Lessons from the Bonhoeffer: The Church

Continued from “Lessons from the Bonhoeffer: Crisis Exploitation”

What of the German church during the Third Reich?  The infamous Aryan paragraph, instituted in 1933, stated that government employees and church pastors must be Aryan. It was followed by a boycott of Jewish shops,  and then by a barring of Jews from practicing law, journalism, teaching at universities, serving as doctors and institutions with state-run insurance etc. All these laws were instituted during Hitler’s first year in power, five years before the Kristallnacht.  Though the majority of Germans had no idea that these policies would lead to the atrocities committed in concentration camps, surely the church would have been disturbed by the enormous breach of human rights. Right?

Not really.

When the Aryan issue sparked debate, church leaders couldn’t decide what to do. Many “didn’t agree with [Hitler] on everything, but they believed that if the church’s prestige was restored [and Hitler promised it would be], they might be able to influence him in the right direction” (Metaxas, 151). They reasoned that Nazis opposed godless communism and agreed that communism would be much worse than Hitler. Though these Christians vocally opposed Nazi party policies in 1933, they were not prepared to act by separating themselves from the official Reich church.

Another group involved in the church debate labeled themselves “German Christians.” The German Christians were more than willing to compromise with Hitler on the Aryan issue. In The Twisted Cross, Doris Bergen writes, “They preached Christianity as the polar opposite of Judaism, Jesus as the arch anti-semite, and the cross as the symbol of war against the Jews” (qtd. in Metaxas 172). German Christians rewrote hymns to exclude Jewish references. They embraced Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic statements published by the Nazis. When the Old Testament seemed too Jewish, German Christians rejected it.

The true Christian church needed to act swiftly and decisively to separate themselves from the German Christians. Instead, they sacrificed the gospel truth that God so loved the world (yes, including the Jews) and remained within the Reich church for much too long.  While the church waited and compromised, Hitler built up the Gestapo and chipped away at freedom with every crisis.

If there is anything we can learn from the church’s failure during this time, it is that Christians must prize biblical truth over anything else including patriotism and unity. The truth will always offend someone. We must be willing to take the risk, to look radical, and speak into political issues.

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. Print.


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