On This Day in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was Executed

On April 9, 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp at Flossenburg Germany. He had been involved in getting Jews out

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

of Germany and resistance to the Nazi regime.  Arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, Bonhoeffer was killed along with his brother and other conspirators. A brief but helpful summary of Bonhoeffer’s work against the Nazis can be found at the Holocaust Museum website.

The Church and the Jewish Question

Setting the stage for his resistance activities was a paper written in 1933 titled, “The Church and the Jewish Question.” I can’t find it online but you can see it in Google books preview of The Bonhoeffer Reader and Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works.  In it, Bonhoeffer sets forth a relationship between church and state which might seem foreign to modern day evangelicals who support Christian nationalism. Even though Bonhoeffer, as a churchman, did intervene in his government, it was a last resort under the most extreme of circumstances. According to the Bonhoeffer, “There is no doubt that the church of the Reformation is not encouraged to get involved directly in specific political actions of the state. The church has neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state.” He added that there is a “radical separation between the place of the gospel and the place of the law.” According to Bonhoeffer, the “true church of Christ, which lives by the Gospel alone and knows the nature of state actions, will never interfere in the functioning of state actions in this way. by criticizing its history-making actions from the standpoint of, say, any humanitarian ideal.”

Rather, according to Bonhoeffer, the church may critique the state as either creating too much or too little law to fulfill the governmental function. The church may rightly complain if the state uses “force to such a degree as to rob the Christian faith of its right to proclaim its message.” On the other hand, if the state doesn’t create enough law and as a result a group is deprived of rights, the church may also speak. “There is too little law and order wherever a group of people are deprived of its rights,” he wrote. In such cases, there are three actions which the church may take.

First, (as we have said) questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is, making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to victims of the state’s action. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community…The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself. Such an action would be direct political action by the church itself.

In his essay, Bonhoeffer cited a threat of too little law when a group of citizens is deprived of rights. On the other extreme of too much law, his example was the church being told that baptized Jews must be excluded from Christian congregations or banning missions to Jews. Bonhoeffer asserted that “the church cannot allow the state to prescribe for it the way it treats its members.”

Bonhoeffer did not say that the state cannot create laws which touches the religious beliefs of individuals. He distinguished between the church as an entity and individual Christians when he wrote the following:

At the other extreme from too little law and order, there can be too much law and order. This would mean the state developing its use of force to such a degree as to rob the Christian faith of its right to proclaim its message. (This does not apply to restriction of free conscience — that would be the humanitarian version, which is an illusion, since every state in its life impinges on the so-called free conscience).

As a possible case in point, I have a sense that Bonhoeffer would reject the state making pastors officiate at gay weddings, but he might not have a problem with anti-discrimination laws regarding Christians providing services in the marketplace.

Bonhoeffer’s essay provides a useful foundation for considering how Christians today could consider religious liberty and church and state relationships. In his day, he chose to intervene because there was too much law. My reaction is that many religious liberty issues which occupy Christians politically today don’t rise to the level of “too much law” as framed by Bonhoeffer. I would like to see the church spend more time and money on fulfilling Bonhoeffer’s second point. As for his third point, in America, in my opinion the essential Christian message is in no danger of government restriction.

Additional reading:

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