Two reasons why Dietrich Bonhoeffer has nothing to say to American Christians today (2 of 3)
|December 7, 2012||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
(This is a continuation of the examination of the first reason why Bonhoeffer’s life and witness is not relevant to us today: that he did not publicly speak out and oppose Hitler openly)
If Bonhoeffer had said “Naziism is wrong, the Germans are not the master race, Hitler is deceived and those who follow him are deceived” that would have had more of an impact – but he was always careful never to say anything publicly that might give too much offense to the Nazis. For example, at an international youth conference in Denmark in 1934, when a bold and fearless Bonhoeffer might have spoken directly to the world about the persecution of Christians in Germany and about the godless and wicked ideology of Naziism, he once again confined himself to safe generalities. Words about “faith in God,” “the cross,” obey God, hear his Word, “giving oneself completely to God’s commandment,” were no threat to those in power and meant little or nothing coming from someone who was not even sure if Christ had risen from the dead or was born of a virgin <http://hitlerandchristianity.com/metaxas-or-weikart-whos-right-about-bonhoeffer-part-3-of-3/694.html>.
Metaxas in this context compares Bonhoeffer to Jeremiah and Jonah , which is odd, since those two men directly and openly confronted the authorities with their sins and errors as Bonhoeffer never did. He was not even remotely like the Old Testament prophets in this respect. So careful was he to avoid giving offense that when a Danish newspaper (speaking of the above-mentioned youth conference) ran a headline “German Youth Speak Freely: ‘Hitler Wants to Be Pope,’ ” Bonhoeffer knew this might cause difficulties and did everything in his power to play it down . Fortunately for him the Nazis weren’t interested. They had long since learned that the German churches as a whole would not do anything, and that general religious and theological rhetoric meant little. It appears in this case the German youth were bolder than Bonhoeffer.
Now, we can appreciate the dangerous position Bonhoeffer was in. Too much criticism could easily have led to a concentration camp, torture, and death, and it would be wrong to criticize Bonhoeffer too severely. Who knows what we might have done in that situation? No, we can’t condemn Bonhoeffer, but we should not make a hero out of him either or set him up as an example, much less call him a prophet, when at no time did he ever directly speak out in an unequivocal way about the ungodly nature of Naziism in plain language. He does not belong on a pedestal.
What’s really remarkable is Metaxas’ account of Bonhoeffer’s meeting with Norwegian church leaders during the war. When the Nazi puppet government under Vidkun Quisling struck at the church, the bishops and priests openly defied the government and refused to cooperate. Metaxas says Bonhoeffer was eager to meet with them and offer them “the benefit of his experience” .
He did meet with them – and what did he say? Did he say “Based on my experience, I advise you to cooperate with the authorities, but plot to assassinate Quisling while you feign loyalty”? That was Bonhoeffer’s approach – but we read that Bonhoeffer “insisted on bitter resistance – even as far as martyrdom” . He advised them to do what he did not do himself. He was caught because of a conspiratorial slip-up, but was always careful to cooperate as much as possible so as not to interfere with his secret agent work.
True, it was easier for the Norwegian church leaders to speak out than it would have been for German pastors, who would have been much more severely dealt with, but I really don’t think this hero-worship of Bonhoeffer is being conducted in Spirit and in truth.
Bonhoeffer was always careful to avoid going too far, and even wrote (while in prison) these words to his interrogators while in prison: “. . . the Gestapo have not confronted me with a single ‘disruptive’ sermon or lecture. Secondly, to avoid all further conflict, I had withdrawn to the mountains of Bavaria, to write a large academic work . . . I have kept strictly to the terms of the prohibition against my speaking in public” . Perhaps Bonheoffer could also have advised the Norwegian churchmen to go into seclusion and write theology as an alternative to assassinations and undercover work.
Has anyone ever pointed out that Bonhoeffer told a lot of lies during his interrogation? He wrote that he really wanted to make a contribution to the Nazi war effort; that the church had a valuable role to play in supporting that war effort; that he wanted to rehabilitate himself with the authorities; that his engagement to a woman from a military family was proof of his loyalty; that his exposition of Romans chapter 13 in The Cost of Discipleship showed his belief in obedience to the Nazi authorities (which comment should be printed in every edition of that book); that he had told them everything he knew; that he wanted to strengthen the church in its contribution to the war- “I have done everything in my power to bring about as harmonious and strong a contribution by the church to the war effort as possible” .
Now, we dare not condemn Bonhoeffer too harshly, as his life was on the line, and who knows what we would have done in his place? But we should remember that when Stephen and Paul and numerous other Christians were brought before the authorities, they did not need to cover their tracks with a lot of lies. This is because they were spiritual men engaged in a spiritual warfare, not undercover operators fighting a worldly battle with worldly weapons.
. Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nelson, 2010), p. 241.
. Ibid., p. 242.
. Ibid., p. 355.
. Ibid., 396.
. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York 1997), p. 57-60.
. Ibid., p. 66.