: a peculiar part of what it means to carry the Cross for Christians is to “bear the burden of a brother. He must suffer and endure the brother.” Why? “It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.” In other words, the idea is that people aren’t so much “Hell,” as they are a “Cross.” The only time they aren’t is when we control or manipulate them. To honor their individual worth as a fellow child of God means that, eventually, they may annoy us. They will be a burden. While an unbeliever at that point may choose to either cut-off from them or attempt to control them, for the Christian the proper response is to put up with them, even though they are a burden. No part of the body may say to another “I have no need of you,” as Paul reminds us (1 Cor 12:21).
Bonhoeffer describes the particular burden of another in terms of both their freedom and their abuse of freedom. We get this intuitively. When another choses to do something I dislike or to believe something that I think is wrong, it is their freedom that offends me. Their active sin- their abuse of freedom- can also cause me pain as their actions impact me directly. To stay connected to such people- to not cut-off from them- is part of the vocation of a Christian. In fact, Bonhoeffer goes so far as to say that to refuse to do so puts one outside of the fellowship of the Cross, and also that it denies that such a ministry of bearing is precisely what Christ did for all of us.
The Practice Today
As we think about our own lives, social media habits, and the latest incarnations of the “us vs. them mentality” endemic to our human condition, here are some ideas about how we might perform the ministry of bearing in our context today. They are applicable to all our human relationships, of course, but it seems to me that they are particularly needed within the Christian community at this time:
Don’t isolate or cocoon. Resist the temptation to only associate with those already in your tribe. Develop the mindset that every person who comes your way is perhaps there because of God’s leading. Be open and hopeful, as opposed to fearful and suspicious. Remember that someone’s political or theological opinions are often not the most interesting or wonderful thing about them.
Contextualize yourself. What I mean here is to recognize that you, too, are simply a sinner for whom Christ died. Whatever our beliefs and our actions, at this level we all have a radical equality. Show the grace to others that Christ has shown you. And remember, you are likely are burden that someone else is suffering!
Pray and Serve. We should take special care to both pray for and serve those who are difficult for us. It’s the whole “do unto others” mindset. This is especially necessary for those with whom we are in close or regular contact.
Listen empathetically. So much of our current division seems to derive from the fact that we are no longer willing to do just this. Writing recently in the Washington Post, Dr. Richard A. Friedman suggests the following:
Here’s an exercise that might boost your empathy: Listen carefully to someone you want to communicate with better, and choose something they said or did that you don’t like or agree with. Now imagine at least two reasons why they might have said or done that thing. Then ask the person to tell you about their experience — and don’t react emotionally to what they say. This is about opening your mind to someone else’s and learning all that you can. Get the data and withhold what you think and feel for later. Now, can you imagine why this person thinks or behaves as they do?
Forgive and Love.Currently experiencing offense or hurt? Ready to withdraw? It’s time to offer forgiveness and love. Remember that these are acts of the will something we choose to do. The associated feelings may be present or may never come, but that is of secondary importance.
It is true that there are some toxic- or even dangerous- people that we simply must isolate from. It is also true that opinions matter, ideas have consequences, and that there needs to always be room for proper discussion and debate. Safety- both physical and emotional- matters. So does truth. However, I can easily use one of these objections far too often or far too quickly, thus avoiding my call as member of the fellowship of the Cross. In most cases, the truth is I need to be about the ministry of bearing. Perhaps you do too.
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
- https://time.com/5904504/political-ideology-division. Accessed 11/26/2021.  - https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/01/how-to-understand-global-spread-of-political-polarization-pub-79893. Accessed 11/26/2021.  - The Revised English Bible. (1996). (Ro 12:18). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. - The Revised English Bible. (1996). (1 Jn 3:14, 18). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  - this summary drawn from Bonhoeffer, D. (1954, reprinted 1993). Life Together. (pp. 116-121 ) New York: Harper Collins. You should really read this book!  - https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/11/26/this-empathy-exercise-might-help-you-bridge-some-divides/. Accessed 11/30/2021.