Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hitler's church or Christ's church?

From Bonhoeffer (Eric Metaxas):

One sometimes hears that Hitler was a Christian. He was certainly not, but neither was he openly anti-Christian, as most of his top lieutenants were. What helped him aggrandize power, he approved of, and what prevented it, he did not. He was utterly pragmatic. In public he often made comments that made him sound pro-church or pro-Christian, but there can be no question that he said these things cynically, for political gain. In private, he possessed an unblemished record of statements against Christianity and Christians.

Especially early in his career, Hitler wished to appear as a typical German, so he praised the churches as bastions of morality and traditional values. But he also felt that, in time, the churches would adapt to the National Socialist way of thinking. They would eventually be made into vessels for Nazi ideology, so it little served his purposes to destroy them. It would be easier to change what already existed and benefit from whatever cultural cachet they possessed. (pp. 165-6, italics emphasis mine)

Even in the cold light of historical hindsight it's difficult to believe the degree to which Adolf Hitler achieved his aim of making the churches just another instrument of the Third Reich. How is it that the vast majority of Germans, in the heart of "Christian Europe", were taken in by Hitler? And how is it that a German theologian and pastor, not yet out of his twenties, was one of the few to see Hitler and National Socialism, very early on, for what they really were? It's so apt that Bonhoeffer identified with Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, whose message of impending disaster fell on deaf ears. Once the rest of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's professing Christian brethren and fellow Germans caught on it was too late. Hitler was shrewd. In private he ridiculed the doctrines of Christianity as "insanity" and "meekness and flabbiness" -- but in public he cleverly used the language and symbolism of Lutheranism, while at the same time continuing as a member of the Roman Catholic church in order to bolster his standing in Bavaria. Yet, he wouldn't have succeeded if the church in Germany had been healthy.

Elsewhere in this gripping work of history by Metaxas there are clues to why the German church was impotent in the face of the advancing darkness. The German church was deathly ill before Hitler came on the scene. Its complicity in the militarism that brought on a senseless world war was scandalous, and permanently damaged its witness among the younger generations. The church had long been fused with the state and German nationalism confused with the gospel. Christianity in Germany had only the appearance of godliness, and none of its power. Bonhoeffer saw this too, again, in a way that makes him stand out as a lonely prophet among his peers.

Metaxas writes:

He knew something was deeply wrong with the church as it then existed, and not just with the Reich church and the German Christians [a group who thought Nazi ideology could coexist with Christianity], but with the best of the church, with the Confessing Church, and with the current form of Christianity in Germany in general. He felt that what was especially missing from the life of Christians in Germany was the day-to-day reality of dying to self, of following Christ with every ounce of one's being in every moment, in every part of one's life. This dedication and fire existed among pietist groups like the Herrnhüter, but he thought that they bordered on being "works" oriented and overly "religious" in the Barthian sense. They had pushed away from the "world" too much, had pushed away the very best of culture and education in a way that he didn't feel was right. Christ must be brought into every square inch of the world and the culture, but one's faith must be shining and bright and pure and robust. . . . Bonhoeffer advocated a Christianity that seemed too worldly for traditional Lutheran conservatives and too pietistic for theological liberals. (pp. 247-8)

He felt that Lutheran Christianity had slid away from Luther's intentions, just as Luther felt that the Roman Catholic Church had moved away from St. Peter's and, more important, from Christ's. Bonhoeffer was interested in a Holy Spirit-led course adjustment that hardly signaled something new. (p. 263)

Bonhoeffer's idea of a worldly pietism grounded in the rich theological heritage of Protestantism would be taken for a test drive at the illegal Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde. Short lived though it was, there Bonhoeffer trained a cadre of young pastors who helped keep burning a flickering flame of vital Christianity during the dark days of the Third Reich. In addition, out of this experience came two great books -- Discipleship and Life Together. The latter, in my opinion, the best book ever written about Christian community. Many of the pastors trained under Brother Bonhoeffer's tutelage would die as witnesses to the true gospel and the true church in Nazi concentration camps.

Finkenwalde Seminary was closed down by the Gestapo in 1937. Hitler and Himmler thought they had defeated the Confessing Church dissidents who refused to confess anyone but Jesus as their Führer. But the example of Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church continues to inspire 21st century disciples to exclusive allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. On the other hand, the capitulation of the German church is a warning what can happen when counterfeit gospels push aside the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Quotes from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010)

No comments: