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“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church
by Wendy McElroy

A destructive myth haunts World War II. It is that a flaw within the German character allowed the rise of Hitler and Nazism. How else can you explain the Holocaust coming from one of the world’s most cultured nations? Oddly, no one seems to consider Mussolini to indicate a flaw within Italians or view Stalin as proof of a Russian defect.

The ‘German character flaw’ is a destructive myth because it deflects attention from the crucial task of analyzing the dynamics that allowed Nazism to rise. It permits other nations to believe “it could never happen here.” But totalitarianism can happen anywhere, to any nationality. Understanding the evolution of totalitarianism involves institutional analysis, especially of the interrelation between institutions that were active or complicit in creating tyranny.

Two institutions are commonplace and powerful around the globe: the state and the church. In Hitler’s Germany, most churches went along with the Nazis. Some did so reluctantly, many were enthusiastic. But there was also dramatic resistance by churches and religious leaders who opposed Hitler at great personal risk. For example, the German Protestant Church became a battleground between the majority who supported the Nazis, either explicitly or implicitly, and a minority who resisted them. At the core of the conflict was the question of how the church should respond to the “Jewish question.”

No man spoke more eloquently on behalf of the civil liberties of Jews than the Protestant pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He became a prominent voice in ‘the Confessing Church’ that was founded when approximately 3,000 Protestant pastors broke off from the main religious body in protest.(Konfession is German for denomination.) Bonhoeffer reminds us that there are people of conscience and moral courage in every nation. He is also a window into the institutional dynamics of church and state that both facilitated and hindered Hitler.

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Trump is far from a Hitler, but an interesting read anyway ~ Bryan

Americans today might do well to heed Bonhoeffer’s warning.

Although he was in power for only a handful of years, Hitler and his Nazi government slaughtered millions. One of the more well-known victims of that slaughter was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed on April 9th, 1945, a few short weeks before Hitler’s own death.

Unlike many of Hitler’s victims, Bonhoeffer was not a Jew, but a Lutheran minister, scholar, and theologian who boldly spoke against Hitler’s policies. Bonhoeffer landed a position in the German government during WWII and subsequently used that position as cover for assassination attempts against Hitler.

While awaiting execution, Bonhoeffer recorded a number of his thoughts in a work we now know as Letters and Papers from Prison. One of these essays, entitled On Stupidity, records some of the problems which Bonhoeffer likely saw at work in Hitler’s rise to power:

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

New Film Follows Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Final Chapter

Gary Blount, psychiatrist-turned-producer, has created a remarkable new film about the last days of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Nazi concentration camp, told through the eyes of a British broadcast team.

Question: You have just produced a film about influential theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer after years of studying his work. What has kept you so interested in Bonhoeffer?

Answer: Since first hearing the story more than 50 years ago, I’ve never hit a roadblock or detour.  (That is, once I got used to my Christian hero being a chain smoker.)

As with all of my heroes, I’ve constantly tried in one way or another to relate to Bonhoeffer, and I suppose this has gotten a bit easier as I’ve become acquainted with a few members of his family in Germany and England.

From the beginning, I’ve loved his hard-core faith and courage, but I confess I’ve also been increasingly wowed by his good taste:  Bechstein piano, Audi (okay DKW), and pet Saint Bernard.  And it was easy to relate to his need to move back in with his parents and his willingness to accept an adult allowance.  Dare I mention his eagerness to marry a girl half his age who was possibly smarter than he was  and a lot better looking?

You work as a psychiatrist in Minnesota. Do you have a particular interest in theology? Does your expertise in psychiatry give you particular insights into Bonhoeffer and his still-discussed ideas?

It seems to me there is a kinship between theology and psychiatry.  Many people seem convinced that neither one requires a degree or even specialized study.

Seriously, I love theological insights and, in fact, really look forward to hearing them occasionally from the pulpit.

You know, Bonhoeffer said some harsh things about mental health treatment, but some of his actions in prison reveal a more open stance.  For instance, recently I read that when he would learn from a fellow inmate in Tegel that a family member might benefit from a psychiatric consultation either to address a condition or simply mitigate what otherwise might seem to be a hopeless forensic situation, Bonhoeffer would find a way to refer the person to his father, the recently retired psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer.  I would put that in the practical theology column.

I recall a legendary professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota who would tell his residents and students:  “With this new patient, I don’t care who does the physical exam; I’ll do the history.”  That’s what I want to continue doing — focus on the dynamic story.

What is your film Come Before Winter about?

Our story is about the final chapter in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and what must have been the aching for deliverance by the Allies, who were rapidly closing in.  We felt our time frame might extract something of the essence of his life and the perspective which he seemed to seek — “the view from below.”  This view now includes more uncertainty, wartime cruelty, and vengeance.

Bonhoeffer had long been an outspoken foe of Hitler, and we chose to tell the story with the help of a couple of other anti-Nazis: seriously broken vessels Sefton Delmer and Otto John.  The latter has been called “the living link” between Bonhoeffer’s last days and the storyteller in England.

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Recasting the Movie: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Edition

Today, we’ll look at how a dead German theologian came into a resurgence of popularity–only to play an unexpected role in the Christian Right’s ongoing love affair with its own ego.

Westminster Abbey's 20th Century Martyrs. (By photographer- T.Taylor - Public sculpture, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link.)

Westminster Abbey’s 20th-century martyrs.

The Hero They Wanted.

In case you’ve never even heard of the guy, please permit me to whisk through his bio. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 and became a pastor and theologian in Germany. He vocally opposed the Nazis and even was involved in a major plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He got caught, imprisoned in various concentration camps, and finally executed in 1945 by the Nazis, and he is now all but a venerated martyr in several Christian denominations. His ideas influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (among many other folks and movements). And to many Christians, he remains a very charismatic and enigmatic figure.

He had some very firm ideas about the importance of living one’s faith in the real world as well as about pacifism, and also some piquant observations to make regarding what he called the “complete failure of the German Protestant church” to stop or even impede the rise of the Nazi regime. At one point he escaped to America and then returned to Germany at the last second to help with the fight against the Nazis. During the last part of his life, he was hassled constantly by the German government, forced to report to the police, and even forbidden to speak in public. Eventually he joined the underground resistance, fulfilling the spirit of a sermon he’d preached long before about how martyrs’ blood was being “demanded” by the events of his time. His death was apparently very brave–though also apparently slightly embellished in the way that many of these sorts of iconic martyrdom accounts often are.

You can probably already see why the Christian Right would adore the guy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer plays directly into their fascination with recasting themselves as the beleaguered, pure-hearted heroes fighting an unthinkably evil regime for ultimate global stakes–with martyrdom not only possible but inevitable.

Eric Metaxas, an evangelical-leaning Christian who is clearly frantic to break out of his limited circle of influence as a Veggie Tales scriptwriter and right-wing radio host, has been on a Bonhoeffer kick of late. He wrote a biography of the man a few years ago that his fundagelical tribe went wild for but which actual historians roundly criticized; one of these scholars proclaimed his version of the man a “counterfeit,” while another claimed he’d “hijacked Bonhoeffer.” The irony is that Mr. Metaxas himself appears to think that liberals have actually done the hijacking–and that now he’s taking back his hero for the conservatives.

Thanks to his biography, terms like “cheap grace” are in vogue in fundagelicalism now in a way I sure never heard when I myself stood among them; Christianity Today, in reviewing the book, gushes about Mr. Bonhoeffer’s plaintive plea asking “Who stands fast?” and his demand that Christians make their entire lives “an answer to the call of God.” This sold out/on fire/uncompromising* quality combines seamlessly with Mr. Bonhoeffer’s heroism during World War II and his very early death at the direct command of Adolf Hitler himself.

You might well wonder what prepared Eric Metaxas to write such a book. I certainly do.

His personal biography page doesn’t list any educational credentials for the man at all beyond graduation from Yale. We don’t even know what he studied there, but we do learn that he upstaged Dick Cavett at his commencement. Obviously his background in Christian entertainment makes him the perfect person to write a popular biography of one of the most influential and complex figures in modern Christianity even though he can’t even read or speak the language that his idol used in his work–which is one of the primary and most basic requirements we should expect to see out of someone trying to be an academic. Another is that the would-be academic should be extremely familiar with the basic scholarly work already done on whatever his or her topic is. And still another is that his work should at least be free of obvious mistakes.

Just like apologist David Marshall before him, Mr. Metaxas lacks these basic qualifications. He is a person claiming expertise who apparently has very little in actuality. He’s smart, that much is clear–and clever. He’s just not anywhere near as prepared to write a book of this nature as he pretends to be. But the inexpert expert is, itself, a trope that feeds into fundagelical delusions of grandeur. Ah kin do jus’ as good as them book-larned edumacated expurts! you can all but hear them muttering.

I know how it is; I was there myself once. More importantly, I figured out exactly why I was there, too.

The Movie in Their Heads.

Unmoored from simple considerations like how their ideas tie into reality, toxic Christians are free to conceptualize their lives as epic movies. They cast themselves as heroes, everyone opposing them as villains, and their cause as divinely-blessed–even divinely-mandated.

For many years now, Christians inhabiting the right-wing fringe of the religion have been styling themselves as the brave crusaders fighting for the soul of America in Earth’s final wretched days. Even back in my day, we saw ourselves that way. We fetishized the Rapture and Tribulation,** waiting eagerly as every predicted date came and went without even remembering all the past disappointments. We correlated world events in our various checklists of what had to happen before Jesus finally kick-started the end of the world. We created and devoured diagrams about Bible verses and how they matched up with this or that natural disaster or war. If Israel’s leaders burped, we gasped and raced back to our Bibles to figure out what it meant in terms of the predictions we thought had been given to us. It always meant something, too–usually “oh my god, we’re another step closer to the Endtimes.”

We thought we lived in “the last days.” Spiritual battles were erupting all around us–angels and demons vying for the souls of every person alive. Prayer was their ammunition; fasting charged their weapons’ power cells. So Christians were vitally necessary in this battle, because without our efforts demons would win countless souls for their gruesome master. (No, we didn’t realize how weak and useless we made our god look by acting this way.)

In such an environment, any Christian, no matter how lowly or uneducated or mocked, could become a Big Damn Hero–a Prayer Warrior who could save other people’s lives, fight evil princes and principalities, and gain the ultimate of all rewards: eternal life and an exalted place in the heavenly kingdom. But this warrior would only receive that reward if he or she stood perfectly steadfast and did not waver in faithfulness. The forces arrayed against such a warrior could be incredible, and the hardships endured both many and excruciating. In the end, though, only one outcome was possible for a truly faithful servant.

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This debate will not go away…

Bonhoeffer – A Reliable Guide?

Date September 23, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is increasingly being quoted by evangelical writers and theologians. Eric Metaxas’ recent highly-acclaimed biography presents him as an evangelical martyr of the twentieth century. Stephen Nichols, President, Reformation Bible College, with a PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary, in his book, Bonhoeffer on the Christian life, states: ‘We can even lay claim to Bonhoeffer as an evangelical’. Bonhoeffer’s book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Cost of Discipleship, is being read by many Christians and is widely described as a modern Christian classic. There is no doubting the brilliance of Bonhoeffer’s mind, nor his passion for the oppressed, nor the original way that he had of stating his beliefs. However, his theology is very different from orthodox evangelical theology and he is certainly far from being a reliable guide in presenting the Christian faith and in interpreting the Scriptures. This editorial is a warning. Don’t take Bonhoeffer as your teacher!

His life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up in liberal, theological circles in Germany in a relatively-wealthy, intellectual family. His father was a professor of Psychiatry and Neurology. His oldest brother became a famous scientist and another brother a top lawyer. His mother, a grand-daughter of liberal theologian Karl von Hasse, was a teacher and insisted on family religion though they were not regular in their attendance in church. It was a surprise to all when, at the age of fourteen, Dietrich announced his decision to devote his life to theology. He studied in Berlin under the famous liberal, Professor Adolf von Harnack, but rejected liberalism. The great influence in his thinking was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth who developed what became known as neo-orthodox theology. Far from being an evangelical, Bonhoeffer was more liberal than Barth. He considered himself a ‘modern theologian who still carries the heritage of liberal theology within himself’.

Having completed his studies in Berlin, including his Doctor of Theology, and still too young to be ordained, he went to Union Seminary in New York and did post-graduate studies under Reinhold Niebuhr. Returning to Germany in 1931, he became a lecturer in Systematic Theology in the University of Berlin. The rise of Hitler brought a dramatic change in his life. He rejected Nazism with its antisemitism. One of his sisters was married to a Jew. He helped form the Confessing Church as a protest against the germanisation (nazification) of the national Church. An underground seminary was set up in Finkenwalde and Bonhoeffer taught students for the Confessing Church there. Eventually it was closed by the Nazis. He was involved in helping Jews to escape from Germany and later in a plot to assassinate Hitler. After spending some time in prison he was hanged in Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945 just before the end of the war.

Was he a martyr?

When we think of Christian martyrs we think of the early Christians thrown to the lions for refusing to worship Caesar. We think of Reformers like Patrick Hamilton and William Tyndale burnt at the stake for preaching the gospel and for translating the Scriptures into the language of the people. In no sense were these men involved in conspiracies against the state. Bonhoeffer died for being involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Now, one might rightly argue that he was justified in resisting the evils of Nazism, but his death was not because of his beliefs, but rather for his ‘crime’ of conspiracy to murder. So, if we regard him as a martyr it is in a very different sense from the usual Christian martyrs. We admire his love for the Jews and for all who were oppressed and down-trodden, and his willingness to lay down his life for others.

View of the Bible

Critical to evangelicalism is our view of the Bible. The word of God was certainly very important to Bonhoeffer but in a very different sense from evangelicalism. He rejected the liberalism of Harnack with its idea of Scripture as merely man’s thoughts about God. Bonhoeffer believed in revelation and that God speaks through the word. However he did not believe in the Bible as scientific (empirical) truth and he certainly did not believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. His view, like that of Barth, was that the word can become the word of God to you when you are reading it. It is not in itself the word of God but God can speak through it. So, for example, he taught his students to spend a half hour each day meditating on a verse of Scripture, not looking at it in the original, not consulting commentaries, not concerned about what it literally meant in the Bible, but simply concentrating on what God had to say to them at that point that day. It can become the word of God to the meditating individual.

Bonhoeffer stated, ‘The Holy Scriptures alone witness to the divine revelation, which occurred as a one-time, unrepeatable and self-contained history of salvation’. There is a huge difference between the Scriptures being a witness to divine revelation and being divine revelation. He happily accepts the so called ‘findings’ of higher (destructive) criticism. He rejects for example the biblical account of creation in favour of evolution. Bonhoeffer on one occasion told his congregation unequivocally that the Bible is filled with material that is historically unreliable. Even the life of Jesus, he said, is ‘overgrown with legends’ (myths) so that we have scant knowledge about the historical Jesus. Bonhoeffer concluded that the life of Jesus cannot be written. He followed Rudolf Bultmann in finding the New Testament full of myths which have to be ‘demythologised’. Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘My opinion of it today would be that he (Bultmann) went not “too far” as most people thought, but rather not far enough. It’s not only “mythological” concepts like miracles, ascension, and so on … that are problematic, but “religious” concepts as such’.

The Cross

For evangelicals the cross is at the centre of their faith. Bonhoeffer did not believe in substitutionary atonement – Christ suffering as a substitute for our sins, dying in our place to earn eternal life for us. The cross of Christ certainly is important to him, but in a very different way – it is as an example and an inspiration. He is concerned that we live cross-centred lives and by that he means that we take up our cross and follow Christ, living lives of self-denial. Yes, as with Barth, there is a great emphasis on grace, but the idea of Christ as the Lamb of God taking away our sins by his suffering hell for us is missing. To evangelicalism that is a critical omission. Indeed Bonhoeffer would argue that we are saved by the incarnation – Christ taking our nature – rather than by His atoning death. He taught that in the body of Jesus Christ, God is united with humanity, all of humanity is accepted by God, and the world is reconciled with God. In the body of Jesus Christ, God took upon Himself the sin of the whole world and bore it.

Conversion

As a Lutheran he embraced the doctrine of baptismal regeneration – you are automatically born again when you are baptised. Around 1931 Bonhoeffer experienced a ‘conversion’, when he, as he puts it, discovered the Bible. From then on he began to read it daily and meditate upon it. Yet it was not what evangelicals normally call conversion, or what the Scriptures describe as the new birth. He rarely referred to it. He criticises conversion testimonies and sees the New Testament as not being about individual salvation. He wrote, ‘We must finally break away from the idea that the gospel deals with the salvation of an individual’s soul’.

Universalism

Bonhoeffer was a universalist, believing in the eventual salvation of all.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer Quote

by

I am surprised at how many of my students under the age of 30 have never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. On the whole, when I mention Bonhoeffer, they look at me blankly, and when I say “German theologian,” they glaze over and tune out. So I wrestle with the question of how we can persuade younger people that Bonhoeffer is relevant for the 21st century.

In my research, I have been struck by how little the world of religion has changed between Bonhoeffer’s time and our own. When Bonheffer decided to become a theologian in the early 1920s, his father and older brothers derided that decision. The Bonhoeffers were a family like the Kennedys, meant to make a difference in society, and in that context, becoming a theologian seemed a waste of talent. The church appeared, then as now, to be dying, its place in the civic discourse largely irrelevant.

As Barry Harvey outlines in his book, Taking Hold of the Real, Bonhoeffer faced the same “world come of age” that we live in today, in which a worship of technology pushes theology to the margins. This is a discounting of God’s presence in the world that Bonhoeffer fought against vigorously.

God is in the center of the village, Bonhoeffer insisted, Christ the only reality in the midst of a world of illusion. Yet today, we face the same battle he did to infuse a marginalized church with meaning.

Bonhoeffer also fought against mistaking the institutional structure of the church for the church itself.

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Earlier this month, I posted that on June 17, 1940 (the day France surrendered to Germany), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was with his close friend Eberhard Bethge “in the Baltic village of Memel. They were relaxing in an “open-air café when suddenly a special announcement came over the loudspeaker that France had surrendered. This moment was a defining point for Bonhoeffer! Bethge “asserts that Bonhoeffer’s ‘double life’ truly began. This Confessing Church pastor and theologian became deeply involved in the resistance movement against Hitler and the Nazis.”

Also:

For the next three years, until his arrest on April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer lived an unsettled life. He became a courier for the resistance group operating out of the Office of Military Intelligence (the Abwehr), even as he continued to teach and minister to the young seminarians and pastors of the Confessing Church.

DB was a seminary professor and involved in the resistance movement against Hitler. He was dedicated in preparing young men for the ministry and he was dedicated in stopping the Fuhrer.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 1-2.

 

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