Meeting Jesus with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Woody Guthrie

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October 22, 2013 by jmar198013

In 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote some words that might burn your biscuits. Here they are:

For the proletariat, it is easy to depict Christ as allied with the Church of the bourgeois society. Then the worker sees no reason to give Jesus a qualified place or status. The Church is one with the stupefied and oppressive capitalist system. But at this very point the working class may distinguish between Jesus and his Church; he is not the guilty party. Jesus, yes; Church, no! . . . What does it mean when the proletarian says, in his world of mistrust, ‘Jesus was a good man?’ It means that nobody needs to mistrust him. The proletarian does not say, ‘Jesus is God.’ But when he says, ‘Jesus is a good man, he is saying more than the bourgeois says when he repeats, ‘Jesus is God.’ (Christ the Center, trans. Edwin H. Robertson. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978. 34-35).

It just so happens that Woody Guthrie’s labor ditty, “Jesus Christ,” typifies the proletarian Jesus of which Bonhoeffer speaks. Guthrie self-consciously sets his song to the tune of the classic outlaw ballad, “Jesse James,” to portray Jesus as an outlaw labor organizer. In this, the Gospel According to Guthrie, Jesus is thronged by “all the working folks around” everywhere he goes, but is turned in by a dirty scab named Judas Iscariot, and lynched by bankers and preachers. Truth be told, in many ways Guthrie’s gritty portrayal of the life of Jesus is uncomfortably close to that of the Synoptics. It is certainly not the story you might hear from those whose first recourse in talking about Jesus is to repeat, “Jesus is God.” Please do click on the link below to hear Woody’s account of the life of Christ; it’s quite pleasant to the ears, and it might hurt you in all the right ways.

Why is it that the workers’ account of Jesus–the one rendered by Guthrie–which allows that, “Jesus is a good man,” would hold more significance for Bonhoeffer than the high Christology that begins with, “Jesus is God”? Why is Woody’s version so compelling? Because, as Bonhoeffer goes on to assert:

God is for [the worker] something belonging to the Church. But, Jesus can be present on the factory floor . . . in the worker’s world as a good man. He fights in their ranks against the enemy . . . Who are you? Are you brother and master? Are they evading the question? Or are they in their own way putting it seriously? (35)

In other words, before you say, “Jesus is God”; or “Jesus is Lord”; or “Jesus is the Savior,” it is wise to recognize that you cannot separate the work of Christ from the person of Christ. Jesus is God, but this God comes to you in a form that is much closer to the hardscrabble outlaw Woody sang about. Can you handle that? If not, then perhaps you cannot know Jesus as God; and perhaps you will not be able to let God save you as he would.

Woody ended his song by surmising, “If Jesus were to preach what he preached in Galilee, they would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.” Oh church–it breaks my heart to say this, but when Woody sang “they would lay poor Jesus in his grave,” his they is us.

Bonhoeffer made the same point, writing:

There are only two ways possible of encountering Jesus: man must die, or he must put Jesus to death. (35)

In the words of another old labor song: Which side are you on?

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2 thoughts on “Meeting Jesus with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Woody Guthrie

  1. Caleb Coy says:

    Yes, especially in Capitalism divinity is often assigned the role of “invisible hand guiding the markets” in favor of the “honest, hard workers”, justifying the plight of the poor on account of their “lack of hard, honest work”. The Gospels show a divinity that gets his hand dirty with work and touches the poor with those same hands.

  2. Caleb Coy says:

    Reblogged this on CALEB COY and commented:
    The neoprimitive blog: Meeting Jesus with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Woody Guthrie

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