Two reasons why Dietrich Bonhoeffer has nothing to say to American Christians today (part 1 of 3)
|November 16, 2012||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
The situation of Christians in America today is not promising. Apart from numerous political and economic problems, it is evident that the government and the culture at large are increasingly unsympathetic to Christians, even hostile. If present trends continue there is a real possibility that, even sooner than we might care to think, bible-believing Christians will find themselves in real difficulty.
Some think that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was peripherally involved in the plot to kill Hitler and was executed by the Nazis, can serve as an example for us in these troubled times. His witness can, it has been said, strengthen our faith. It is claimed that his “prophetic life” can challenge and inspire us; that his resistance to tyranny shows us what conviction and strength of faith can accomplish.
There are two reasons why I believe that Bonhoeffer has nothing to say to us when it comes to maintaining a Christian witness in adverse circumstances. First, during all of the years when Hitler was a growing menace but the Nazis had not yet come to power, Bonhoeffer said nothing against them – at least not according to Erich Metaxas’ recent biography, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy . Bonhoeffer never spoke out before 1933 against the falsehood of the Nazi ideology, and never contrasted Nazi lies with biblical teachings.
Is that what Christians are supposed to do, say nothing and do nothing to prevent the forces of evil from coming to power, and then after they have come to power engage in undercover assassination plots? I submit that instead of saying and doing nothing, Christians should be fighting a spiritual warfare as the Bible says, a warfare not of undercover plots and futile political machinations, but of the truths of the Word of God that expose the false movements of the world, and explain why they are untrue.
In the context of the rising tide of Naziism, this would have meant stating repeatedly from pulpits across the land that Naziism was contrary to the Bible: that Hitler was wrong; that the Germans were not the master race; that life was not an iron struggle in which might made right, that the power and glory of Germany was not the most important thing; that it would profit people nothing if they lived in a mighty and powerful country but lost their souls and were rejected by God on the day of judgment; that the Jews were ordinary human beings like anyone else and in no sense a threat to a non-existent master race. What we need are forgiveness of sins and the Spirit of God to live for God, which are available only through faith in Christ.
This is not a matter of politics, and merely supporting this or that party. It is a matter of the gospel of Christ, and opposing the false alternatives that the world in its wisdom is constantly presenting as the true meaning of life. The purpose would not have been to save Germany, it would have been to present the Christian message and expose opposition to that message, for the salvation of souls. If many pastors all across the land had been presenting Germans with biblical truths they might have had some impact. At the very least they would have left no doubt as to the relationship between Naziism and biblical Christianity. But, they didn’t give this message. Bonhoeffer did not give this message. They played their safe theological word games, isolated and irrelevant, while the rising tide of evil drew ever nearer and multitudes perished without Christ and without salvation.
Bonhoeffer did make a radio speech just after Hitler came to power, in which he warned against the danger of a “misleader,” and this has often been pointed to show Bonhoeffer’s bold and heroic opposition to Hitler, but Metaxas points out that the speech had been scheduled well before Hitler’s unexpected appointment to the chancellorship. He also points out that the speech was a general one on a current topic, was not specifically about Hitler, and did nothing to expose the falsehoods of Naziism in a direct way (p. 139).
Metaxas tells us Bonhoeffer was a “fearless and persistent voice” in his private conversations with the English bishop George Bell (p. 189) – but if Bonhoeffer was fearless in private he was not so in public. In a sermon in 1932, when the Nazis had emerged as a great and present danger, Bonhoeffer “seemed to want to wake everyone up” but never went beyond vague and safe theological generalities which were no threat to the Nazis at all (p. 122).
He criticized the church for being dead and dying but did not mention that one of the reasons for this was the many pastors like himself who did not even believe in the Bible and so had no clear message of salvation. Nor did he warn them of the coming danger of a virulent paganism that was hostile to everything the church stood for. In a sermon of 1933, a month after Hitler had come to power, Bonhoeffer preached another sermon which was so vague and general the Nazis had no need to be concerned about it (pp. 144-145). Some rhetoric about “faith in God” or “the church has only one pulpit” is very far from Bonhoeffer seeing the situation clearly and not being afraid to preach what he saw. If, for example, a preacher in America today were to say “We need faith in God and the church has only one pulpit from which that faith must be preached,” would the gay rights activists and the abortionists and the atheists and the people in government who are hostile to religious freedom care in the least about that? 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.
1. Nelson hardcover edition 2010.