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Lessons from Bonhoeffer, Part 2

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll
2022 14 Jan

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, Prophet, 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.

Der Fuhrer

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.

Speaking out

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....

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