This is actually a discussion I had on a Facebook comment thread -I posted this and the following exchange ensued (one commentator is bold, one is italicized, and my responses are in plain text. I’ve edited here and there, so any awkwardness is my own fault).
I think I should disagree with this argument from Bonhoeffer. Perhaps it’s born of the times in which he wrote, in which evil seemed to be prevailing in his world, that he should see God’s true power in His apparent weakness, but I don’t think it reflects the Biblical picture we have of an intervening God, who conquered all through a seeming act of “weakness” (namely, the Cross).
The Kingdom principles which Jesus teaches tends to upend conventional wisdom, in that the last will be first and the first will be last, service is true leadership, there is virtue in suffering, etc. But God certainly made His presence felt in power as well as in seeming weakness, all through the Scriptures.
If Jesus is the Word of God, the full revelation of God, etc etc, then right off the bat, as Jeff pointed out, there are some serious challenges to conventional wisdom. If we go a bit further, and say that in Christ God was/is acting to reconcile all things and all men to Himself, then it seems that God’s way of acting in the world is completely at odds with how we think He should act in the world.
What I think is an appropriate way of thinking about what Bonhoeffer means by ‘weakness’ is this: the world is a world of striving, power, will, force, violence, etc. That’s what it means to act in power in the world. God doesn’t simply choose to armwrestle the world and win – through weakness (perhaps apparent weakness – we could say that this weakness is true strength) He overcomes the entire ‘machine’ of force, violence, striving, and power. When God flexes His muscles, it takes the form of the Cross and the Manger.
There’s a lot of merit to that, but the God who acts with meekness in so much of the New Testament also took down Annanias and Sapphira in the book of Acts for attempting to deceive the Holy Spirit, and kicks butt and takes names at the Battle of Armageddon in Revelation. The Lord is complex, at the very least.
I think it can be pretty certainly said that when it comes to Kingdom/reconciliation, violence will never advance it (see Jesus’ rebuke to Peter for chopping that one guys ear off).
Though it IS rather interesting that Jesus instructed His disciples to go and get a sword…I don’t believe Jesus is at all contradictory…but I am sure He enjoys playing with our presuppositions, no matter where they sit.
Jesus also says that he comes to not bring peace but a sword – so there’s obviously more happening here than simple descriptions of primitive warfare. Though references to swords are very common (especially in Proverbs) – not to mention the sword of the Spirit, etc. One could probably argue that it’s a subverted metaphor – remember, the weapons of our warfare are not flesh and blood, so Jesus could quite easily command his disciples to gird up for war – but waged with weapons of the spirit – peace, the Gospel, etc.
The context of Jesus saying that He brings “a sword” deals with the division, especially of families, within the Jewish community over His claims to being Messiah. It creates near enmity between family members when one person in the family embraces Jesus as Messiah–the others see it as a betrayal, and the new believer is usually shunned by the rest of the family/community. It happened then, just as Jesus said, and it continues to happen today. This is why Jesus told us to count the cost of discipleship, though that’s going to dovetail quite nicely into being a Bonhoeffer reference as well.
However, Jesus didn’t seem too off-put by the fact of war and violence…He often used the ideas of soldiers going to war, Kings planning wars, and such…I don’t believe Jesus was promoting war or violence, nor do I believe He was pleased by it. But I do think that He regarded such things as a reality of the fallen world that we all must live in. And, though He did use such examples to point to spiritual truths, it also strikes me that Jesus didn’t seem too adverse to earthly power, when such powers were in line with shaping world events for the spread of His Gospel.
Also, in spite of Jesus letting the Romans do with Him what they did, I don’t see Jesus being a pacifist at all. He would have told husbands/fathers to protect their wives and children against invaders, and were it not for Him seeing God’s hand of judgment against His people in terms of the Roman occupation of the Promised Land, He would have organized armed rebellion against the pagan invaders.
I’m not a pacifist or super zealous anti-violence-in-the-bible guy – so I don’t see Jesus as a pacifist (in the modern sense) in any way. I also agree that Jesus was fine working within the existing structures of power (most of the characters in the NT seem fine with that) but with the intent to both (a) subvert or reform them and (b) remind them who it was that their authority came from (I think we see both of those themes in Paul, though the anti-imperial themes are blown way out of proportion these days). Paul is a great example of someone willing to use the circuitry of the Roman empire to spread the mesage of the Gospel, even though those two things are pretty at odds with each other. But I believe that there is intent to subvert and reform by the spreading of the message – since there’s significant biblical witness to the Gospel being God’s power to save.