I’m currently listening to the audio-book version of Bonhoeffer. For those unfamiliar with the man, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was outspoken in his opposition to the Nazis and was eventually executed in 1944 after his involvement in an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler.
Of course, his struggle didn’t begin in 1944, or even 1941, as most Americans visualize the beginning of World War II. For the Germans, the war against the Nazis began long before that. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it began almost immediately after Hitler was elected Chancellor in 1933.
The Nazi party began its oppression of the Jews that same year. But the lesser known story is how it began to methodically influence the church. Forgive my summation, but in essence, the church in Germany was turned into the church of the Third Reich. To the point where bibles were replaced with Mein Kampf and crucifixes replaced by swastikas. The Nazis even “elected” a Reich Bishop, a little know pastor and Nazi puppet named Ludwig Muller.
Such was the grip on the German church by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer fought against this effort to destroy the church during most of his final twelve years on Earth. His involvement in the formation of the Confessing Church, which resisted the Nazi influence, was probably enough to have him imprisoned long before the assassination attempt against Hitler.
It’s crucial to understand that Bonhoeffer was critical of the church prior to the rise of the Nazis. The church in Germany, in his opinion, had strayed far from its fundamentalist and evangelical roots. Germans, with their strong Lutheran heritage, attended church regularly. They gave to the poor, put money in the offering plate, and did all that was expected of a Christian in 20th century Germany.
That, however, is where it ended. There was little discussion of Christ’s teachings outside the church walls and national patriotism took a more prominent position in the life of a German than did any allegiance to Jesus Christ. Also noteworthy, and critical if one is to understand how the German church so quickly succumbed to Nazi influence, is that churches relied heavily upon funding from the state, specifically the salaries of pastors.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer attended school at Berlin University, where he studied theology. Even as a student, his theology leaned toward fundamentalism and a belief that the bible is the word of God. So much so that later, when he taught in his illegal seminary, he required his students to meditate on a single verse every week. All week long.
Bonhoeffer found himself almost alone in his beliefs. The professors and most of the students at the university openly mocked such thinking, their theology being of a more liberal bent. Naturally, German churches followed suit.
It was into this environment that the Nazi party so easily turned the church of Jesus Christ into the church of the Third Reich. Even the barbarism against the Jews, many of them baptized Christians, was not enough to awaken a dead spirit.
I will continue my discussion next week. But I’ll leave you with a few questions:
1. Is there any similarity between the German church of the 1920s and the American church of today?
2. What is the church’s role in government, if any?
3. Are American Christians more interested in patriotism to country than allegiance to Jesus Christ?