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God Himself is With Us? (Bonhoeffer’s Germany, Part Three)

God Himself is With Us?

Bonhoeffer’s Germany, Part Three

Michael Jinkins


“Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle that fits them all.”

(Edmund Burke, 1727-1797)



Perhaps there is nothing quite so seductive, yet so dangerous, as the idea that God is on our side and that our enemies are God’s enemies.*


Virtually anything can be justified if we believe this lie. Any violence, terror or act of torture can be rationalized. No cruelty is beyond the pale. Not if we are God’s people, not if we speak for God, not if our actions are endorsed by God. Thus seduced, we come to believe that we are God’s hands wielding not our own bloody swords, but God’s instruments of righteousness.


No faith has a clean conscience when it comes to this seduction. At some time or the other, probably every faith under heaven has convinced itself that God’s way and their way are indistinguishable. And, every people, every land, every nation, I am sure, has had its own version of this myth. It is simply too useful a lie not to believe. It is so appealing. But it is a lie. And it has been a plague upon the world.


This is why even the most innocently pious prayer of even the humblest patriotic citizen, however justifiably proud of his homeland, can carry within it a pathogen that can be that nation’s undoing and a curse to those who live in other lands.


Soldiers on opposing sides in war after war have remarked upon the irony of both armies calling upon God. Abraham Lincoln famously commented on this irony, observing with his characteristically tragic sense of humor, that it is just possible that God is on neither side, but stands merciful and just beyond the reach of both.


In the mid-twentieth century, soldiers who pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to this “one nation under God” took deadly aim at Wehrmacht soldiers whose belt buckles reminded them Gott mit uns (God is with us). Often the soldiers, more than their supporters, took such slogans with a grain of salt; their duty, they knew, was more pedestrian, and much bloodier.


The piety of the most fervent patriot, however fraught it may be, stands innocent beside the much graver peril of nationalistic, tribal and racist idolatries, convinced that God is our fellow partisan.


Therein lies the danger that faith in God will be bent and twisted and perverted to fit the bent and twisted and perverted causes of mankind rather than remaining an indispensable and incorruptible yardstick, a true plumb line, a just scale and an unimpeachable standard against which every human being and every human nation must ultimately find itself measured.


“Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar,” said Jesus of Nazareth. “And unto God the things that are God’s.” But there have been Caesars who have claimed more than their due, lusting to own that which belongs to God alone. There have been Caesars who were not content to receive the duties symbolized by a coinage bearing their image, but who demanded hearts, souls, minds and strength. There have been Caesars who wanted to lay claim to the totality of human existence.



A Rising Tide that Did Not Lift all Vessels


Some Christians in Germany understood early on that Hitler’s rise to power represented the claims of such a “totalitarian” Caesar. They recognized in the cult of personality surrounding him the hallmarks of totalitarian tyranny. They saw reflected in the faces of his followers the fears and angers that stoked not a responsible electorate, but a mob. They understood that in Hitler’s demagoguery, the masses had found a vessel to make effective their most vile and violent impulses.


Although Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s initial reaction to Hitler’s political rise was typical of a churchman schooled in the traditional Lutheranism of his day, which gave wide berth and generous latitude to political leaders provided they allowed churches plenty of room to exercise their ecclesiastical and spiritual authority, Bonhoeffer’s views rapidly evolved when laws appeared expressing the venality of Nazi anti-Semitism and its racist and nationalistic mythologies, sometimes thinly masquerading as “Christian.” So did others, but the tide of history was against them, at least for a while.


In 1934, Adolf Hitler expressed his contempt for German Protestants in general to a group of Nazi insiders. Hitler said of Protestant Christians in Germany: “You can do anything you want with them. They will submit. … They are insignificant little people, submissive as dogs, and they sweat with embarrassment when you talk to them.”1


Hitler’s skill as a bully and manipulator worked particularly well with many of the Christians of Germany, at times charming them by playing on their prejudices, their fears, or their hatred of people who did not share their faith or their tribe. At other times, Hitler cajoled, dominated and threatened them.


If the carrots of bigotry and corruption didn’t do the trick, Hitler did not hesitate to use the stick of naked brutality. He could play both good cop and bad, unpredictability itself was an instrument in his hands to gain his ends.


We sometimes forget that Hitler used the democratic process to achieve power, as was noted in the previous blog. But we also, and perhaps even more often, fail to note that while thirteen million Germans supported his policies, and his core, fanatical Nazis numbered about a million, he could never have succeeded if the Protestant Christians of Germany had united against him.


When Hitler rose to power, there were about forty-five million Protestants in Germany, most of whom belonged to some twenty-eight Lutheran and Reformed groups. Two-thirds of these Protestants did not align with the pro-Nazi “German Christian movement” which supported the Nazi party’s explicitly anti-Semitic views and the party’s demands that “un-German impurities” be removed from the Bible (including the whole of the Old Testament and everything that Jesus taught that did not “conform entirely to the demands of National Socialism”).


Nor, however, did this two-thirds majority of Protestants in Germany align with the “Confessing Church movement” to which Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller belonged.2 Rather, the overwhelming majority of Protestants in Germany tried to balance themselves precariously on the fence, hoping neither to be identified with Hitler’s henchmen nor to attract their ire; like the Laodiceans of St. John’s Revelation, they were neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm as they staggered toward the apocalypse (Revelation 3:13-17).


The battle for the hearts, minds and allegiance of the larger share of Protestants in Germany would be fierce throughout the period.


The German Christians held their first national convention in early April of 1933. Their theme was: “The State of Adolf Hitler appeals to the Church, and the Church must hear his call.” At the close of this pro-Nazi convention a statement was adopted which said (among other things): “God has created me a German. Germanism is a gift of God. … For a German the church is the fellowship of believers who are obligated to fight for a Christian Germany. The goal of the ‘Faith movement of German Christians’ is an evangelical German Reich Church.”3


Leaders of the Confessing Church movement did not remain silent in the face of this threat to the integrity of the Christian gospel.


One of the most notable leaders in the Confessing Church was the Reverend Martin Niemöller, pastor of a congregation in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem. Niemöller was one of the most highly decorated German heroes of the First World War, a former U-boat captain who became a Lutheran minister.


Niemöller, like many other patriotic conservative churchmen, initially supported Hitler’s rise to power. In Niemöller’s popular autobiography, From U-Boat to Pulpit, he described the era of the German republic following World War I as “the years of darkness” in contrast to which Hitler’s political triumph heralded the return to the light of “National revival.” Less than two years after Hitler came to power, however, Niemöller regretted his support of the Nazis.4


In the first major, mass meeting in opposition to the Nazis, a meeting held in Niemöller’s own church by leaders of the Confessing Church movement on November 8, 1934, Niemöller was clearly recognized as a leader of the anti-Nazi Protestants. Toward the end of the gathering, he told the audience that for them, the question which must be faced squarely now was “which master the German Protestants are going to serve. Christ or another.”5 As Robert McAfee Brown has noted, in case anyone missed the point he was trying to make, Niemöller published a book of sermons titled, Christus ist mein Führer.** (I doubt if we need a translation for that one!)6




Echoes of Ancient Faithfulness


Niemöller’s message reflected the commitment of the Theological Declaration of Barmen which had been adopted by representatives of the Reformed, Lutheran and United Churches in May of 1934 in opposition to the Nazification of the German Protestant church. Two leading Lutheran theologians and the Reformed theologian Karl Barth had been tasked with writing a draft statement for the synod at Barmen, though, as Barth later joked: following lunch and wine on that hot spring afternoon, while the Lutherans took a nap, he wrote the draft in his hotel room, fueled by strong coffee and Cuban cigars.


The Declaration was debated, revised by a committee and adopted by the leadership of the Confessing Church movement, becoming in time one of the most important confessions of Reformed Christians the world over, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).7


Drawing extensively from biblical texts, the Declaration contradicted the core teachings of the German Christians. Confessing the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all aspects of human life, the Declaration pronounced its anathema upon myths of racism, nationalism and totalitarianism espoused by the Nazis. In direct counter attack to the German Christians who claimed that Hitler represented “a new revelation” (a statement actually made by a German Christian leader who sought to replace, as authoritative foundation for the Christian faith, the Apostles Creed, with the platform of the Nazi Party), Barmen confesses faith in “Jesus Christ, as he is testified to us in the Holy Scriptures … the one Word of God whom we must hear and whom we must trust and obey in life and in death.” Barmen repudiates the heresy that there are “other voices to which the church must submit as the revelation of God, and that there are areas of human life in which Christians do not belong to God, but to other masters.”8


The fact that echoes of other hallowed creeds can be heard in the Barmen Declaration was not lost on its audience. The Heidelberg Catechism with its stirring confession that the Christian’s only comfort lies in the fact that “we belong, in life and in death, not to ourselves, but to our faithful savior Jesus Christ,” echoes through Barmen, reminding the Confessing Church that Lutherans and Reformed Christians had joined together centuries earlier to speak with one voice.


What is even more significant, however, is the fact that the ancient confession of Judaism, the Schema, (“Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone”) is subtly (though, perhaps, too subtly) invoked in the Declaration. The defiance of the Barmen Declaration is the defiance breathing not only the New Testament passages explicitly cited in it, but the life and spirit of Hebrew Scripture: “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and their rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his Christ. … He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.” (Psalm 2:1-4) This is the spirit of Barmen.


Although the Barmen Declaration did not take up the cause of the Jewish people (in contrast to Dietrich Bonhoeffer who had already addressed Nazi anti-Semitism),9 the Declaration “speaks a common word” reaffirming the historic confessions of faith of the Lutheran, Reformed and United Churches which understood the Old Testament to be authoritative alongside the New, and recognized that the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” is the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”


Above all, the Confessing Church’s Declaration reminded Protestants in Germany and throughout the world that the task of the Christian Church in every place is not to endorse and advance the dominant ideology or politics du jour which claims God as a partisan for our favorite causes, but to proclaim our allegiance to God and our willingness to follow God where God leads, even if God leads us to oppose seemingly insurmountable odds.


The living God will not be enthralled by our little human schemes and causes, but remains free. And freely God calls us to follow whatever the cost of discipleship may be.




* While it may be highly desirable and theologically commendable always to hope that we are on God’s side, it is inherently risky to believe that God is on ours. The former viewpoint aspires to conform one’s hopes and actions to God, the latter seeks only to make God over in our own small image. The former inspires humility, comparing ourselves with the goodness, mercy, grace and justice of God; the latter indulges in a cycle of pride, arrogance and self-deception. What is true of individual piety is true also for national politics and international relations. But, although it is blessed to believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God, it is a curse to us and all around us to imagine that God is made in ours.


**Martin Niemöller also wrote one of the most evocative confessions of sin to emerge from the era:

“In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” (Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds, p. 196.)

They “came for” Martin Niemöller in 1937, the same year that the Gestapo closed the underground seminary at Finkenwalde which Dietrich Bonhoeffer led.



1William L. Shirer, The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984), p. 152.

2Shirer, pp. 150-151.

3Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), p. 182.

4Shirer, p. 151-152.

5Shirer, p. 153.

6Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible Through Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. 59.

7Rogers, pp. 189-190.

8John Leith, editor, Creeds of the Churches (Atlanta: John Knox Press, Third edition, 1982), pp. 517-522.

9Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Berlin: 1932-1933: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 12, Larry L. Rasmussen, English edition editor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), “Editor’s Introduction,” pp. 34-37. Also see Bonhoeffer’s “Essay: The Church and the Jewish Question,” pp. 361-370; “Memorandum: The Jewish-Christian Question as Status Confessionis,” pp. 371-373; and “Theses on ‘The Aryan Paragraph in the Church,” pp. 425-432.

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