Friday is History and Inspiration
The following is from Kairos Journal. Every age has its own challenges to faithfulness to the gospel. Most of what inconveniences and discomforts Christians in America does not rise to the level of persecution. But all persecution starts somewhere and that somewhere often involves much smaller compromises and subtle shifts in perspective. Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who first supported Hitler and then fought the Nazi’s, made a famous and instructive quote:
“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.”
Bonhoeffer had a term, “falling into the spokes of the wheel” for what he felt needed to be done in his time. Most Germans, like Niemöller, came to late to the conclusion that they should have done more and sooner to fight the rise of the Nazi scourge. Is it time in our time, in our age, in our country to start asking the same question, lest we repeat the mistakes of the German Volk?
The End—A Beginning
Adolf Hitler’s strategy for the conquest of Germany included an assault on the German Evangelical Church. Aiming for the wholesale surrender of Christian doctrine to support Jewish annihilation, Hitler ordered the Gestapo to keep close watch on the pulpits of the land. Fearing widespread resistance, in 1933 the German government drafted “the Aryan Clause” for ratification by the churches of Germany. This amendment barred from the ministry anyone who did not fully subscribe to the Deutsche Christen(German Christians) position on church issues. It paralyzed the Church as it forbade anyone to publicly disagree with any policy of the German government—the first step toward Church endorsement of the extermination of the Jewish race.1
Hitler’s attempt to annex the Church was opposed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, at twenty-five, held a prestigious teaching post in Berlin. He, with a cadre of like-minded pastors known as “the young reformers,” refused to bow to Hitler’s demands for agreement with the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer first sought to refute the doctrine of the Nazis through careful and sustained preaching and writing. Organized resistance soon became necessary. After a synod meeting where the Deutsche Christen tightened its hold on pastors, Bonhoeffer sent the first of what would be many messages around the world alerting everyone to the evils of Nazism.2
Bonhoeffer called The Confessing Church to help defend the victims of injustice “who had fallen under the wheel.” He further called the Church to actively “fall into the spokes of the wheel itself” in order to halt the government’s wicked machinery.3 Rightly understanding the vital connection between the health of the Church and the good of the nation, he publicly supported the Barmen Declaration (1934), which rejected the Aryanism of the Reichstag. Refusing to recant his beliefs during a Gestapo hearing, he boldly stated that Christianity came before Germany. He later declined asylum in London and America, choosing instead to return to his homeland and face what most certainly would be death should he continue to lead resistance to Hitler:
I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.4
Bonhoeffer lamented the failure of the German Church to publicly refute the sins of the state. Hitler’s ideas were first supported by only a few extremists, but they soon rose to national prominence. The Church’s silence allowed Hitler’s influence to spread throughout Germany with little or no struggle. In his Christmas letter of 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote of the Church’s weakness:
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?5
For helping Jews escape Germany, Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and confined in prison for over two years. He was later moved (1945) to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp where Hitler soon called for his death. His last sermon, preached from the concentration camp, drew on 1 Peter 2:21-25—“For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you might follow in his steps.” The next day, the SS doctor who witnessed his death later recalled that he had never seen a man die “so entirely submissive to the will of God.” His death (April 9, 1945) came mere days before the liberation of Germany and a scant three weeks before the suicide of Adolf Hitler. His last words: “This is the end; for me the beginning of life.”6
Some contemporary pastors face death for their faithfulness to God’s truth, but most are more likely to risk the loss of career, economic security, old friendships, or standing in the community. Still, Bonhoeffer’s example is telling for God’s man in crisis. He may lose things the world counts dear, but he will gain a place in the ranks of Christ’s persecuted saints, a fellowship God calls “blessed.”
|1||See Victoria Barnett’s essay commissioned by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Victoria Barnett, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, http://www.ushmm.org/bonhoeffer/index.html (accessed July 16, 2003). Barnett, the author of For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler, gives an overview of the German church’s struggle to fight Hitler.|
|2||See also Kairos Journal article, “The Lion of Münster.”|
|3||Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures, and Notes 1928-1936 (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 221-29.|
|4||Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage, trans. Eric Mosbacher, et. al. (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 736.|
|5||Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, “After Ten Years,” in Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1971), 16-17.|