Bearing a faithful witness in a hostile culture requires what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “civic courage.” It’s as true now as it was in his time.
July 27, 1945. London is still slowly recovering from six years of war with Germany. Hundreds of thousands of British soldiers are dead. British cities are in ruins. As newsreels expose fresh horrors from the Nazi death camps, the British people wonder, “Is there no end to German atrocities?”
Thus, it was not surprising that many Brits recoiled when they heard about a memorial service at London’s Holy Trinity Church—not for England’s war dead, but for a German. The service would be broadcast on the BBC. Many wondered: Could there be such a thing as a good German, worthy of such an honor?
The answer was emphatically yes. The service was for Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis three weeks before the war’s end. Bonhoeffer is often remembered for his resistance to Hitler, in fact taking part in the plot to kill him. But Bonhoeffer is also celebrated for his role in a significant event in the life of the Church—the drafting of the Barmen Declaration.
After Hitler rose to power, the Nazis tried to co-opt the German church, mixing Christian truth with Nazi doctrine. Some church leaders allowed themselves to be drawn into this deal with the devil. Others, like Karl Barth and Bonhoeffer, refused.
As my former colleague Eric Metaxas writes in his inspiring new book, Bonhoeffer, in May of 1934, “the leaders of the Pastors’ Emergency League held a synod in Barmen. It was there, on the Wupper River, that they wrote the famous Barmen Declaration, from which emerged what came to be known as the Confessing Church.”
The Declaration boldly declared independence from both the state and a co-opted church. It made clear that the signers and their churches were not seceding from the German church; instead, it was the co-opted German church that had broken away.
To Bonhoeffer, writes Metaxas, the Barmen Declaration “reclarified what it—the legitimate and actual German Church—actually believed and stood for.” It rejected the “false doctrine” that the Church could change according to “prevailing ideological and political positions.”
This rejection is an essential part of what it means to be the Church. Caesar, in all his guises, will urge us to compromise and tailor our message to meet his agenda. Our situation isn’t as dire as Bonheoffer’s, but government today is attempting to force the church to bow to the prevailing political winds—like, for example, so-called same-sex “marriage” and sanctity of life issues like abortion and end-of-life decisions.
Like Bonhoeffer and his colleagues, we must constantly remember where our ultimate allegiance lies. We must also be willing to practice the great virtue of civic courage. I talk more about this—in very practical terms—on today’s Two Minute Warning video commentary, which I urge you to go and watch at Colson Center.org.
We, the church, must declare where we stand. That’s why we, motivated by the Barmen example, wrote the Manhattan Declaration—and why a half a million believers have signed it. But making a declaration is one thing. Living up to what we declare, as Bonhoeffer did, is another.
And that will require courage in the coming years. A lot of it.