This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Sojourners magazine. To subscribe, click here.
ARE WE IN a “Bonhoeffer moment” today?
It is common to wonder what we would have done if we lived in history’s most challenging times. Christians often find moral guidance in the laboratory of history—which is to say that we learn from historical figures and communities who came through periods of ethical challenge better than others. Christians who wish to discern faithfulness to Christ often look back to learn how others were able to determine faithful discipleship when their contemporaries could not.
With this in mind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer may help us out today.
Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who resisted his government when he recognized, very early and very clearly, the dangers of Hitler’s regime. His first warning about the dangers of a leader who makes an idol of himself came in a radio address delivered in February 1933, just two days after Hitler took office.
Despite an abiding Christ-centered peace ethic, a desire to study nonviolent political resistance with Gandhi, and extensive writing about loving one’s enemies, Bonhoeffer eventually became a member of a conspiracy that was responsible for a coup attempt against Hitler. Twelve years after he became one of the first voices in Germany to offer public opposition to the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was executed by them, as a traitor.
By Bonhoeffer’s own account, he and his co-conspirators were living in a time and place in which “the huge masquerade of evil has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion” and in which evil appears in the “form of light, good deeds, historical necessity, [and] social justice.” They were living in a time that required a radical form of ethical discernment, attuned to concrete reality, historical urgency, and the desperate cries of help from victims of the state.
Throughout his life, Bonhoeffer developed theological themes that made social interaction the point of departure for understanding Christian faithfulness. He emphasized redemptive suffering in solidarity with the most vulnerable as well as what he called “costly grace,” and he made a distinction between religion and Christ-centeredness; religion is our effort to reach God while Christ-centeredness embraces God’s self-revelation to the world in the incarnation and in the church. In his final years, Bonhoeffer emphasized Christ-centeredness as religionless, or this-worldly, Christianity.
These are themes that qualify him as one of Martin Luther’s “theologians of the cross”; that is, people—like Bonhoeffer—who join God in the world, in solidarity with those who suffer, and who make difficult, even countercultural decisions, especially in times when evil is disguised as good.
Perpetrators, bystanders, and resisters
We live in a time of moral obscurity. Communities and large demographic groups in this country are divided, both literally and ideologically, by competing truth claims that produce conflict and confusion. The current administration promotes these divisions. In fact, Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency centered on a declaration of building a wall, on the racial scapegoating of Mexicans and Muslims, on messages of ableism and misogyny, and on the denigration of African Americans by employing images of the “iconic ghetto,” as Elijah Anderson put it, especially in his references to violence in Chicago.
His “Make America Great Again” nationalism seeks to close the borders and recover some idealized picture of what America supposedly used to be, a picture steeped in white supremacy and the misguided ideology of “separate but equal.” Disturbingly, large numbers of white evangelical Christians share in this longing for Mayberry.
Since taking office, Trump and his administration have worked to enact a ban on Muslims, severely limited the number of refugees who can enter the country, jeopardized the safety of transgendered individuals serving in the military, declared some members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups who rallied in Virginia to be “very fine,” and turned a blind eye to police brutality and racial profiling while demonizing those peacefully protesting it. And this list is not even close to exhaustive. Moreover, the administration has acted, and continues to act, with the explicit support of many (primarily) white Christians, and the complicity of many more.
Drawing historical analogies is difficult, even perilous, work, but Bonhoeffer’s context—specifically the church context within Nazi Germany—provides a helpful lens for reflecting on our current situation. As in so many other moments in history, there were perpetrators, bystanders, and resisters to the Nazis, as David Gushee explains in Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust.
Hitler fanned the flames of white nationalism in Germany by exalting the Aryan as the image of the idealized German and the future of humanity. This image offered hope for an idealized German community populated with an idealized Aryan Herrenrasse (master race). It was core to the rhetoric of overcoming the problems plaguing Germany after the catastrophe of World War I. The Germans were devastated financially and required, by the victorious Allies at the post-war Versailles peace conference, to accept sole guilt and shame for the war; this idealized picture of the Aryan master race was their key to saving civilization and making Germany great again.
Hitler and his supporters wasted no time in starting the work necessary to enliven this vision, including scapegoating and eventually trying to exterminate all Jews in Europe. The Nazis were perpetrators.
Hitler pledged to make the Catholic Church in Germany, as well as the much more populated Protestant churches, the “cornerstone of the work of national revival,” according to Thomas Bokenkotter in A Concise History of the Catholic Church. While the German Protestant churches were far from unified in their support for Nazism, officials of the Catholic Church made an agreement with the new German government in 1933, a concordat between Hitler’s Reich and the Vatican. It gave the church space to carry out its sacred affairs without government intrusion, and offered financial and political support in return, so long as the church pledged loyalty to the Reich.
In signing this agreement, the Catholic Church, collectively, became a bystander, complicit in the horrors of the Nazi regime. (In 1998, Pope John Paul II finally issued a formal apology for the failure of the Catholic Church to take action against the Nazis and in support of the Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust.)
A large segment of the Protestant churches in Germany, known as Deutsche Christen (German Christians), became more than bystanders. Their explicit support of Hitler and National Socialist ideology, and its influence on their theology, made them perpetrators. They supported the rampant white nationalism of the Nazis and its extermination attempt against the Jews. They pledged loyalty to the Nazi government, making no distinction between the Führer’s authority over the government and the church. On Sunday mornings, the pews of the German Christian churches were filled with Nazi officers, SS guards, and concentration camp doctors.
Jamming the spokes: The resisters
In opposition to the German Christians, the Confessing Church movement was animated by pastors and church members who rejected Hitler as a figure of church authority. They believed certain matters to be of such importance as to be considered a status confessionis—that is, a situation in which only one position is in accord with the confession of Christ.
Bonhoeffer was a member of the Confessing Church movement. While many members of this movement emphasized the separation of church and state as a status confessionis, Bonhoeffer was more radical than his peers. He saw Nazi racism in this light, as a Christian problem, a status confessionis, and a defining moment for the church. His thinking on this point is explicit in his 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which he wrote in response to the government adoption of the so-called Aryan paragraph, which restricted those with Jewish heritage from holding public office.
A long history of Lutheran understandings of church and state authority underlie Bonhoeffer’s essay; his support of the Jews was not simply based on a humanitarian ideal. Something confessional was at stake for him, though, in the end, his work in solidarity with and on behalf of others had humanitarian, theological, and political implications.
In that 1933 essay, Bonhoeffer wrote that the church has the right and responsibility to ask whether the state is fulfilling its duty to preserve justice and order. He wrote that the church has the right and responsibility to aid victims of the state, even if they are not Christians. And, most famously, he wrote that the church has the right and responsibility to jam the spokes of the wheel of the state if it is creating too much or too little law. Jamming the spokes, he wrote, “is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself. Such an action would be direct political action on the part of the church.”
A year later, Karl Barth served as the primary author of the Theological Declaration of Barmen, also known as the Barmen Confession, offering affirmative doctrinal statements, condemning the distorted German Christian versions of those statements, and establishing the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer welcomed the declaration in continued support for the resistance movement. But his more radical stance moved him beyond the internal dispute about who had authority in the church. Although Bonhoeffer had a stake in this internal dispute, his resistance was more political and social, and driven by his theological commitments to Christ in concrete encounters with real human life.
Bonhoeffer’s earliest theology, found in his dissertation, posits the idea that the ongoing incarnation of Christ happens in community; the church is “Christ existing as community.” Not only does this idea contain the notion that social interaction is the point of departure for understanding Christian faithfulness, it means when I encounter another, I encounter Christ, and that other places an ethical demand on me.
Bonhoeffer’s fellowship to Union Theological Seminary in New York in the 1930-31 academic year added social and racial sensitivities to that theological insight. Friendships with fellow students, including French pacifist Jean Lasserre and African American Albert Fisher, offered conversations and lived experiences that shaped Bonhoeffer’s thinking in socially and politically radical ways.
After returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer co-authored a Lutheran catechism in which he declared that German “ethnic pride” was a sin. His reference to ethnic pride spoke to the German Völkisch tradition that the Nazis exploited with their white nationalist declarations of blood and soil. In the catechism, Bonhoeffer extended the conversation about race that became familiar to him at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He quoted from Acts: “God has arranged it so that all races of humanity of the earth come from one blood” (17:26). White nationalism is an affront to this God-given reality.
In that same catechism Bonhoeffer argued, “As much as the Christian would like to remain distant from political struggle, nonetheless, even here the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for his neighbor.” He continued, “His faith and love must know whether the dictates of the state may lead him against his conscience.” He had no idea that he would soon be pressed to act upon this line of thought.
Who stands firm?
In a powerful 1943 essay of support to his friends and family working in the resistance, written 10 years after Hitler ascended to power, Bonhoeffer asked, “Who stands firm? Only the one whose ultimate standard is not his reason, his principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call.”
It may seem strange to consider the need to give up one’s reason, principles, conscience, or virtue to act responsibly, but he was living in a complicated time when evil was disguised as good.
One of Bonhoeffer’s most important theological ideas might shed additional light; it is his understanding of Stellvertretung, or vicarious representative action. Christians understand the death of Christ as a vicarious act on behalf of humanity. Bonhoeffer says that to be disciples of Christ, to follow after Christ, we are called to act vicariously on behalf of others.
This idea has both a theological component and a moral one. In other words, it is not limited to the work of a Christian in the church community but refers to a way of being and acting in the world that is applicable to all people; it is a way of living that defines one’s humanity. In a beautiful twist on the classical theological dictum that God became human so that humans might become divine, Bonhoeffer argues that God became human so that humans could become truly human, and humane.
In Bonhoeffer’s case, acting on behalf of the neighbor took the form of protecting his Jewish neighbors from suffering and dying in concentration camps. And that required him to work, conspiratorially, toward a regime change, as a double agent and traitor to the state. But this work would not have been necessary if Christians had seen the evil of white nationalism and anti-Semitism as antithetical to their faith. Nazis gained power with Christian support.
Finally, we must be careful as we look to Bonhoeffer for guidance. Invoking his resistance, especially his role in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, can lead to nefarious conclusions, if we are not careful to do the arduous work of discernment that pays attention to his context and our own. For example, Dr. George Tiller was an abortion provider who was murdered by an anti-abortion activist in 2009. Tiller’s murderer modeled his action after a distorted interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s legacy.
Some who ask the question “Is this a Bonhoeffer moment?” are asking just that: Is this a time that calls for violence? Violence is not the answer. But even to ask that question is to miss the point of Bonhoeffer’s witness and signals one’s inability to hear the deep truth his life conveys. It is the wrong question.
Bonhoeffer’s life and work and death require us, especially Christians, to ask: Who is Christ for us today? That is a question that honors Bonhoeffer’s legacy.
It forces us to ask ourselves if we recognize Christ in the other. Do we recognize Christ in everyone othered by political structures in ways that push minoritized people to the margins and crush them against walls? Do we acknowledge that God has made from one blood all people that dwell on the Earth? Are we attempting to make ourselves into “good people,” defined by our weekly Sunday morning communities, ones that draw the boundaries of our social responsibilities quite narrowly, or are we looking to serve the Christ we meet in social encounters with real humans every day?
Bonhoeffer’s life and work and death require the church to ask these questions. In the midst of this current political maelstrom, do you individually or collectively want to be a perpetrator, bystander, or resister? Everything is at stake.
For Additional ReadingThe Bonhoeffer Reader, by Clifford J. Green and Michael P. DeJonge (Fortress Press, 2013)“Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Political Resistance in Tyrannical Times,” by Lori Brandt Hale, in Radical Lutherans/Lutheran Radicals (Wipf and Stock, 2017)Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians, by Stephen Haynes and Lori Brandt Hale (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler, by Victoria Barnett (Oxford University Press, 1992)Theologian of Resistance: The Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Christiane Tietz, trans. by Victoria J. Barnett (Fortress Press, 2016)Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, by Reggie L. Williams (Baylor Uni-versity Press, 2014)
Got something to say about what you're reading? We value your feedback!