I grew up in a family of six: two parents and four children. By the time my mother was 30 years old, she had given birth to four children—a daunting responsibility. My parents showered love on us but also maintained a strict household. We were punished when we violated their rules, but justice was usually administered fairly and equally. We lived in moderate houses during my childhood, but this was not important to me. I was happy to share a bedroom with one or both of my brothers. Family togetherness was a natural reality and while individuality was honored, it was secondary to community as a family.
As each child was able, family chores were assigned: taking out the trash, vacuuming the floors, bringing dirty clothes to the laundry room, cleaning the kitchen after meals, washing the dishes, etc. As we grew older, we were assigned additional chores: washing the cars, mowing the grass, cooking meals, and assisting my mother with grocery shopping. We were not paid for these tasks; all family members were expected to contribute to the needs of the family.
I don’t remember complaining about doing chores; I just did them. It was a teachable role that I learned from watching my older brother do his first chores. When we were younger, these chores took little time and were easily completed. When I was strong enough to mow the grass and wash the cars, I divided the outside work with my brothers. We knew that all work had to be completed by Saturday evening or as my mother would say, “there will be war in the house!” My parents wanted the lawn and cars looking nice on Sunday.
In Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s assembled papers titled Ethics, published in Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, Editors, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006, pages 107–112), he writes on vocation and responsibility. “Vocation is the place at which one responds to the call of Christ and thus lives responsibly. The task given to me by my vocation is thus limited; but my responsibility to the call of Jesus Christ knows no bound.” Bonhoeffer knew firsthand about responsibility as he lived in Nazi Germany and took a dangerous stand against the government which ultimately led to his execution shortly before the end of World War II.
Most people define vocation as an occupation or paid work. Bonhoeffer expands vocational boundaries into a relationship with Jesus Christ and humanity. “Vocation comprises work with things and issues as well as personal relations; it requires a definite ‘field of activity,’ though never as a value in itself but only in responsibility to Jesus Christ. By being related to Jesus Christ, the ‘definite field of activity’ is set free from any isolation. The boundary of vocation has been broken open not only vertically, through Christ, but horizontally, with regard to the extent of responsibility.”
Bonhoeffer was a man of peace within an evil, totalitarian country. He faced difficult choices: to live peacefully surrounded by evil or commit evil against an evil government. Bonhoeffer decided to join a group of German citizens that attempted (and failed) to murder Adolf Hitler. “For Bonhoeffer, radical obedience to Christ’s call meant radical freedom to be fully responsible to and for others.” For his involvement, he was imprisoned in Berlin and later executed. His brother, Klaus, and brother-in-law, Rüdiger Schleicher, were also imprisoned, tortured, and executed for the same crime.
I was taught early to be responsible to my family. This early lesson later bore fruits of individual responsibility within a larger community. As I grew into adulthood, I expanded my definition of community as a member of the worldwide community. Responsibility does not stop when we leave our houses, drive our cars, or reside within our national borders.
My more recent study of vocation has led me to understand vocation as being called by Jesus Christ into a life of faith which permeates all aspects of my life. Bonhoeffer, at a much younger age than me, understood the totality of responsibility: “Vocation is a responsibility, and responsibility is the whole response of the whole person to reality as a whole. This is precisely why a myopic self-limitation to one’s vocational obligation in the narrowest sense is out of the question; such a limitation would be irresponsibility.”