Reflections on Bonhoeffer and Politics in Our Time

Last summer I visited Germany for research and to speak with German Bonhoeffer scholars about my study of Bonhoeffer’s year as a post-doctoral student in New York, 1930-31. The German Bonhoeffer scholars were eager to know about Bonhoeffer’s encounter with white supremacy in America, and my time with them was inspiring. While there I learned that white supremacy remains a problem in Germany long after the fall of the third Reich and the end of efforts by the Deutsche Christens Nazi sympathizing German Christians, to unify the protestant church in Germany under the Führer, giving Hitler authority to enforce a pureblood Aryan Germany by power extending from the government into the church.

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This propaganda photo depicts Hitler as a pious Christian, hat in hand as he leaves church, standing under a cross. Hitler needed Christian support in Germany for his Nazi party to gain majority power in the government.

Yet broadly speaking, Germans appear to have responded differently to the history of their overtly racist Nazi government than America has to its overtly racist history of slavery and Jim Crow laws. For example, it’s unlikely that one would find streets, schools, buildings, or monuments named for Nazis, the Nazi government or its military, as one would find streets, schools, buildings and monuments to confederate soldiers, members of the KKK, and historically notable overt racists in America. Indeed, the longing in America for bygone days of greatness is nostalgia for the history of Americas overtly racist past, and sounds eerily familiar to the yearning that helped fuel the mobilization of Hitler’s regime in the wake of WWI. Joblessness, economic insecurity, and the aftermath of war were part of the soil from which the overtly racist Nazi government grew, helping to dismantle and berate the outgoing Weimar democratic government for it’s supposed immorality and failure to address the economic crisis in Germany that was actually impacting the whole world in the global Great Depression, and not Germany alone. What is most relevant for understanding the struggle that Dietrich Bonhoeffer waged in Germany was his attention to the Deutsche Christens, German Christian Nazi loyalists who were Christian conduits of hatred, and co-laborers with Hitler in efforts to secure an ideal community populated with ideal humans.

Bonhoeffer was an outspoken member of the Confessing Church Movement. To say “Confessing Church” is to say a “creedal” church, which is to say, a movement committed to the creeds of the faith. This movement stood in opposition to German Christians who sought political oneness with the Nazi government. Yet in the confessing Church movement, Bonhoeffer was more radical than his peers. It is one thing to claim devotion to the creeds and demand the traditional separation of church and state, which is what most in the Movement were doing. It is quite another to declare oneself in direct opposition to the government in general, for it’s treatment of its citizens. That is the position that Bonhoeffer found himself in, and it put him at odds with many members of the Confessing Church Movement. Bonhoeffer was politically outspoken, which was highly uncommon for a German. He was an untypically political, outspoken German Lutheran pastor and theologian. He came to recognize that the lordship of Christ over all of life to means concrete obedience to God by paying as much attention to his neighbor’s needs for justice as his own.

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In October of 1941, Nazis began deporting Jews from Berlin to the Lodz Ghetto, which was a halfway stop on the way to the concentration camps. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Fredrich Justus Perels documented that very first deportation of Jews in a public letter, publicizing Nazi racist hostility. This photo is of the memorial site, Track 17, in Berlin. It is the train station from where Jews were deported. The deportation that Bonhoeffer publicized in that first letter is identified at the memorial as the first deportation.

Bonhoeffer was indebted to his time in Harlem, New York for developments in his theology that had him valuing social justice as a core component of the way of Jesus, leading inevitably to speaking up for his neighbor against a politically oppressive government. The way of Jesus and the person of Jesus were not separate for Bonhoeffer. Hence, seeing needs and acting on behalf of those needs just as Christ acts on our behalf describes who Jesus is as Stellvertretung, our vicarious representative before God, and the one who is for us. Stellvertretung also describes what Jesus does; Christ responds with action, to the needs of others. To claim to be a Christian and live comfortably in non-action as your neighbor is disparaged and abused is to rely on cheap grace, rather than the costly grace of discipleship.

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Bonhoeffer picked up this extensive bibliography of Harlem Renaissance literature from the Schomburg Library, at 135th and Lennox, in Harlem. It is an extensive list of the popular works that he was no doubt reading, while he was also attending Abyssinian Baptist Church, in Harlem. He brought this bibliography back to Germany with him, where it remains among his papers in Berlin.

Bonhoeffer opposed Christians in Germany who were enthusiastic about Hitler’s efforts to make Germany great again by reviving the splendor of Germany’s past. In the process of reviving the past, people became scapegoats for their current problems; humans became rubbish to discard, or symbols of the nations greatness. In either case, everyone’s humanity was distorted by the dream of the ideal community. Bonhoeffer argued that because Christ is the vicarious representative for all humanity, in every social encounter we have, we interact with Christ. Other persons are not objects that can be discarded, nor are they symbols for boasting; human interaction represents the site of our concrete obedience to Christ.

Race logic trains the racist to see humanity in the ideal only, and others as objects of derision. That is the history of whiteness, and the creation of race. The superior race is the template of ideal humanity. Christians who espouse racism despise Christ in concrete encounter with others.

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This photo taken in the memorial at Flössenburg Concentration Camp, depicts the signage worn by prisoners in the camp, indicating their crime. It is an indication of the various offenses that would cause one to be incarcerated by the Nazis: Political prisoner, career criminal, emigrants (foreign forced laborers), Jehovah’s Witness, Homosexuals (sexual minorities), and asocial ( this black triangle included Roma, Pacifists, mentally ill, vagrants, anarchists, etc…). Bonhoeffer spent one night in this camp. He was murdered in the morning.

That was the danger that Bonhoeffer saw in the Nazi worldview that made it’s way into the church in Germany. Within weeks of his return from New York in the summer of 1931, Bonhoeffer penned a catechism with his Jewish friend, Franz Hildebrandt, for the training of young Lutherans in the faith. Together with Hildebrandt Bonhoeffer borrowed from the worldview he was immersed in, in Harlem, to describe Christian social responsibility. Bonhoeffer claimed that “ethnic pride” is sin against the Holy Spirit, and argued, “as much as the Christian would like to remain distant from political struggle, nonetheless, even here the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for his neighbor.” The concept of the ideal person and ideal community is courier of the “ethnic pride” inside of the concept of the Aryan. In Germany ethnic pride included the language of “blood and soil,” the loyalty to Volk, and the Nazi concept of the Aryan, or Herrenrasse, master race. In America the concept of the Aryan was simply the understanding of humanity that accompanied white people, only. Ethnic pride, or white supremacy, keeps Christians from being able to love their real neighbor, which is to say, from loving Christ who is vicarious representative. Bonhoeffer saw racism as a singular problem for Christians. Indeed, Bonhoeffer described ethnic pride as an unpardonable sin because it is concrete opposition to the presence and work of God in the world, in Christ.

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The remains of the special barracks at Flössenburg concentration camp where Bonhoeffer spent his final night.

In our current political climate we’ve faced a similar employment shortages, financial insecurity, and war, in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the great depression. Acerbic rhetoric about racial, national, and religious others heightens loyalties to the slogan “make America great again” and fuels practices of dehumanization, turning real human beings into scapegoats of American white supremacy. In this climate we find many Christians energized by the rhetoric and endorsing the politics that it supports. One might say that the effort to make America Great Again has them giving their devotion to a god who resembles the embodied symbol of that national greatness, idealized white humanity, in pursuit of the ideal community, rather than practice concrete service to God by loving their real neighbor. In this climate, following Christ is not popular. Indeed it has never been popular. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is actually willing to pay the cost of discipleship.

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One response to “Reflections on Bonhoeffer and Politics in Our Time

  1. Pingback: Becoming Human: My Confession and Response to the Mythologizing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Patrick Freund – We Talk. We Listen.

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