Two Possible Futures for American Christianity Exemplified by Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Christian journey, as argued below, is not simply individual but corporate so that salvation is being joined to a new society (the body of Christ) called the Church. This is not a parallel kingdom, an alternative reality, or (as in Luther’s notion of the two kingdoms) what God is doing with his left hand on earth while his right hand is busy with the spiritual realm in the heavenly kingdom. The tragedy (always subject to reversal) unfolding in the American church, attached as it may be to this two-kingdom notion, might best be recognized (and averted) when viewed in conjunction with the wartime experience of the German church, and in particular, in the lives of the two most famous German Christians. Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer exemplify the outworking of a two kingdom theology and the alternative, respectively, portending two possible theological outcomes in the American context

First though, if it is the case that reality is not divided (heaven/earth, body/soul, earthly kingdom/heavenly kingdom) this is the basis for suggesting that a degraded church and theology have real world consequences. If reality is divided, then even the notion that one could correct course is already defeated – and so there is no need to argue. The necessary presumptions included in a unified reality include the following: 1. The Church is an unfolding of the Kingdom in history such that moral/theological progress (as well as set-backs) is one that might be gauged both corporately and individually. 2. The corporate body progressively benefits from individual failure and success (as well as the individual being shaped by a corporate understanding). 3. Progress can be made in the Church (universal) theologically as well as morally – not in some mechanical or automatic sense but as a result of, the often harsh, reality of individual lives.

Clearly some lives mark crucial turning points: absent the life experience of Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer racism and bigotry might have so blighted the German Church as to make it practically nonexistent? Though they would both render invaluable service to the Church, they make for an interesting contrast in the development of my thesis set out above. The groundwork of Bonhoeffer’s theological journey was laid in his PhD dissertation Sanctorum Communio, in which he argues that the Holy Spirit is a “social Spirit” (man is always who he is in community) giving birth to a new sort of humanity through the historical communion of the Church. This is not a mystical, heavenly, invisible, community but the actual presence of God – “Christ-Existing-in-Church-Community” – in which the person of God opens his self-communion to the world. Niemöller, by way of contrast, a former U boat commander and war veteran, had very little time for this sort of abstract theological reflection – very little time that is until his imprisonment.  What Bonhoeffer had ascertained from the beginning of his journey – the progress of the Church will depend upon the defeat of German nationalism, was an insight Niemöller would reach much too late.

As a good Lutheran, Niemöller had thoroughly absorbed the notion of two-kingdoms, and with this understanding came a willingness to bend to the breaking point in accommodating Adolph Hitler. His reaction to Hitler came only when he saw the Führer overreaching the realm of his authority and interfering with the church. Niemöller objected to the “Aryan Paragraph,” excluding Jews from holding public office including Church offices, as he saw this as an interference with the meaning of baptism and Christian doctrine. Though he provided leadership and resistance through the Pastor’s Emergency League, set up originally to aid clergy of Jewish descent but which quickly provided resistance to Nazi interference in the church, he did not directly oppose persecution of non-Christian Jews. His own account provides insight into his stunted and very slow relinquishing of a German sensibility: he was a German nationalist who voted twice for Hitler and held that the Jews had brought on their own persecution. As he would put it in a sermon from 1937, “What is the reason for [their] obvious punishment, which has lasted for thousands of years? Dear brethren, the reason is easily given: the Jews brought the Christ of God to the cross!”[1] Though he would eventually confess and repudiate his Antisemitism and embrace a full pacifism, this was long after he might have drawn a firmer line delimiting the reach of Hitler. Thus, the poem for which he is most widely known, is a lament of his failure to grasp “who is my neighbor.”

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a communist.

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.[2]

In a 1976 explanation of his intellectual and theological failure, he explains the reality behind the poem as connected to his thought that the Church did not and should not become a point of political resistance but should only concern itself with what was happening internally.[3]

Bonhoeffer, nurtured among cultural elites and most comfortable in the realm of ideas, seemed to never harbor delusions as to the evil of Hitler. Long before his older contemporaries, with whom he would found the Confessing Church, he spoke out against Hitler – first, two days after Hitler became Chancellor in a radio broadcast and then, as the first, in attempting to get the church to resist persecution of the Jews. In an effort to stop Nazification of the church, he proposed a ban on all pastoral services (considered too radical by Karl Barth and others). While it might be impossible to say exactly why he was able to perceive the reality of the situation long before Niemöller, it must be related to his commitment to “responsible vicarious action” for his neighbor, inclusive of all who are oppressed. It is not the case, however, that Bonhoeffer did not go through his own prolonged process of realizing the cost of discipleship.

Out of discouragement not only with the German church but feeling (as he would explain to Barth) that his closest friends did not agree with him, he took up an appointment in London. Barth, in correspondence, accused him of abandoning his post while the church in Germany was burning. Barth recognized in his younger protégé the gift of a brilliant theological mind; one endowed, according to Barth, with a “splendid theological armory.” Perhaps it is deeply telling, that though Bonhoeffer would not be cowed by Hitler he could not resist the moral authority of Karl Barth.

While Barth may have compelled his return from London, it was his own conscience that prompted him to return from his sojourn in America, where he had gone at the invitation of Union Theological Seminary. As he explains in a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr:

“I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”[4]

The correlate is clear – Christian civilization is at stake should German nationalism prevail. To be a Christian in Germany in 1939, and for “Christian” to have any meaning, it had become clear to Bonhoeffer he had to participate in the defeat of his nation. He could not be a loyal citizen of the earthly kingdom and maintain citizenship in a heavenly kingdom. The resounding consequence of rejecting Luther’s notion of two kingdoms required a costly discipleship entailing a corporate, embodied, spirituality – suffering together with his German brothers and sisters.

This understanding seems to account for the lengths to which Bonhoeffer would go (entering the Abwehr, as a double agent, to aid in the escape of Jews from Germany and participating in the plot to assassinate Hitler). As early as 1932 he said in a sermon, “The blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness.” Though he had embraced pacifism, his willingness, as with Paul, to count himself accursed (perhaps including his willingness to assassinate Hitler), arose from his sense that the Church in Germany had failed to be the Church. Though he seems to have foreseen his martyrdom, he would not count himself a true martyr due to the “blood guilt” he felt even in 1932.

What Bonhoeffer could see, but which long escaped Niemöller, was that God could not be said to be working in two separate spheres. Niemöller instinctively based his notion of truth on insights gained from German culture and presumed Christian peace was of another realm. After the War, he would repudiate his failure of thought and urge the open confession of guilt on the part of German Christians. The Church, by his estimate had failed to oppose the Nazis and the Third Reich and so had contributed to the rise of this monstrous evil. At Niemöller’s urging the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt spells out the church’s culpability in the rise of National Socialism: “Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries.”

The same doctrine, representative of a failure of theological thought, which ushered Hitler into office is offered up by evangelicals in justification of their support of Donald Trump. The focus on individual salvation, “going to heaven when you die,” and the notion that Romans 13 demands unconditional obedience to rulers, all operate within the notion that God is operating in multiple spheres with different goals and means. While a nuanced explanation of the two kingdoms doctrine might by-pass more grievous applications, historically – beginning with both Luther and Calvin – the doctrine has been associated with multiple reigns of terror.[5] At any rate, what one gets from the evangelical mainstream is not a carefully nuanced version of Luther and Calvin. As mega-church pastor and counselor to the President Robert Jeffress has put it, he would not want a president to embody the Sermon on the Mount. Government is for the purpose of imposing authority, and whether it entails the slaughter of peasants and Jews, or the oppression and maltreatment of immigrants and their children, under this understanding, the Church, as an unrepentant Niemöller thought, is not to offer a voice of resistance.

In I Corinthians Paul calls the Church to abandon the seeming realities attached to wisdom, rhetoric, and law so as to begin building on the singular reality, the one true foundation, which is Christ. While one might speak of two kingdoms or two sorts of foundation, Paul makes it clear that the choice is between a nullity or a nothing and that which has ultimate reality. The “rulers of this age,” as at Babel, imagine there is a unified culture, and wisdom, (a shared rhetoric, law, and philosophy, in Paul’s explanation). This shared world, they presume, is a first order reality. Paul explains that the logos of the Cross nullifies these things considered absolute (1:28) and makes way for a new kind of people and a new social order; the Church – the body of Christ.

[1] The text of this sermon, in English, is found in Martin Niemöller, First Commandment, London, 1937, pp. 243–250.

[2] The poem has several versions, with the first line most often reading “socialists” rather than communists. As Niemöller would later explain, his common cause with the Nazis was garnered in their opposition to the atheism of the communists and the Social Democrats.

[3] Niemöller, Martin.  Martin Niemöller Foundation. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came_…

[4] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Eine Biographie, p. 736. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer#Return_to_the_United_States

[5] “The most dramatic case came during the German Peasants’ War of 1524–25, when farmers and laborers—inspired, in part, by Luther’s tracts—rose up against their secular and spiritual overlords. They were put down in a savage bloodletting that left more than 100,000 dead. Luther himself—fearing anarchy and furious at those who invoked his writings to better their lot—endorsed the slaughter in a lurid pamphlet titled Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. ‘Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab’ the peasants, he wrote. ‘It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.’” https://www.thenation.com/article/how-martin-luther-paved-the-way-for-donald-trump/

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

One thought on “Two Possible Futures for American Christianity Exemplified by Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

  1. Paul, as always, this is very thought-provoking. The problem with many peoples’ interpretation of Romans 13 is the lack of counter-balancing it with an understanding of Revelation 13 where the clear enemy of the Church are the political and religious forces of a dominating, earthly kingdom. Throw in there Peter’s cry in Acts, “who should we obey, God or man” and I think a pretty good argument can be made against supporting an immoral government simply to get what we think we want (which, in many cases, isn’t happening anyway), is clearly antithetical to the desires of our Heavenly King whose rule spans the Universe and beyond.