One of the unnamed capacities of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was to recognize evil and to call it out at a time when others preferred not to confront it and attempted to explain it away. As a young pastor he was one of the few who took an early public stance against Hitler and a Nazified Christianity. Hitler was able to manipulate Christian rhetoric and combine it with a threat which caused German Christians to mostly embrace the evil of National Socialism. Even Martin Niemöller, the head of the Confessing Church, was at first pro-Hitler and, like the majority of his countrymen, anti-Semitic. Niemöller later recognized his own moral failure and described it poetically:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
The difference between a Bonhoeffer and a Niemöller, as captured in the poem, is found in the capacity or lack thereof to identify with the oppressed – and to not be blinded by ideology. The capacity to name and recognize evil is enabled when self-justifying ideology is set aside and we can say though I am not a Socialist, Trade Unionist, mentally handicapped, Jewish, Hispanic – or simply though this is some Other that is being oppressed – this is evil. The willingness to turn a blind eye or to embrace evil for the “greater good” describes Niemöller’s moral failure, the moral failure of most German Christians and the moral failure of a Christianity given over to ideology.
James Strauss referred to the slow infiltration of the “principalities and powers” into the Church as the frog in the kettle syndrome. The frog is happy to sit in the warm water and misses the fact that he is adjusting gradually to being boiled to death. There are many indicators that the boiling point of the cultural waters of North America is killing off effective Christian witness. David Kinnaman has described the statistical fact that Christians are perceived by the younger generation as un-Christian (in every way that counts) as an “image problem.” Perhaps it is more of a “boiling frog” problem. The oxymoronic (and yet statistically proven) perception of a “violent Christianity,” an “exclusive Christianity,” or a “hateful Christianity,” indicates the adjectival heat of the ideological powers are boiling away the vital signs of the subject. “American Christianity” is as oxymoronic as “Nazi Christianity,” “Imperial Japanese Christianity,” or “Constantinian Christianity,” with the sole difference that the former is the extant mantra of a church being stewed in ideology.
The example of Bonhoeffer indicates that moral insight arises with intellectual depth. On the other hand, moral inanity was clearly connected to an intellectual banality (exemplified in Eichmann and characterized by Hannah Arendt as the “banality of evil”). The majority of Bonhoeffer’s Christian contemporaries, steeped as they were in German nationalism, were unable to recognize the Devil that was about to consume them. They succumbed to the boiling stew of anti-Semitism, Aryanism, and fear, that resulted in Hitler gaining power, first in the church, and two months later with the Nazi takeover. Bonhoeffer’s theological sophistication (an ecclesiology and hermeneutic that resulted in both his resistance and death) stood in sharp contrast to the “realism” and “pragmatism” to which even the leaders of the Confessing Church succumbed. Niemöller thought, until it was too late, that Hitler was a man that could be reasoned with if he could only secure a private meeting. The pragmatists bent to the “realities” orchestrated by Hitler until, as Niemöller describes, they literally came to arrest him.
Pragmatism always describes the willingness to bend to the perceived necessity and reality of the time. By this measure biblical Christianity will always be perceived as unworkable and impractical. Practical Theology, the buzzword of the day, names the tendency to accommodate the revolutionary notions of Scripture to a “workable reality.” Much like Nazi theology (or that theology set forth by the German Christian (Deutsche Christens) supporters of Hitler), which elected to remove the Old Testament from the Bible, a theology made “practical” begins by separating the New Testament from the Old and thus spiritualizes the political and social revolution Christ inaugurated. By getting rid of the Old Testament the Jews were expunged from the German church and by the same token a disembodied/depoliticized Christianity is fused with American nationalism. The stew of pragmatism boiling the North American Church (the remnants of Niebuhr’s Christian realism, nationalism, capitalist greed, the philosophy of church growth, etc.) are accommodated by a morally and intellectually disengaged gnostic-like theology. Dispensationalism, Christian realism (a violent “Christianity), fundamentalism/liberalism, supersessionism, give rise to a thorough dualism or split between body and soul, heaven and earth, interior and exterior. The result, in N. T. Wright’s summary, comes to be “God so hated the world that he killed his only Son,” and Christians act accordingly.
If there is a lesson to be drawn from Bonhoeffer’s mode of resistance it will take account of his theological development and his focus on theological education in a Church being decimated by bad theology. His Cost of Discipleship arises from teaching on the Sermon on the Mount during a period in which Finkenwalde seminary is closed, his students are being arrested, and he is declared to be “a pacifist and enemy of the state.”
His theological insight is one that overcomes the separation of the teaching of Jesus and the theology of Paul brought about in a Constantinian Christianity and sealed by Luther’s notion of justification by faith. Bonhoeffer envisions a Church that is able to resist Lutheran/Constantinian/Nazi notions of a necessary violence in which God’s will is worked out through heads of state and state purposes. He recognized that justification is not merely a private affair of going to heaven when you die, but is centered on social concerns (life together as the Church) which call for a radical and costly discipleship. In John Howard Yoder’s explanation (which seems to extend Bonhoeffers understanding of Paul), Paul builds upon Jesus notion of love of enemies and nonviolent revolution through a revolutionary subordination. Mutual subordination of husbands and wives, masters and slaves, parents and children, was meant to revolutionize the institutions of marriage, social relations, and family structure, through the culture of the Church. Likewise, subordination to the state, the same Roman state that crucified Jesus and which would behead Paul, was to recognize God’s purpose would be realized through the Church and that the idolatry of the state was to be resisted. The Church is made up of those conformed to God’s character (Ro. 12:1-2) and not “content to go on allowing themselves to be continually stamped afresh with the stamp of this age which is passing away.”
Thus, Bonhoeffer goes underground and continues to teach when and where he can meet with his students. His final moves as a pastor at large were to foster a theology, through ministerial training, that would endure the times. The Pastors of the German Church had caved in to Nazism, with only some 20% abandoning the corrupted or “destroyed church” for the Confessing Church. Perhaps it is too heavy handed to draw parallels between “Nazi Christianity” and “American Christianity,” but the same danger prevails; that of conforming to the spirit of the age rather than to the character of God. To ward off that danger will call for an alternative theological understanding which can be freely set forth in an educational environment that is not subject to pragmatism.
Among the Christian Churches, James DeForest Murch warned that ministerial training was consistently undermined by notions of “efficiency” (read pragmatism) and “feeble rivalry” with State institutions. R. C. Foster notes that apostasy sets in at the fifty-year mark: “Fifty years is a good round number, but we should remember that man’s apostasy began in the Garden of Eden.” Nonetheless, 50 years “is a fairly accurate estimate of the critical period of apostasy in our colleges.” As the Bible College movement among Christian Churches reaches this fifty-year mark, Foster’s prediction rings true. As Cincinnati Christian University, the school Foster helped found, has drifted from its moorings toward the brink of failure, the Bible college movement itself, among Christian Churches/Churches of Christ seems to be in crisis, as the majority of the regional Bible colleges have either closed their doors or have been absorbed by larger schools with a broader agenda.
The institution from which I was recently terminated (as the last Ph.D. on the faculty) celebrated its first fifty years as it has gone into, what would appear to be, its final years. As with Cincinnati Christian University, the termination of employees marks the drift of the school. The termination of full-time faculty teaching Bible and theology is simultaneous with the rise of a “variety” of degree offerings and activities. The intellectual and theological failure is marked by the same moral failure described by Peter Enns: “Under the high-lofted banner of ‘defending the gospel,’ backroom politicking, gossip, maligning the character of their enemies, lying, vengeance, and even destroying people’s livelihoods are excused as regrettable yet necessary tactics.” One of the saddest occasions I witnessed is when the founding faculty were simultaneously honored with the status of emeritus and terminated as full-time faculty. The pride in being “practical” and anti-theological leaves in its wake a near complete ignorance of the provenance of the Constantinian “evangelical doctrine” and philosophy of “church growth” that is promoted. Theological education has not yet been driven underground but the education that survives seems to be stamped with the spirit of the age.
The experience of American army chaplain, Henry Gerecke, who ministered to the Nuremberg war criminals epitomizes the problem. Several of his congregation, made up of the German high command responsible for the worst crimes in human history, lived and died as faithful Lutherans. Where practical concerns rule, “Nazi Christians,” “American Christians,” or, most oxymoronic but to the point, “evil Christians” will be the result. A theology centered on Christ aimed at a real-world departure from the pragmatics of a Constantinian/American/Nazi “Christianity” will, likely, require a new paradigm of theological education which is not dependent on the spirit/ideology of the age.