Greetings! Below is the fourth reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact us: He stood against evil in society. Tomorrow, I will supplement this post with additional information about the seemingly conversion of Bonhoeffer from pacifism to his role as a conspirator to overthrow Adolf Hitler.

Introduction:

The fourth reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact us is the fact that he stood against evil in society. Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany on January 30, 1933. Bonhoeffer was among the first to realize that Hitler’s reign may mean persecution and even death to Christians: “We should not be surprised if the time comes for our church too, when the blood of martyrs will be called for.”[1] In the mind of Bonhoeffer, if the church actively opposed the policies of Hitler, then God’s people could expect to be persecuted. Of course, persecution would never come if the German Christians passively allowed Hitler to see his vision for Germany fulfilled.

Bonhoeffer actively opposed Hitler’s plan to eventually rid society of the Jewish people. On April 7, 1933, anti-Semitism officially became German government policy when Jews were banned from civil service. This was known as the “Aryan Clause”.[2] Six days before that, there was a boycott of Jewish merchants. The Aryan Clause directly affected the German church because non-Aryans were not only baptized members of the church, but some also held offices in the church. Thus, the door was wide open for discrimination and rejection even by fellow Christians.

Later that month, Bonhoeffer addressed a group of pastors with an essay entitled: “The Church and the Jewish Question.” In this essay, Bonhoeffer argued that the church had the right to question and rebuke the state. Further, the church must stand up for the rights of victims of injustice regardless of their religious background. Even further, Bonhoeffer advocated the possibility of jamming the spokes of the wheel of the state.[3] In other words, the church in Germany must be open to the possibility of taking action on behalf of the Jewish people. At this point, Bonhoeffer seemed to be alone in his criticism against the state. For some of Bonhoeffer’s colleagues, his suggestion to jam the spokes of the German government was simply too much because it pointed towards “revolution and sedition”[4]

For twenty-first-century Christians in comfortable North America, we may cringe at the idea of revolting against the government. Of course, we can hardly imagine living in a culture controlled by an administration like the Nazis. We really cannot understand fully what Bonhoeffer and his fellow Christians faced. Bonhoeffer’s opposition eventually would lead him to take the radical action to stop Hitler’s “design for world conquest.”[5]

Biblical Foundation:

What was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biblical justification for his opposition to Hitler’s policies and eventually to be part of a plot to take Hitler’s life? Certainly, there is a theological mandate to protect and rescue the innocent in society. Proverbs 24:11 helps in this regard: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.”

Does this proverb provide sufficient evidence that God holds his people responsible to rescue those who are in danger of death? Proverbs are usually seen as general guidelines on how to fear God in day to day life. What does this verse teach us? On January 15, 1989, Pastor John Piper preached on this verse at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN. Here is his understanding of the Proverb 24:11:

The duty of verse 11 could be stated like this: ‘If a group of humans is being taken away to death who ought not be taken away to death, the people who fear God ought to try to rescue them.’ Or, to use the words of the second half of the verse, ‘If there is a group of humans who are stumbling (literally: slipping) to the slaughter who ought not to be slipping to the slaughter, the people who fear God ought to try to hold them back from the slaughter.’ What is being command here is some kind of intervention from us when we become aware of humans being killed who ought not to be killed[6]

Piper applied this proverb to the rescuing of the unborn. The unborn are considered a group of humans being led off to slaughter. According to Proverbs 24:11, God’s people must try to rescue them. Certainly the Jews in Germany during the reign of Hitler were such a group who needed to be rescued by God’s people.

Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount that his followers were not to sit back and watch the events in society unfold. Rather, they are to permeate and influence it. In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

John R.W. Stott remarks that these words of Jesus point to the “essential difference”[7] between Christians and non Christians. Stott continues…

The Sermon is built on the assumption that Christians are different, and it issues a call to us to be different. Probably the greatest tragedy of the church throughout its long and chequered history has been its constant tendency to conform to the prevailing culture of developing a Christian counter culture.

…You simply must not fail the world you were called to serve. You must be what you are. You are salt, and so you must retain your saltness and not lose and not lose your Christian tang. You are light, and so you must let your light shine and not conceal it in any way, whether by sin or by compromise, by laziness or by fear.[8]

…Jesus calls his disciples to exert a double influence on the secular community, a negative influence by arresting its decay and a positive influence by bringing light into its darkness. For it is one thing to stop the spread of evil; it is another to promote the spread of truth, beauty and goodness.[9]

The metaphors of “salt” and “light” teach that the church has a great responsibility in the world: “the function of salt is largely negative: it prevents decay. The function of light is positive: it illumines the darkness.”[10] Eberhard Arnold describes the metaphors further:

Our mission on behalf of the kingdom is to be the salt of the earth: to stem its injustice, prevent its decay, and hinder its death. The world must perish in order to be born again. But as long as salt remains salt, it retrains the fulfillment of evil in the world and acts as the power that will one day renew the earth. If the church were no longer to act as salt, it would no longer be the church—it would succumb to death and have to be stamped out.

…Salt can have power only as long it is different from the surrounding mass and does not fall into decay itself. If it becomes tasteless, it must be spat out. The salt of the earth is where God is, where the justice of the future kingdom is lived out and the powers of the coming order promote organic life and growth.

In other words, salt is present where the victorious energy of God’s love is at work. God himself is the creative spirit who wakens the dead. He is the God of miracles who can bring forth new birth out of corruption and degeneration, replacing nausea and disgust with joy and well-being.[11]

A light on a candlestick consumes itself to give light to all in the house. It serves the intimate unity of the household because its light consists in dying…Light is characteristic of the people of Jesus in its total brightness and warmth. The old life, consumed, turns into life-giving strength. Shameful things can only live in the dark. Brightness leads to clarity and frankness, simplicity and purity, genuineness and truth. Where Jesus’ influence makes people real, their life becomes genuine and pure. It shines into the darkness of the world around, unmasking everything that is spurious and untrue, everything that tries to hide.[12]

To Bonhoeffer, there was only one way to approach the Sermon the Mount: It had to be lived out. In a letter to his brother, Karl-Friedrich, he wrote that he had “begun to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount…There are things for which an uncompromising stand is worthwhile. And it seems to me that peace and social justice, or Christ himself, are such things.”[13]

The Biblical mandate for the people of God to take a stand against social injustices is also found in the words of the Old Testament prophet Amos. Amos, a layman, was called by God to prophesy to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In Amos 5:1-17, the prophet lamented over the fact Israel has been judged for idolatry and social injustices. In verses 4 to 7, Amos encouraged the nation to repent of the wrongs they have committed towards others: “This is what the Lord says to the house of Israel: ‘Seek me and live; do not go to Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba. For Gilgal will surely go into exile, and Bethel will be reduced to nothing. Seek the Lord and live or he will sweep through the house of Joseph like a fire; it will devour, and Bethel will have no one to quench it. You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground.”

Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba were traditionally places of worship where the blessings, power and promises of God were experienced.[14] The Israelites have become comfortable going to these sites to seek help from the Lord in time of trouble. Yet, Amos startled[15]his audience by telling them to not seek Bethel but to seek out the Lord instead. The worship at these sites became syncretistic and were “not in line with what the Lord required.”[16]

Yet, the problem was deeper than that. Thomas J. Finlay asked: “Can it really be the Lord who is sought at Bethel if the people do not practice the demands He has made on them for justice and mercy?”[17]

Even though the Israelites traveled to Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba, they essentially kept God out of the picture because they continued to allow injustices in the society to persist. They would journey to the places of worship and sing songs of praise and “they come away, and nothing, simply nothing has changed. Justice is still turned sour…and righteousness is still overthrown.”[18]

According to Amos, God was ready to judge the people and completely destroy the places of worship if they did not repent of their hypocrisy and establish righteousness and justice in society. In verses 11 and 12, Amos furthered highlighted the injustices: “You trample the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offences and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the court” (5:11-12).

The “poor” were those “without resource, and therefore, without redress.”[19] The rich took advantage of them. For example, they were able to build their extravagant homes by oppressing the poor. The stone mansions were “quite costly, a sign of the great wealth accumulated through unjust gain…The Lord must judge the wealthy who have acquired such fine houses by oppression, and He will do this by taking the houses from them.”[20]

Because of these violations, Amos exhorted his audience to change their ways and begin to obey God in verses 14 to 15: “Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.”

This is a call to repent and to receive grace from the Lord.[21]The audience of Amos claimed that God was with them because of the Lord’s covenant with them at Beersheba.[22] But the promise is voided “as long as evil prevails over good.”[23] Yet, there is hope because once again, “the Lord could be Israel as her God”[24] if the people turn back to the Lord.

Even though destruction is certain, Amos, in verse 24, calls for the people to seek justice in society: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream.” Finlay writes:

“Justice” in the context of Amos encompasses reparation for the defrauded, fairness for the less fortunate, and dignity and compassion for the needy. “Righteousness” indicates the conditions that make justice possible: attitudes of mercy and generosity, and honest dealings that imitate the character of God as he revealed Himself in the law of Moses. Here is what it means to “seek Yahweh” and to “seek good” and “hate evil.”[25]

Application:

Does the call to justice by the prophet Amos apply to us in twenty-first century America?  The church today should be earnest in her call for justice in both word and action. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.[26]

As pastors and preachers, we can learn from Bonhoeffer that all of life is to be lived as a living sacrifice, “holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). Like Bonhoeffer, we can identify with Jesus by sacrificing time, resources and possibly our very lives for the sake of others. This is a truth to be taught through preaching and teaching and it is a reality to be lived out.

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Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you would like to offer any feedback, you can leave a comment to this post (or any other post). Also, you can click the “Evaluation Form” above. I would also be happy to receive any e-mails. I can be reached at bryan@harveyoaksbaptist.org. Thank you, Bryan


[1]Devine, Bonhoeffer Speaks Today, 13.

[2] Kelly and Nelson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 543.

[3] Ibid., 130.

[4] Ibid., 130.

[5] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 28.

[6]John Piper Sermon preached this sermon on January 15, 1989 at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN.http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/1989/663_Rescuing_Unborn_Children_Required_and_Right/

[7]John R.W. Stott, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 63.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 64-65.

[10] Ibid., 64.

[11] Eberhard Arnold, Salt and Light: Living the Sermon on the Mount (Farmington: The Plough Publishing House, 1998) 9-11.

[12] Ibid., 12-13.

[13] Kelly and Nelson, A Testament to Freedom, 305

[14]J.A. Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Amos (Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity Press, 1986) 105-108.

[15] Thomas J. Finlay, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary: Joel, Amos, Obadiah (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990). 227.

[16] Ibid., 228.

[17] Ibid.

[18]J.A. Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Amos, 112.

[19]J.A. Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Amos, 113.

[20] Thomas J. Finlay, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary: Joel, Amos, Obadiah, 238.

[21] Ibid., 241

[22]Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Amos, 122.

[23] Finlay, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary: Joel, Amos, Obadiah, 242.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Finlay: The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary: Joel, Amos, Obadiah, 251.

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