What is the Church? A building with a steeple, a sanctuary full of people, a religious club for the saints, a recovery center for the “ain’ts”? What is the Church? That was the question at the center of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work and life.
In post-World War I Germany, the “church” was a Christian institution defined by national identity and race. Its relation to the State was that of handmaiden—a role that would prove disastrous for the church and the country. Ironically, this situation and the public perceptions that engendered it were due, in no small part, to the magisterial influence of Martin Luther.
As Eric Metaxas explains in Bonhoeffer—Pastor, Martyr, Pastor, Spy, before Luther there was no Germany, per se, as there was no common language, culture or heritage. But the publication of the Luther Bible, translated into German, unified the people around a common tongue. In a way, Luther midwifed the nation, making Christianity foundational to the German identity, such that being German meant being Christian, and being Christian meant unwavering loyalty to the Fatherland.
From glory to ignominy
After the glorious era of nation-building under the Kaisers, Germany experienced a blistering defeat in WWI. The loss was a humiliating blow to national pride. But worse, the terms of surrender under the Versailles Treaty for disarmament and monetary reparations, threatened the survival of the country.
Over the next fourteen years, the Weimar Republic, which had replaced the imperial monarchy, did little to restore the nation to its former glory. Instead, deteriorating economic conditions and widespread crime, vice, and unemployment were exhausting public patience. By 1933, the political winds had shifted 180 degrees back to a monarchal-style rule, but with a difference.
Just as the Israelites, eager to measure up to their pagan neighbors, had clamored for a king, the Germans, impatient for national revival and international respect, sought a leader who would usher in a new Reich.
In January 1933, Germany got its “Saul” in the chancellorship of Adolph Hitler.
Hitler was the incarnation of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch in the robes of Plato’s philosopher-king, imbibing the swill of social Darwinism. He stepped on the world stage as “der Fuhrer,” Germany’s anticipated leader, in whom was the source of law and order; through whom, the collective will of the people was expressed; by whom, Germany would enter a glorious eschaton; and to whom, Germans owed total allegiance and unquestioned obedience.
Within a matter of weeks, the regime suspended civil liberties under the pretense of national security and vested Hitler with absolute governmental power. A few weeks later, the Nazis restricted non-Aryans from serving in governmental posts and offices. The “Aryan Paragraph,” as Metaxas notes, would be the legal steppingstone to the horrors of Treblinka, Dachau, and Auschwitz.
As the country was in thrall to its Fuhrer, Bonhoeffer criticized what its nationalistic zeal had produced: An absolute Leader bestowed with unlimited power and answerable to no higher authority, as opposed to the true leader who “sees that his office is a penultimate authority… in the face of [the ultimate] authority of God.”
For the German Church, which was a state-church, the Aryan Paragraph meant that people of Jewish descent would not be allowed to hold official church positions (pastors, ministers, bishops). Tragically, many Christians, caught up in Fuhrer fervor, bought into the Paragraph. It was reasoned that if Hitler was going to restore moral and economic order and keep the Fatherland safe from the communists, as he had promised, the Paragraph might be a necessary, if unpleasant, measure. As der Fuhrer, he was law. As Germans and Christians, they owed him their obedience.
Others, like Bonhoeffer, saw this rightly as a breathtaking instance of governmental overreach. While the State has authority in the civil affairs of man, it has no business in the affairs of the Church, especially mandating who is fit to serve as its shepherds and spiritual leaders.
Recognizing the danger of the State’s arrogation, Bonhoeffer spoke out against the complacence of German Christians. He warned that what was at stake was the very essence of the church. If Jew and German could not “stand together under the Word of God,” whatever the church was claimed to be, it was not the church established by Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer called attention to the church’s role in civil society as conscience of the state and defender of the persecuted. As Caesar’s conscience, the church reminds him of his high calling and challenges his questionable actions. As defender of the persecuted, the church gives aid to Caesar’s victims and, when necessary, engages in civil disobedience against state-sponsored injustice.
Moreover, contrary to the sentiment that the church was an ethnically closed institution associated with the manifest destiny of Germany, the true Church was universal in scope, transcending all material distinctions. Metaxas recounts two experiences that were influential in shaping Bonhoeffer’s ecumenical understandings.
The first was in Rome where, as an 18 year old, Bonhoeffer witnessed a host of “white, black, [and] yellow members of religious orders” participating in a Mass at St. Peter’s. The second was years later in the black churches of America, where Bonhoeffer observed uncommon piety and spiritual power among church members.
Ignoring its biblical mandate, the German church remained in lockstep with the State and its anti-Semitic agenda. In the eyes of faithful Christians, the Reich church had de-legitimized itself, convicting many, like Bonhoeffer, to break away and form the “Confessing Church.”
Made up of orthodox Christians, the Confessing Church was grounded on three principles: 1) fidelity to the Scriptures and the historical confessions of the church, 2) aid to the victims of the state, and 3) renunciation of the Aryan Paragraph.
Upon Bonhoeffer’s defection, it was suggested that he could be more effective working within the established church. To which he quipped, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.” It is a point worth noting today for Christians who remain in churches that have been moving further and further from the scriptural foundations of the faith.
Regrettably, even “confessing” Christians were not immune to the Fuhrer’s spell. Hitler’s early military triumphs, combined with his anti-communist and pro-Christian propaganda, duped more than a few serious Christians into acquiescence and accommodation. Thus, while the Confessing Church renounced the legitimacy of the Reich church, it failed to take a hard public stand against the State for fear of being seen as unpatriotic, or worse.
At the same time, it was individual Christians who took up the cause of Jews and other “undesirables,” at significant personal risk, by opposing the regime through non-compliance and underground Resistance.
German resistance was aimed at overthrowing the Nazi regime by a military coup triggered by Hitler’s assassination. Bonhoeffer joined the Resistance, initially gathering data on Hitler’s atrocities, and later as part of the assassination conspiracy. As quoted by Metaxas, Bonhoeffer’s best friend and mentor, Eberhard Bethge, explains how Dietrich squared his involvement with his pacifist leanings. In light of the “escalating persecution of the Jews,” Bethge writes,
“The levels of confession and resistance could no longer be kept neatly apart… We now realized that mere confession, no matter how courageous, inescapably meant complicity with the murders…”
Bethge concluded, “We were resisting by way of confession, but we were not confessing by way of resistance.” For Bonheoffer, Bethge, and the Resistance Christians, a faith not lived was no faith at all. Or, as Bonhoeffer would put it, “only he who is obedient believes.”
On April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer’s obedience led to his execution in Flossenburg, two weeks before the Allies liberated the town. On April 30, the leader who ordered his execution committed suicide with his wife in a Berlin bunker.
In the intervening years, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been raised by the Christian left and the Christian right as an exemplar of their brand. Among left-leaning Christians, he is venerated as a stalwart of social justice. Among right-leaning Christians, he is esteemed for his evangelical orthodoxy. Eric Metaxas falls in the latter group and has been charged by critics for “hijacking” Bonhoeffer as an evangelical.
Truth is, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a complex theological thinker who doesn’t fit comfortably into our neatly tailored ecclesial robes. His theological musings—which were, at times, abstract and undecipherable, and at others, contradictory—don’t align well with either side. His promotion of scriptural authority and traditional canons would exclude him from the liberal camp. And his isolated and oddly conflicting statements about the same (for instance, concerning the historicity of the Virgin Birth) would disqualify him as a fellow in good standing with evangelicals.
But the importance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not whether he was a liberal Christian or conservative evangelical but, rather, what he tells us about being the Church. That is the subject of the third and final part of "Lessons from Bonhoeffer."
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Part 1 of "Lessons from Bonhoeffer," click here.
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