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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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The Relevance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young pastor who symbolized the German resistance against Nazism, is counted among those who can support us on our road of faith. In the darkest hours of the twentieth century, he gave his life to the point of martyrdom. In prison he wrote these words we sing in Taizé: “God, let my thoughts be gathered to you. With you there is light, you do not forget me. With you there is help, with you there is patience. I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me.”

What is touching about Bonhoeffer is how he resembles the Church fathers, the Christian thinkers of the first centuries. The Church fathers did their work while searching for a unity of life. They were able to reflect intellectually in an extremely profound way, but at the same time they prayed a lot and were fully integrated into the life of the Church of their time. That is found in Bonhoeffer. Intellectually he was almost too talented. But at the same time he was a man who prayed a great deal. He meditated on Scripture every day, until the end of his life. He understood it, as Gregory the Great once said, as a letter from God addressed to him. Although he came from a family where the men – his father, his brothers – were practically agnostics, and although his Church, the German Protestant Church, disappointed him a lot in the Nazi period and he suffered from this, he lived fully as a member of the Church.

I would like to mention three of his writings:

His doctoral thesis, Sanctorum Communio, has something exceptional for the time. A young student, 21 years old, writes a dogmatic reflection on the sociology of the Church, starting from Christ. Reflecting, starting from Christ, on what the Church should be seems incongruous. Much more than an institution, the Church for him is Christ existing in the form of the Church. Christ is not a little bit present through the Church; no, he exists for us today in the form of the Church. This is utterly faithful to Saint Paul. It is this Christ who has taken our fate upon himself, who has taken our place. This way Christ acted remains the fundamental law of the Church: taking the place of those who have been excluded, of those who are outside, as Jesus did during his ministry and already at the time of his baptism. It is striking to see how this book speaks of intercession: it is like the blood that circulates in the Body of Christ. To express this, Bonhoeffer depends on Orthodox theologians. He also speaks of confession, which was practically unheard of in the Protestant Churches. Imagine that: a young man of 21 years affirms that it is possible for a minister of the Church to say to us, “Your sins are forgiven,“ and affirms that this is part of the essence of the Church. How new this was in its context!
The second writing is a book he wrote when he was called to become the director of a seminary for theology students who were considering a ministry in the Confessing Church, men who had to prepare themselves for a very hard life. Almost all of them had to deal with the Gestapo; some were thrown into prison. In German the title is very short: Nachfolge, “following” (in English, The Cost of Discipleship). That tells all about the book. How can we take seriously what Jesus expressed; how can we not set it aside as if the words were for other times? The book says how: following has no content. We would have preferred Jesus to have a program. But no! In following him, everything depends on our relationship with him: he goes ahead and we follow.

Following, for Bonhoeffer, means recognizing that if Jesus truly is what he says about himself, then he has a claim on ­everything in our life. He is the “mediator”. No human relationship can take prevalence over him. Bonhoeffer quotes Christ’s words calling us to leave parents, family, possessions. That frightens us a bit today, and some people criticized that aspect of the book: does not Bonhoeffer present an image of Christ that is too authoritarian? We read in the Gospel, however, how astonished people were at the authority with which Jesus taught and cast out evil spirits. There is an authority in Jesus. Yet he speaks of himself, differently from the Pharisees, as gentle and humble of heart, in other words: someone who was tried himself and who is beneath us. That is how he always presented himself, and true authority is found behind this humility.

The whole book is organized in that way: listen with faith and put it into practice. If we listen with faith, if we realize that Christ is the one speaking, we cannot not put into practice what he says. If faith stopped before being put into practice, then it would no longer be faith. It would set a limit to the Christ that we listened to. Of course, in Bonhoeffer’s writing that can seem a bit too strong, but does not the Church need such listening again and again? A simple listening. A direct, immediate listening, that believes it is possible to live what Christ asks.

The third writing is the famous Letters and Papers from Prison. In a world where he perceives that God is no longer recognized, in a world without God, Bonhoeffer asks the question: how are we going to speak of Him? Will we try to create enclaves of Christian culture, turning to the past with a certain nostalgia? Will we try to foster religious needs in people who apparently no longer have any? Today it can be said that there is a revival of interest in religion, but often it is only to give a religious veneer to life. It would be dishonest on our part to create explicitly a situation in which people would need God.
How then can we speak of Christ today? Bonhoeffer answers: by our life. It is impressive to see how he describes the future to his godson: “The days are coming when it may be impossible to speak openly, but we will pray, we will do what is right, and God’s time will come.” ­Bonhoeffer believed that the language we need will be given to us by life. We can all feel today, even with respect to those who are closest to us, a great difficulty in speaking about redemption by Christ, about life after death or, still more, about the Trinity. All that is so far away for people who, in some sense, no longer need God. How can we have the confidence that if we live lives rooted in God, the language will be given to us? It will not be given if we make the Gospel accessible by diminishing it. No, the language will be given if we truly live it.

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July 2020


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