Crime against the State?
Yesterday I read an article about a street preacher arrested in a northern English village. His crime? When responding to a woman's question, he listed homosexual behavior among a list of things contrary to the Word of God. He wasn't combative or loud, but a nearby policeman -- who happened to be gay -- overheard him and the preacher, a Baptist in his early forties, was promptly arrested for causing "harassment, alarm or distress" contrary to Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
Adolf Hitler may have failed to bring fascism to England, but when reading about incidents like this, we have to wonder how much they needed his help. Incidentally, this event took place on April 20th, Hitler's birthday. This struck me as disturbingly apt and as I thought about it, I couldn't help wonder: "What would Dietrich Bonhoeffer do?"
I've been asking this question a lot lately. That's probably because I've written a biography of Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy) and I can't get him out of my mind. But part of the reason I wrote the book in the first place was to get others to ask the same question.
Those who have gone before
To some Christians the idea of asking anything but "What would Jesus do?" is blasphemous. But God wants us to look at the lives of those who have gone before us -- whom the writer of the book of Hebrews called that "great cloud of witnesses" -- who have run the race of faith successfully. That's an important part of how we learn what it is to live the Christian life. We need to see other Christians in action, to see what the Christian faith looks like when it’s lived out in difficult circumstances by others. And when we need to see how we should deal with persecution amidst encroaching fascism, Bonhoeffer is the best role model there is.
So what would Bonhoeffer do?
For one thing, Bonhoeffer would recognize that what happened in that English village was a serious attack on religious liberty: the state was encroaching on the realm of the church. He saw this in his own Germany up close and understood that Christians must fight against such things with all their might and main, before it was too late. Sadly he was often alone in understanding this.
In a 1934 meeting with Hitler, the great pastor Martin Niemoller naively still believed that Hitler would respect the Church's place in Germany. But when he offered some thoughtful advice, Hitler snapped: "I'll take care of the Third Reich, you just worry about your sermons!" Hitler wanted to severely limit the activities of Christians to the merely "religious" sphere; and he knew that if he commanded all other spheres in German life, what these annoying pastors said in their sermons wouldn't matter anyway.
Bonhoeffer, however, understood the proper roles of the church and the state, and he recognized the Nazi threat to religious liberty from the beginning. He understood what the Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper once said, that there is not one square inch of creation over which Jesus Christ does not say: "Mine!" The Nazis wanted to bully Christians into accepting a place of such diminished stature in the culture that they had no real voice. But whenever the Nazis trespassed on God's property, as it were, Bonhoeffer met the challenge. He drew a line in the sand and then passionately rallied his fellow Christians to stand with him on that line, to defend it at all costs.
Most famously -- in what came to be known as the "Aryan Paragraph" -- the Nazis made laws barring ethnically Jewish Christians from church ministry, and Bonhoeffer spoke out. He knew that the Church of Jesus Christ could not be divided along racial lines. Most other Christians were not so bold, though. They thought they might go along with this idea, in the interests of continuing to preach the Gospel. Bonhoeffer knew that preaching the Gospel under such circumstances was not preaching the Gospel at all.
A fool’s errand
But while Bonhoeffer was trying to wake up the German Church to stand boldly and decisively against the Nazis, another Christian was taking a different tack. Frank Buchman was a prominent American evangelical who headed up something called the Oxford Movement. He hoped to convert Hitler and the other top Nazis to the Christian faith, believing that this would solve everything.
Bonhoeffer knew that Buchman's goal was laudable in principle, but in reality it was a fool's errand. Buchman failed to discern the times in which he was living. While he was trying to arrange lunches to talk with Himmler about Jesus, the very liberties that made it possible to preach the Gospel in Germany were brutally being kicked down the stairs and out the door.
But Buchman's idea is alive and well in America today. One often hears Christians say that they don't want to get involved in political or cultural battles; they just want to "preach the Gospel." They think that by avoiding political and cultural battles they will retain the credibility necessary to be effective in preaching the Gospel.
But according to Bonhoeffer, this is tragically mistaken. If your ability to speak the truth is itself under attack -- if you cannot say that certain sexual behavior is wrong, or that taking unborn life is wrong -- your ability to be a Christian is itself under attack. The Gospel you will be preaching has been fatally compromised.
Stand for religious freedom
Bonhoeffer struggled to get his fellow Christians to see that if one didn't stand up for religious freedom, every possibility to preach the true Gospel would soon be gone. Time and again he drew a line in the sand and tried to rally other Christians to stand with him and hold that line.
The biggest, brightest line in the sand was something called the Barmen Declaration. The Nazis had infiltrated the church and were perverting its doctrines from within, so Bonhoeffer and Niemoller and other Christian leaders decided it was time to make a clear break with the Nazified "Reich Church." So they wrote the document that came to be called the Barmen Declaration. Anyone who signed on to it became a member of what was then known as the Confessing Church, the true Church in Germany, free from the interference of the Nazi State.
Recently a group of U.S. Christian leaders felt that our own government had crossed a line and was overreaching its proper role with regard to the church: redefining marriage and forcing Christians to go along with pro-abortion policies, for example. These Christian leaders reckoned that the time to take a stand against this encroachment had come, so they drafted something called the Manhattan Declaration (www.manhattandeclaration.org). Like the Barmen Declaration before it, the Manhattan Declaration is a bright line in the sand.
I'm sure that Bonhoeffer would have stood with them, by signing it and by exhorting others to do the same. So I've signed it and I'm hereby exhorting you to sign it, too, if you haven't already. And I'm hoping you will exhort those in your circles to do the same. Won't you?
Eric Metaxas is the author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson 2010) and the New York Times bestseller Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (HarperOne 2007). Follow Eric's work at: www.ericmetaxas.com.
For an insightful interview with Eric about Bonhoeffer--the book and the man--listen to this Discourse podcast from our sister site, BreakPoint.org
For more insight to this topic, read The Manhattan Declaration. Start your own discussion group and lead a group of your friends to determine together how you will stand for religious freedom. Download this free guide: Manhattan Declaration Bible Study."