The following excerpt comes from an article written by the Lutheran ethicist Larry Rasmussen for the current Sojourners magazine. It is meant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It might also be worth remembering that January 27th was Holocaust Memorial Day in Great Britain, and, as Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor then said, “The warning is clear: wherever dehumanisation takes hold, terrible evil is sure to follow. … We are one human family: today’s commemoration is especially that of the Jewish people, but it is also that of the victims of genocide everywhere and throughout history. We can never forget.”
What can we learn for our time from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reaction to the events of his day and from the anti-Nazi “Confessing Church,” to which Bonhoeffer belonged?
By his own testimony, one of the few major turning points in Bonhoeffer’s life occurred in 1933, when he became a committed disciple of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, rather than simply a university theologian of Christianity. In 1933, the Nazi Party leapt from the margins to the center of national power, and Bonhoeffer had a premonition that this meant demands for which the church was ill-prepared. He wrote to a friend, as cited in Eberhard Bethge’s biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “…the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church, and step by step it became clearer to me how far that must go. Then came the crisis of 1933. That strengthened me in it. The revival of the church and the ministry became my supreme concern.”
Why this “supreme concern”? Bonhoeffer already sensed the crises in the church that, in this moment of Nazi triumph, would follow from the deep enculturation of German Protestant Christianity and its long-standing ideological and institutional alignment with the state. He gave classic expression to this in The Cost of Discipleship’s contrast of cheap and costly grace:
Like ravens we have gathered around the carcass of cheap grace. From it we have imbibed the poison which has killed the following of Jesus among us…. A people became Christian…but at the cost of discipleship, at an all-too-cheap price. We … absolved an entire people [“nation,” in some translations], unquestioned and unconditionally. We poured out rivers of grace without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard …. Our church’s predicament is proving more and more clearly to be a question of how we are to live as Christians today.
In early 1933, a movement in the Protestant churches, dubbing itself the “German Christians,” rallied in support of the Nazi Party’s call for Aryan Christianity and the consolidation of the provincial churches into a single state-coordinated “Reich Church” headed by a “Reich Bishop.” The aggressive, anti-Semitic nationalism of these German Christians, their deference to Hitler as the rescuer of a humiliated Germany, and their support of the party’s platform alarmed other Protestants. Numerous Christians of Jewish heritage were in the Protestant church, and 37 of them were pastors. The state declared all of them “full Jews” and began stripping them of their civil rights and liberties. This racist push for Aryan Christianity precipitated a counter movement, soon called the “Confessing Church.” What would and could the churches do?
Bonhoeffer had written in April 1933 an essay on “the Jewish question” and three stages of response (call the state to fulfill its mandate of justice, care for any victims of state infractions, and wrest the wheel from the state if it fails in its duties as state). Now in light of the state’s action he wrote to his friend Erwin Sutz. Bonhoeffer said that the conflicting confessions of the German Christians and the Confessing Church meant that “a great reorganization of the churches is imminent,” only to add: “The Jewish question requires much action from the church, and here the most understanding people have completely lost their heads and their Bibles.”
These “most understanding people” who had “lost their heads and their Bibles” were the major German theologians of the day and many members of the Confessing Church itself. Across both theological disciplines and common piety, the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) had been eclipsed by the New Testament, the passion of Jesus had supplanted the passion of the People Israel, and the church as the New Israel had superseded “old” Israel as the elect People of God. In short, anti-Judaism in the churches and the universities flowed as a steady current within the broad river of anti-Semitism coursing through German society. Apart from Christians with Jewish roots, German Jews in all their diversity had little to do with “true” Germans except as “the other.” And as this “other” became the “despised other,” the tracks were in effect being laid for the Holocaust. Even the founding manifesto of the Confessing Church, the Barmen Declaration, omits mention of the Jews, an omission later much regretted by its chief author, Karl Barth.
Consider, by way of contrast to German churches, the Huguenot village of Le Chambon. First under the puppet regime of Vichy France and then under direct Nazi rule, roughly 5,000 farmers harbored a like number of Jews because it was simply “natural” to do so. But it was natural only for a people whose independent community’s faith and morality were already attuned to evil’s onset. In Le Chambon those sensibilities were rooted in long-standing practices of hospitality toward the alien “other” and the memory of their own suffering and that of their martyrs. Here were the people Bonhoeffer sought to be part of in his own church.