Yesterday, I read through McClendon’s chapter on Bonhoeffer’s life. In the chapter he explores Bonhoeffer’s influences, his theological and spiritual development, and his work with an underground seminary that sought to support and uphold the confessing church in Germany during Hitler’s reign. Finally, as his fellow Christians in the confessing church gave into, surrendered and many even joined Hitler’s cause Bonhoeffer returned home and joined his family and close friends in a plot to ultimately assassinate Hitler. McClendon explores the question of why did Bonhoeffer resort to this plan as he was himself a dedicated Christian pacifist? I want to offer McClendon’s conclusion as a reflecting point that seems fitting for the Church in our current religious and political milieu of the United States:
“My Thesis, then, is that Bonhoeffer’s grisly death [He was sent to the gallows] was part and parcel of the tragic dimension of his life, and that in turn but an element in the greater tragedy of the Christian Community in Germany….they had no effective communal moral structure in the church that was adequate to the crucial need of church and German people (to say nothing of the need of the Jewish people; to say nothing of the world’s people). No structures, no practices, no skills of political life existed that were capable of resisting, christianly resisting, the totalitarianism of the times” (211).
Do we have as Christians have the practices and structures not only to resist the violence and the capitalistic impulses that seek to overrun our own allegiance to Christ’s kingdom first? So often we reject what we know is right to go out and do it alone, yet the call is to obedience rather than vigilantism. Over the last year and a half, or so, I’ve seen Christians on all sides of the political spectrum acting rather unchristianly towards those on the opposite sides (regardless of whether those on the other side are Christians or not). We need to remember that whatever the government does, whether it is our own U.S. government or another government in another part of the world, those acts never nullifies our ethics. We must continue to be formed around Jesus’ call and parable in Matthew:
And the king will answer them, Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. Then he will say to those at his left hand, You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. (Matt 25:40-43 NRSV).
We are never relieved of the duty to love our enemies (typically calling someone socialist or fascist, at least in the context of the US, is not a form of love), do good to those who HATE US, love without measure, see the Light of Christ in ALL people, to feed, clothe, and yes, even care for the wounds and sicknesses of those in need (Luke 10:29-37, etc). Today the totalitarianism we face is hatred, anger, fear, exploitation and allegiance to someone, some thing, some political party other than Christ’s Kingdom alone.
This is a call for the whole church, on every side. We are all responsible to be witness to the Present Christ within us, as to witness the present Christ in those we most despise. The only way we will be able to do this is through the practices of confession, repentance and the most difficult of all, forgiveness.
We need to turn the crux of the problem off “them” and bring it back to “us.” We must refuse this binary, we must continue to turn this back on ourselves. McClendon does this at the conclusion of his chapter on Bonhoeffer:
So the correct Bonhoeffer question to put ot one who believes as I do that violence is not an option for the disciples of Jesus Christ is not the often-heard “Then what would you do about Hitler?” Quite possibly there was nothing that Dietrich Bonhoeffer alone could have done about Hitler, except possible to help a few Jews escape Germany and help a few friends of a better German future make contact with their Christian friends in other countries. The correct – because realistic and responsible – question has been better put by Mark Thiessen Nation: “What would you do with a church which choose to go along with a government that systematically eliminates Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals, and mounts a war that would lead to the deaths of more than thirty-five million people?” (Nation, 1999). That question makes it clear that (from the standpoint of Christian solidarity) it was not Brother Bonhoeffer but we who failed:
Not the preacher nor the deacon but it’s me, O Lord, Standin’ in the need of prayer.
James Wm. McClendon Jr. Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume 1 p. 212
We need to learn to sing this from deep within our hearts. And if we cannot do it in our hearts we need to prayer for the desire to do it, for the strength, and for a community who will do it together, rather than continuing to create the (very unJesus-like) split between us and them. May our real-life actions, as well as our facebook updates, blog posts and comments, twitter posts, text messages and forward reflect the Kingdom of God, and no longer the kingdom of this world.
May God help us.