The Call to Christian Responsibility: Bonhoeffer vs. the Third Reich

So far in this series on what the Christian tradition has had to say in the midst of crises and disasters, the issues have all had outside causes: the Babylonian invasion of Judah, the Visigoths’ sack of Rome, John Donne’s illness, and the Black experience of White oppression. But happens when it’s your own people who are the problem? This was the question for faithful Christians in Germany under the Third Reich, who saw their proud country with its tremendous intellectual and cultural history taken over and co-opted by a movement governed by an ideology of vengeance, hatred, and outright dehumanization of others — and which to a large enacted this program with the cooperation and collusion of the Church at large. Over the next three posts, I’d like to look at how two German theologians engaged with this tragedy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a prominent Christian martyr to the Nazis, and Jürgen Moltmann (1926- ), who came to faith in Jesus in a Prisoner of War camp just as the full measure of the atrocities of the Nazi regime were coming to light.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is unquestionably the best known Christian dissident and martyr of the Nazi era, lionized in equal measure by both today’s Christian left and right. He is most famous for his 1937 book Discipleship (aka The Cost of Discipleship), which insisted that grace not be ‘cheap’, and for his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler. Today I’d like to look at how these two facts of his life, in some ways so at odds with each other, connected — how a belief in costly grace drove this unassuming, intellectual pacifist into the German resistance and a conspiracy to assassinate his Head of State.

I’ve titled this post “the call to Christian responsibility,” and to my mind it’s a perfect summary of what drove both Bonhoeffer’s theology and the difficult choices that ultimately cost him his life. In the first years of his ministry, which coincided with Hitler’s rise to power, this responsibility manifested itself in what he called ‘confession’, the need to speak out for the truths of the Gospel and against distortions and lies. There could be no collusion with what he believed was a self-evidently evil system that was anti-Christian and exposed the worst and erased the best elements of German civilization. He preached that Jesus, not Hitler, was the salvation of Germany and took public stands against antisemitism and the Nazification of the official German Churches. This in itself was costly for Bonhoeffer: He had speeches interrupted, was barred from teaching at the state universities, was labeled an enemy of the people, and his Confessing Church — the semi-underground movement of Christians who refused to stay in the Nazi Churches — became increasingly persecuted by the government. Reflecting on the need to stand one’s ground from prison in 1943, Bonhoeffer wrote:

Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not in his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God. (”After Ten Years,” in Prisoner for God: Letters and papers from prison (L&P), 15)*

But, as important as taking a strong public stand against the Nazis was, as the evils of the Reich became more apparent (and, with family ties to military intelligence, Bonhoeffer had a bigger window into what was happening than most Germans), he came to see that confession in words had to be matched by confession in action. This concern was grounded not out of any sense of natural affinity toward those who are being oppressed, but out of a genuine Christian empathy with the suffering:

[I]f we want to be Christians we must show something of Christ’s breadth of sympathy by acting responsibly, by grasping our ‘hour’, by facing danger like free men, by displaying a real sympathy which springs not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. To look on without lifting a helping hand is most un-Christian. The Christian does not have to wait until he suffers himself; the sufferings of his brethren for whom Christ died are enough to awaken his active sympathy. (”After Ten Years,” L&P, 23f)

As his friend and correspondent Eberhard Bethge later reflected:

Bonhoeffer introduced us in 1935 to the problem of what we today call political resistance. The levels of confession and resistance could no longer be kept neatly apart. The escalating persecution of the Jews generated an increasingly intolerable situation, especially for Bonhoeffer himself. We now realized that mere confession, no matter how courageous, inescapably meant complicity with the murderers, even though there would always be new acts of refusing to be co-opted and even though we would preach ‘Christ alone’ Sunday after Sunday. … And so it became clear where the problem lay for the Confessing Church: we were resisting by way of confession, but we were not confessing by way of resistance.

This transition involved great personal cost. It moved the Christian from speaking out to acting out, from lawful opposition and into conspiracy, and this involved breaking one’s ethical commitments — this involved sin. Bonhoeffer wrote:

Some seek refuge from the rough-and-tumble of public life in the sanctuary of their own private virtue. Such men however are compelled to seal their lips and shut their eyes to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep themselves pure from the defilements incurred by responsible action (”After Ten Years,” L&P, 14).

The world is always messy and will not align to our morality; we must be willing to sacrifice our purity of conscience when the realities of the world demand that we do. For Bonhoeffer, the cost of his “civic courage” was significant and repeated, on personal, reputational, and legal levels. On the personal level, it required him to challenge and reject aspects of his cultural inheritance, to abandon his previous commitment to Christian pacifism, to return to Germany from the United States to face the war, and eventually to join a government he hated in order to participate in a conspiracy to assassinate the leader of his country. On the level of reputation, because so much of his resistance required secrecy, many of his allies came to question his allegiances: For example, Bonhoeffer’s time in London to build contacts for the resistance within the Ecumenical movement was viewed by Karl Barth as an abandonment of Germany, and his allies in the Confessing Church could not understand his later decision to join military intelligence. And, of course, his actions put him into conflict with the law of the land, for which he was imprisoned in and ultimately killed.

Such responsible action “can only grow out of the free responsibility of free men” and “depends upon a God who demands bold action as the free response of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in the process (”After Ten Years,” L&P, 16f). This is a critical consideration for Bonhoeffer. Our commitments to God may sometimes lead us to sin. And the decisions we have to make may not have obvious right or wrong answers. He does not shy away from this reality or justify these deeds as not being sinful, but rather trusts in God’s creativity, grace and forgiveness.

So, Bonhoeffer’s example is not about justifying sin for political ends. What it is is a call to Christian action in the face of evil. We cannot sit idly by while our own governments, our own people, are committing atrocities. We must resist anything that dehumanizes anyone and rejects the image and likeness of God in the human person. Under most circumstances, this will be by confession: by speaking out, by voting, by community organizing, by protest. But, there may indeed be times when the severity of the situation may demand, when no other options remain, more active resistance. Usually for a Christian, this will continue to be nonviolent resistance; but there is always a possibility that a situation become so extreme, and the usual channels so closed off, that a violent resistance may be necessary — and even then, only with repentance and faith in a creative, loving, and forgiving God.

As his days in prison dragged on, Bonhoeffer remained convinced that the costly sacrifices he’d made had been worth it. Writing to Bethge, he reflected:

You ought to know that I have not for a moment regretted coming home in 1939. I knew quite well what I was about, and acted with a clear conscience. I have no desire to cross out of my life anything that has happened since, either in the world at large, or to me personally … And I regard my sitting here (do you remember how I prophesied last March what the coming year would bring?) as my own part in the fate of Germany. I look back on the past without any self-reproach, and accept the present in the same spirit. But I don’t want to be unsettled by the machinations of men. We can only live in faith and assurance, you out there at the front, and I in my cell. … May God keep the light of faith burning in our souls. (L&P, December 22, 1943)

There is much to commend in all this. Bonhoeffer understood that, in the extreme situation in which he found himself, his Christian faith demanded an extreme — even shocking — response. But there can be no doubt that without a lot of context and nuance, this rationale can easily be abused to support any sort of “the ends justify the means” action. I have no doubt that Bonhoeffer would be appalled to find his example used to justify political violence in anything but the most extreme cases, when there are no other options available. He was a pacifist at heart, after all. And, while he did not regret his choices, neither did he delight in them. He was not driven to political conspiracy simply because he didn’t like the party in power, but out of a profound Christian solidarity with those the powers-that-be were attempting to exterminate. This was not politics as usual, but a last resort in an attempt to save millions of lives and the soul of a nation.

The next post in the series will pause to look at an interesting detail from Bonhoeffer’s thought that seems particularly relevant to our circumstances today. Then, we’ll turn to the thought of Jürgen Moltmann, whose theological career has been dominated by the shadow of the Nazi disaster and the Holocaust. If Bonhoeffer had to find a theological response appropriate for the end of the world as he knew it, Moltmann was tasked with the equally challenging question of what might come next.


* Please see the full bibliography for this series for details.

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