restricted access The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness by Jennifer McBride (review)
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The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness Jennifer McBride New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 310 pp. $74.00

Jennifer McBride offers the brilliant proposal that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theme of repentance is the right ingredient for our pluralistic and democratic context, which needs a nontriumphal Christian witness. [End Page 199]

My focus on confession and repentance as a nontriumphal public witness is aimed . . . mostly at white Protestants who benefit in countless recognized and unrecognized ways from being part of the dominant culture, because this reflects my own social location and the churches and para-church groups in which I was raised. Bonhoeffer writes . . . from a position of social power and privilege and argues from that place that the acknowledgment of guilt is definitive for the church. My theology of public witness defines the church as the body called to repentance—as the body called, in the words of Bonhoeffer, to accept guilt or take responsibility for social sin.


McBride shows that “repentance” carries various connotations in Bonhoeffer’s writings. In Discipleship, he “links metanoia with the church’s conformation to the crucified Christ (a prevalent theme throughout his theology).” In Ethics, he links “repentance to the church’s this-worldly activity when he defines the church’s repentance as preparing this ‘penultimate’ world for its redemptive transformation.” In Letters and Papers from Prison, he defines metanoia as “living completely in” this world’s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences, and perplexities, taking seriously the suffering of God in the world (14). “As the acceptance of divine judgment, repentance participates in the unfolding of redemption. Thus, it is . . . energized by hope for the world and humanity, animated by joyful expectation as much as lament, and oriented toward future transformation as much as past and present sin” (107). Interpreting repentance through the person of Christ directly challenges the common understanding that repentance primarily concerns one’s individual standing before God; instead, as participation in Christ, repentance constitutes existence for others. Her interpretation is far richer and more insightful than I can represent in a short review.

McBride bases her argument on three dimensions of Bonhoeffer’s theology: Christology, this-worldliness, and ecclesiology (12). By “Christology,” she is pointing to “nothing other than the crucified Christ who accepts responsibility for sin” (139). By “this-worldliness,” we can also point to Christology, in Bonhoeffer’s incarnational theme of entering into the full dimensions of human life. McBride’s ecclesiology urges “that the church’s presence in public life be conformed to Christ’s mode of being in the world” (54).

In his Ethics (134–45) Bonhoeffer wrote a profound confession of his own, the churches’ and nation’s guilt that was taken up by some churches and church groups after the war’s end, and then by President Richard von Weizsäcker and Chancellor Willy Brandt. This public repentance has been the key to healing within Germany and in its relation with other nations.

McBride credits Larry Rasmussen and John de Gruchy for inspiring us to develop new implications of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics for our different contexts. So she goes “beyond Bonhoeffer with Bonhoeffer.” [End Page 200]

McBride appreciates the pioneering work of Christine Schliesser, Everyone Who Acts Responsibly Becomes Guilty, for noticing that Bonhoeffer’s central concept of “acceptance of guilt has not been examined systematically by previous scholars.” She goes beyond Schliesser, emphasizing that as public witness, the church’s confession unto repentance consists of communal, more than individual, acceptance of guilt—“especially the myriad social/structural evils of our political, social, and economic systems.” She appreciates Stanley Hauerwas’s emphasis on ecclesiology but urges him to develop a theology of public witness that communicates that Christ and the church are for, not against, the world, with its pluralistic, not monolithic, culture. She appreciates Jim Wallis’s Call to Conversion, “a clear, detailed, and theologically sophisticated appeal for ecclesial conversion, especially in regard to poverty and war,” but criticizes God’s Politics for being insufficiently theological. She concludes with an ethnographic study of two emerging churches, Eleuthero in Maine and the Southeast White House in Washington DC, each modeling learning from the...