A very brief historical reflection this week……

Just about one year before he was executed by the Nazis, the Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945), wrote and sent several reflections from Tegel prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge (1909 – 2000). “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.” Bonhoeffer felt that perhaps the time had come for a “religionless Christianity,” because so much institutional religion seemed so alien to the Gospel.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been re-reading a lot of Bonhoeffer. Now he has been much on my mind, because of recent WWII commemorations like those for the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945) and this week’s Auschwitz concentration camps liberation (27 January 1945). My Bonhoeffer re-reading has bern stimulated as well by my own theological concerns and questioning today. Perhaps I am also feeling my age? When Bonhoeffer was arrested for resistance against the Nazi regime and confined to the spine-chilling Tegel Prison in April 1943, I was just a one month old baby in a warm family environment in Southwest Michigan, USA.

During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity,” Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend in 1944. “The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a human person as Jesus was a human person….I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith….By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God….That, I think, is faith. And that is how one becomes a human and a Christian.”

We don’t know how Bonhoeffer would have developed these ideas. I wish he could have lived longer. He was executed by hanging in Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on 9 April 1945. Ironically that was just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp. And a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

History does not repeat itself, but some historic mistakes are often ignored and repeated again. We can indeed learn a few lessons from the Bonhoeffer era as we witness abuses of power and the betrayals of leadership in our own days — inside and outside of the church.

Bonhoeffer was greatly alarmed that so many Christian church leaders (Protestant and Catholic) openly supported Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945). I think he was even more alarmed that so many Christian men and women tacitly supported the inhumane Nazi regime through their own silence and inaction. Silence and inaction.

Hitler was baptized as a Catholic but was not at all a Christian believer. He and his Nazi party promoted “Positive Christianity,” a movement which actually rejected most traditional Christian doctrines. His involvement in “Positive Christianity” was driven by opportunism and a pragmatic recognition of the political importance of the Christian churches. It was promoted as well by Nazi Party condemnation of criticism from a “lying press” during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In Hitler’s “Positive Christianity” and his exaggerated self-pride, Hitler and his Nazi zealots saw the Führer as the herald of a new revelation. He proclaimed Jesus as an “Aryan fighter” who struggled against “the power and pretensions of the corrupt Pharisees.”

Joseph Goebbels (1897 – 1945), Reich Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, wrote in April 1941, in his diary, that although Hitler was a strong opponent of the Vatican and Christianity, “…he forbids me to leave the church, for tactical reasons.” In his memoirs, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments Albert Speer (1905 – 1981) wrote that Hitler “…conceived of the church as an instrument that could be useful to him.”

Tactical Christianity. The corruption of Christian moral authority. Still a challenge today.


PS In 1997, Bonhoeffer’s former student, friend, and confidant, Eberhard Bethge wrote: “Are we mature members of our society, states, corporations, and churches?… Unavoidably, we either corrupt or renew the Christian claim and faith. Even in the nuclear, ecological, and feminist age, no one eludes the demands of citizenship with which Bonhoeffer struggled.”

11 thoughts on “An Historical Christian Challenge

  1. Thank you, Jack. An excellent summary of Bonhoeffer’s theological insights that deserves further contemplation and practice. Also, the warning against “tactical Christianity” is much appreciated. The union of Church and State in this country – i.e. the “Religious Right” – bears much responsibility for the moral abyss in which we now find ourselves.

  2. Thanks a lot, Jack, for this thoughtful article! As an octogenarian (I’m 84), I have some memories as a child, of what was going on in Germany during World War II, for example, “black outs” where we were asked to turn off the light. And I think that’s why I have often “ordered” films (through Netflix) having to do with that war.

  3. Jack, the similarities to what is going on today are unnerving, especially with so many other priests who avidly support the current administration, and roundly condemn the “lying press” of our own day. I don’t think they know history, and so are eagerly and happily enabling it to be repeated.

    1. “The selling of the church’s moral authority is complete. When someone so morally bankrupt and demonstrably anti-life as Trump, a misogynist who brags about assaulting women and whose primary interaction with others is to demean and degrade, can command the obeisance of the nation’s Catholic leaders, the moral tank has been emptied.” Tom Roberts in NCR

  4. Thanks, Jack!
    So interesting that Bonhoeffer recorded this shift in his thinking and insights, a shift that many of us, I’m guessing, are only now experiencing ourselves. Finding God in this world rather than far away up in heaven — a huge shift in theology. Diana B.Bass says, “it is a changed conception of God, a rebirthing of faith from the ground up.” Grounded, 2015

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