Bonhoeffer's concept of "place-sharing"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's concept of "place-sharing" was fundamental to his Christology and missiology (including his view of discipleship). To help us understand place-sharing, I offer below an extended quote from "God is a God who bears: Bonhoeffer for a Flat World" by Gary Simpson, published in the Fall 2006 issue of "Word and World." For earlier related posts, click here, here, herehere and here.

In [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer’s 1927 dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, he had already laid the christological groundwork for the “bearing God”.... Bonhoeffer’s technical German word for Jesus’ bearing is Stellvertretung, translated “vicarious representative action,” or more usably translated “place-sharing.”

Bonhoeffer develops his bearing, place-sharing theology of sociality by exploring Luther’s “wonderful and profound” understanding of Jesus’ “happy exchange.” According to Luther, Jesus’ own place-sharing becomes the very form of the communion of saints through the sacrament of Holy Communion. Thus Luther:
Christ with all saints, by his love, takes upon himself our form [Phil. 2:7], fights with us against sin, death, and all evil. This enkindles in us such love that we take on his form, rely upon his righteousness, life, and blessedness. And through the interchange of his blessings and our misfortunes, we become one loaf, one bread, one body, one drink, and have all things in common. O this is a great sacrament, says St. Paul, that Christ and the church are one flesh and bone. Again through this same love, we are to be changed and to make the infirmities of all other Christians our own; we are to take upon ourselves their form and their necessity, and all the good that is within our power we are to make theirs, that they may profit from it. That is real fellowship, and that is the true significance of this sacrament.
Jesus’ place-sharing generates both the internal form of churchly discipleship and the church’s missional form relative to the world. This brings us back full circle to Bonhoeffer’s “After Ten Years.” He concluded that letter with “the view from below”:
There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.... This perspective from below must not become the partisan possession of those who are eternally dissatisfied; rather, we must do justice to life in all its dimensions from a higher satisfaction, whose foundation is beyond any talk of ‘from below’ or ‘from above.’ This is the way in which we may affirm it.
Jesus’ place-sharing always desires to take his churchly body somewhere, always surprising his disciples. Neither disciples nor the world assign Jesus his place. Unbeknownst to Dietrich, his early view from below began with the death of his older brother during World War I; continued when the privileged Dietrich met and ministered to unemployed workers on his internship in Barcelona, Spain; intensified when he witnessed racial discrimination against Harlem African Americans during his study year in New York; and culminated in the Nazi nightmare and his own martyrdom. Dietrich’s “view from below” responds to “Are we still of any use?”

Our bearing, place-sharing view from below will be no less “an experience of incomparable value” in an ever-flattening world. God’s now flat world is surely, and sorely, ambiguous. It can easily “loosely connect,” but it can just as readily, and just as likely, flatten those living below. Merely follow international events! In the opening paragraph of “After Ten Years” Bonhoeffer made an admission about the view from below: “There is nothing new about [the things we have learned], for they were known long before; but it has been given to us to reach them anew by first-hand experience.”

What do you think? Where in the flat world will our place-sharing, bearing God place you?

Gary M. Simpson is professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN.