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Posted by on Jan 5, 2016 | 6 comments

Safety is not a Christian virtue


In 1934, Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed the ecumenical peace organization World Alliance for International Friendship through Churches in Denmark.[1] Centrally in this address, Bonhoeffer argues that the World Alliance must function as the universal Church by working for peace with the aim of not only ending war but finding victory over it. Victory over war involves understanding war “as the work of evil powers in this world, enemies of God.”[2] As Christians, Bonhoeffer reminds his audience that the work of peace is a mandate for the ecumenical Church, not an optional problem that needs to be dealt with. The mission of peace among Christians transcends and unites across any and all societal boundaries, be they “national, political, social, or racial.”[3]

In this address, Bonhoeffer highlights the confusion of safety with peace: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be made safe. Peace is the opposite of security.[4] To pursue safety is to diverge from the way of peace. Astutely, Bonhoeffer notes that concerns for security are centered on the self, inherently shifting the focus away from the peace that Christ brought, a peace brought not through security but through self-abandonment on the cross. To choose peace over safety means entrusting the outcome of the nations to God rather than manipulating the current situation for our own selfish ends.

Safety is not a Christian virtue.

To prioritize safety places oneself rather than God in the place of judging the appropriate outcome. To prioritize safety is to go in the way of the prideful self. Dorothy Sayers captures it well: pride is “the sin of the noble mind.”[5] The great danger of pride, in fact, is that it masquerades so well as the way of good intentions. The camouflaging power of pride to appear as a virtue is precisely what leads Sayers to argue that it is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins. With the same impulse Bonhoeffer describes in the concern for safety, pride makes its wielder her own master. The prideful person postures himself as a god. In the call for safety above all else, the caller becomes the master and judge of a good outcome; this cannot not end well.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Fanø Theses Paper and Address: The Church and the Peoples of the World” in The Bonhoeffer Reader, ed. Clifford J. Green and Michael DeJonge (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 393–97.
[2]Ibid., 394.
[3] Ibid., 396.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Dorothy Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins” in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World: A Selection of Essays (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 154.

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Studying theology, baking bread, enjoying the company of a handsome bearded man and two adorable pit puppies.

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  • Michelle Rogers

    The same could be said of going to the Dr or getting vaccinated or wearing a seatbelt. Slippery slope to stupidity. I’m a Bonhoeffer fan, but this is not something I agree with.

    • Here is the difference between my argument regarding safety and your example of everyday acts of safety (seatbelt, doctor visits, etc.):

      I am arguing that safety is not a virtue. That is, safety in and of itself is not an essential Christian value. In fact, the early Church is marked by the faithful being thrown into gladiator pits, burned alive, crucified, imprisoned, etc. Martyrdom occurred out of a concern to proclaim Christ–his kingdom, his peace. Even Bonhoeffer with his own struggle between the ideal of pacifism and the reality of the Third Reich never placed his safety before the proclamation of Christ. It is for this reason that he is considered one of our own modern-day martyrs.

      In our American culture, Christianity and the safety of the individual and his/her family have become all jumbled together. The most obvious example is actually the conversations we saw among evangelicals (particularly a certain outspokenly evangelical presidential candidate) prioritizing OUR safety over THOSE refugees who may have unsafe people in their midst. Safety here becomes a higher good than love of our neighbor (including our enemy “unsafe” neighbors), which Christ himself felt best summarized how we are to live.

      All that to say, I am not sure the slippery slope argument works in this case because I am not taking about everyday acts of safety, but rather about prioritizing safety over other things. Things, for example, like the seven virtues–cardinal of which is charitas: love.

      Putting on my seatbelt does not get in the way of loving my neighbor. But, keeping a homeless widow out of my country does. Going to the doctor does not stop me from loving my enemies, but carrying a weapon in order to keep my family safe even if it means killing someone does.

      • Michelle Rogers

        Gotcha. I assumed, reading this today, that it could be linked to the executive order for gun control. I totally agree with you in context of refugees.

        I would say though, that the hysteria against refugees is silly, as there are UN and US screening procedures to ensure safety. Welcoming refugees into our country doesn’t mean they won’t be screened.

    • Cindi

      Interesting that you assert Rachel’s argument is a “slippery slope to stupidity” despite the fact that there is no such logical fallacy in her post. Perhaps a more robust and thoughtful response on your end will help clarify?
      It seems to me that the concern for justice and the posture toward evil here is pretty consistent with Bonhoeffer, and Rachel’s constructive proposal is consistent with his thought.

      • Michelle Rogers

        Or you could read the whole thread of comments.

      • Cindi

        I did. My original assumption was that she was stating something about weapons as well. Though she had something else in the mind, the post is as relevant to guns as it is refugees (I suspect your screening comment is also missing the point).

        Unless you’re admitting that–if it were pointed toward guns–the post indeed lacks a slippery slope argument?