Set Free from An Enslaving & Oversexualized Self: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Personal Liberty

Name and Place for Tuesday, June 24 (’14)

Ours is an era of ubiquitous freedom.  Indeed, it often seems that the only true sin is limiting my right to (fill-in-the-blank-sexual conduct).  In such a time and place, a voice beckons from a nation and era of a particular kind of eugenic, sexual wickedness that we (arrogantly) believe we’ll never become.

The preservation of bodily life involves protection against arbitrary infringement of the liberty of the body.  The human body must never become a thing, any object, such as might fall under the unrestricted power of another man and be used by him solely as a means to his own ends.  The living human body is always the man himself.  Rape, exploitation, torture and arbitrary Dietrich Bonhoefferconfinement of the human body are serious violations of the right which is given with the creation of man, and what is more, like violations of natural life, they must sooner or later entail their own punishment.

Rape is the use of the body of another for one’s own purposes, enforced by the application of a power which is not rightful.  In opposition to it there stands the right of the human being to give or to refuse his body in freedom.  In special circumstances the bodily strength of the individual may rightfully be set to work for the sake of the common good even under compulsion, but human sexuality remains exempt from any such constraint.  Any attempt to bring about particular marriages or other sexual relationships by coercion, whatever the reasons may be, is quite clearly an infringement of the bodily liberty of the human being, and it conflicts with that underlying fact of sexual life which, as a natural mode of defense, marks the limit beyond which no alien interference may pass, namely the sense of shame.  In the natural feeling of shame, expression is given to the essential freedom of the human body in its sexual aspect.  The destruction of the sense of shame means the dissolution of all sexual and conjugal order, and indeed of all social order in the widest sense.  Certainly the sense of shame assumes various forms and can be cultivated in various ways.  But its unchanging essence, which is founded in nature, is the safe-guarding of the freedom of the human body against any sort of violation.  This freedom watches over the mystery of human corporeality.

It is apparent that the godly restraint of Christian sexual ethics, even among Christians, is eroding in the American context or, perhaps, simply becoming more public.  What, then, becomes a standard by which to measure what is an infringement upon personal liberty?

Our society increasingly leans towards an ethic like that which drove Humpty Dumpty to say, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”  Perhaps, as Christians, it is time we continually press those around us as did Alice to Humpty Dumpty:  “The question is, whether you can make words mean so many things.”  God help us.

Quote taken from Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 181-182.  For a good biography of Bonhoeffer at a great price, see WTS Books.

Other works by Bonhoeffer can be purchased here.


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