The Forgotten Lesson of Bonhoeffer, and the American Church

I am worried about the rising popularity of Bonhoeffer in the United States.

Very worried.

I’m worried not because of his theology, or his political views, or his activism.

I’m worried because so many people are interested in him…so many different people.

Some people laud him for his non-violent pacifism, and other for his violent attempt at activism. Some laud him for his commitment to community, and others for his religion-less Christianity. Some laud him for his non-metaphysical theology, and others for his pastoral care. Some laud him from the far left, and others from the far right.

When this happens we have to dig deeper and ask, “Is there something we are missing here?”

The Forgotten Lesson of Bonhoeffer

We often think of Bonhoeffer as a hero of the church, but I think of him more as a cautionary tale.

The forgotten lesson of Bonhoeffer is not that we should all strive to be more like him, but that we should strive to be a church that wouldn’t need him!

article_images-3_8_Pastors_Does_the_American_Flag_Belong_in_Your_Church_766070041I worry that people will either look for the next Bonheoffer or try to be the next Bonhoeffer in some heroic protest, rather than entering the more humble protests of daily life. I worry that people will think that large gestures of protest are the way to change the world, rather than entering on the difficult daily path of ordinary resistance.

You see, Bonhoeffer had to be Bonhoeffer because the national church in Germany failed to be the church at all.

This is the forgotten lesson of Bonhoeffer: The Church in Germany had failed!

Headed toward Failure?

So I’m worried that everyone interested in Bonheoffer might not be learning the real lesson: that we in America might be the type of church that, in a time of crisis, will capitulate to preserving the American Dream rather than living as a Kingdom Reality.

During this 4th of July weekend, are we Christians in America more American than Christian? How would we know? Does that distinction even makes sense? And if it doesn’t, then I worry that we have turned to Bonhoeffer into an inspirational story rather than a cautionary tale.

Let us not make Bonhoeffer merely into a Christian Celebrity…


Also published on Medium.

10 Replies to “The Forgotten Lesson of Bonhoeffer, and the American Church”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Geoff. The German church abandoned Jesus Christ as Lord and held Hitler and the Reich as s supreme authority. The church became another extension of Nazi ideology, holding to principles in direct opposition to Scripture and rejected the “German church”with its single and totalitarian order of human life.” The evangelical spin on Bonhoeffer in recent years is disturbing, oversimplifying his theology that developed during a most unique time in human history, and the complexity of his involvement in joining the resistance to Hitler by enlisting in the Abwehr (the German information gathering organization). Bonhoeffer was a complex man who sought to serve God and build up the body of Christ during a violent and dangerous world.  While I do find his life and work “inspirational” (not in the syrupy, sentimental manner ), his is most definitely a cautionary tale. Watching the church’s capitulation to the forces that shaped the German mind and nation was a terrifying discovery on my part. Bonhoeffer has much to teach us, but not as a hero. We would do better to include learning more about the “German Christians”, the overall ineffectiveness of the Confessing Church and the effect Nazi ideology had upon Christian community. These dynamics make Bonhoeffer difficult to pigeon-hole into an “evangelical” leader and to read his work in context of his time.

  2. Hi Geoff,                                                                                                                                                                                                                  I don’t know much about the recent interest in Bonhoeffer, so I can’t really make an informed comment about what you have written here.                                                                                                                                                                                                           However I can say I have been inspired by him for several decades because he practised what he preached in circumstances more harrowing than most of us will ever experience – like St. Paul, he preached Christ crucified, and this eventually cost him his life.                                                                                                                                                                      Germans of my acquaintance who lived through the Nazi regime were terrified of it because of the atrocious behaviour of the Nazis towards those who spoke out against it. For me, Bonhoeffer is a shining light, as are many Christians who faithfully take up the cross of Christ in the darkest of circumstances.

  3. We ought to remember that Bonhoeffer didn’t see himself as some hero, nor did he seek to undermine Hitler and the Nazis through one big conspiratorial and heroic act.  Long before he became part of the Abwehr and joined the conspirators, long before the outbreak of the war even, he worked steadily at preaching and teaching the gospel, training pastors, teaching children, pastoring congregations, praying, working in ecumenical organizations, and all the while he steadily, from early days, opposed what he saw the Nazis believing and doing.  He tried to get the church to remain faithful to the truth and to the gospel under the one Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, in the face of a challenge to that Lordship by the state.  I don’t see a contradiction in seeing the German Church under the Nazis as a cautionary tale AND seeing Bonhoeffer as a hero of the faith.  One needs to read widely of Bonhoeffer’s works and view him in the context (historical and ecclesiastical) he was ministering in to realize that this man was a genuine brother in Christ.  Some say he was too liberal.  Look at his context.  Everyone around him in all the major schools were liberal.  He was Barthian and like Barth, he was reacting to and trying to rescue the church from Liberalism.  Were they flawed and did they assume some of the categories of the liberals?  Were they tainted by the soil they were working in?  Yes, just like you mention that many American Christians are tainted with Americanism, God-and-Country patriotism, Fox News conservatism, or left-wing social gospelism, etc.  But we have the advantage of perspective on his life that he did not have.  I am sure that he could point out many of our errors as well that we assume and that we can’t see because of our proximity to them.  Most heroes of the faith function also as cautionary tales to the church.  It doesn’t have to be either/or.

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