Bonhoeffer (Ethics) has a superb passage about the “deputy” rather than the isolated individual as the unit of ethical reflection. Everyone, he argues, is a deputy: “The fact that responsibility is fundamentally a matter of deputyship is demonstrated most clearly in those circumstances in which a man is directly obliged to act in the place of other men, for example as a father, as a statesman or as a teacher. . . . The father acts for the children, working for them, caring for them, interceding, fighting and suffering for them. Thus in a real sense he is their deputy. He is not an isolated individual, but he combines in himself the selves of a number of human beings.” Even the solitary is a deputy, “for his life is lived in deputyship for man as man, for mankind as a whole” (p. 221).
This is ultimately a Christological fact (as everything is for Bonhoeffer):
Jesus “lived in deputyship for us as the incarnate Son of God, and that is why through Him all human life is in essence a life of deputyship. Jesus . . . lived only as the one who has taken up into Himself and who bears within Himself the selves of all men.” In the light of Christ, we can see that “deputyship, and therefore also responsibility, likes only in the complete surrender of one’s own life to the other man. Only the selfless man lives responsibility, and this means that only the selfless man lives” (222).
Once we recognize the reality of deputyship, “this reality shatters the fiction that the subject, the performer, of all ethical conduct is the isolated individual. Not the individual in isolation but the responsible man is the subject” (221).
Bonhoeffer’s uses “responsibility” in a deliberately anti-Niebuhrian sense: There is no “realism” here, for reality, as Bonhoeffer argues elsewhere, is Christologically defined. Bonhoeffer recognizes no responsible public man who can set aside the demands of the gospel. Precisely in his public capacity a deputy, a responsible man must enact the self-sacrifice demanded by Jesus. Through the concept of “deputyship,” Bonhoeffer redefines Niebuhrian “responsibility” evangelically.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Friday, September 28, 2012 at 5:11 am
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