by Lowell Bliss
Remember those lateral thinking riddles that narrate an improbable situation and require you to puzzle it out? Here’s one:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is on the open deck of an ocean steamer when a fellow passenger asks him, “Are you a German Christian?” Bonhoeffer says with all boldness and honesty, “Yes.” Only seconds later, he is asked the same exact question. This time Bonhoeffer answers, “No.” Why does Dietrich Bonhoeffer give two different answers to the same question? (And additionally: what does this mean for American Christians who no longer want to call themselves “evangelicals” after the election of 2016?)
The rules of lateral thinking puzzles allow you to ask a series of clarifying questions. The trick is to “re-frame” the situation in your mind so that in the end, everything makes sense. Having the correct frame is the key, like learning in one famous puzzle—spoiler alert!—that the deceased Jack and Jill are actually goldfish, not humans, and that the shattered glass on the ground used to be a fish tank that had been pushed off a table. Murder solved.
Questions in our case might be:
Q. Is this the real Dietrich Bonhoeffer we are talking about?
A. Yes. While the described incident likely never happened, it is the historical person of Bonhoeffer and the story of a real dilemma that he faced.
Q. Is Bonhoeffer taking the question metaphorically in one case and literally in the next?
A. No, in both cases he understands the question literally and answers both times with total straightforwardness.
Q. Is the fact that he’s on an ocean liner significant?
A. Somewhat. He’s travelling somewhere.
Q. Is the question, “Are you a German Christian?” asked by two different people, and is that significant to Bonhoeffer?
A. Bingo! You are so close.
Here’s a related item which is not so much a puzzle as it is a puzzlement for many:
How comfortable are you nowadays when someone asks you: “Are you an evangelical Christian?” Some people are more puzzled by my question about discomfort than by the inquirer’s question about evangelical membership: “Of course, I’m an evangelical Christian,” they say, ”—was before the election, am after the inauguration, will be regardless of what Trump does to refugees or with waterboarding or to God’s creation.” Others however were disturbed when church leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., James Dobson, Wayne Grudem, and Eric Metaxas were willing to excuse sexual abuse in a political leader for the sake of their own political re-empowerment. Others are troubled to watch Franklin Graham, even this week, throw “evangelical support” to Trump’s America First policy regarding refugees. Graham’s ministry is even called Samaritans Purse, but evangelicals now seem more characterized as the Priest and Levite who saw the wounded man on the side of the road and kept on walking. The Road to Jericho is dangerous after all and we must make America safe again.
The word evangelical is derived from the Greek word euangelion which simply means “good news,” and which we understand to be the gospel of what Jesus Christ in his great love and mercy accomplished for the world in his death and resurrection. Of course, we are still good-news-Christians, as is everyone for whom the salvation of Christ has been showered down. Words however don’t exist in a vacuum. There is a cultural and sociological context. They may mean something to us, but mean something totally different to those who hear them. “Are you an evangelical Christian?” Let’s return to our Bonhoeffer riddle and maybe we’ll discover a useful, albeit ominous, analogy—ominous, because the meanings of words also have trajectories; they can mutate over time. We must be vigilant.
Q. Is Bonhoeffer on the ocean liner traveling between the US and Germany?
A. Yes. It is 1939. He has been in New York but he knows the Lord is calling him to return to Germany. He writes his friend Reinhold Niebuhr:
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.
So Bonhoeffer takes the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic.
Q. So it sounds from his quotation that he is convinced of his standing as a German citizen. If both interlocutors had asked him simply, “Are you a German?” would he have said “yes” to both people?
A. Yes. Born in Breslau, raised in Berlin, killed in Flossenburg, he was a German throughout.
Q. It also sounds like he was convinced of his standing as a Christian. If both interlocutors had asked him simply, “Are you a Christian?” would he have said, “yes” to both people?
Q. And then playing a hunch, is the first person an American from Bonhoeffer’s embarkation and the second person a fellow German from his destination?
A. That’s right.
Usually at some point, depending on a person’s temperament, he or she gives up trying to solve the puzzle. “Just tell me.” Okay. Here’s the background information that clarifies the frame. By 1933, as Hitler is becoming Chancellor, the Nazi Party has a dilemma. The teachings of Christianity—including our Savior’s identity as a Jew—are progressively coming into conflict with Nazi ideology. The Third Reich (“kingdom”) bristles in the same way that Caesar did when the early Christians proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord.” Images of crucifixion, forgiveness, and humility seem like weakness or failure and are incompatible with a program to build the conquering Aryan into an übermensch. The dilemma however is that Germany is a “Christian” nation. Martin Luther’s 450th birthday is already on the schedule for 1933. So, propagandists like Goebbels turn to nomenclature, to nouns and to their adjectives. First, as early as the party platform of 1920, they advocate what they label “positive Christianity.” Point 24 of the platform reads:
We demand freedom for all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not endanger its existence or conflict with the customs and moral sentiments of the German race. The party as such represents the standpoint of a positive Christianity, without tying itself to a particular confession. It fights the spirit of Jewish materialism within us and without us. . .
Historian Dean Stroud writes:
Profoundly vague and threatening at the same time, the idea of positive Christianity allowed the Nazis to attack whatever aspect of Christianity they deemed “negative.” Negativity in Nazi Germany was anything that emphasized the individual’s unique worth and dignity over the Nazi herd. Negativity in Nazi Germany was anything that suggested that Jews were human beings created by God and loved by him. . . . Yet the most sinister aspect of Point 24 was that it made Christianity a racial religion. [c.f. “the customs and moral sentiments of the German Volk.”] (7).
In 1932, a “non-denominational German Reich Church,” founded by two young pastors from Thuringa published their Guiding Principles that, yes, stood “on the basis of positive Christianity” but which subsumed that basis into a new name: from here on out they would be known simply as “German Christians.” That’s the official name they chose for themselves.
Rev. Bonhoeffer, are you a German Christian?
Upon Hitler’s appointment to Chancellor, German Christians made the following pronouncement. (It makes an allusion to Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road and to Hitler’s episode of temporary blindness during World War I). It read: “We put our trust in our God-sent Führer who was almost blinded when he heard God’s call: ‘You must save Germany.’ And who, once his sight was restored, began that great work which led us to the wonderful day of 30 January 1933.” According to Stroud, by the time they were done, German Christians “stood shoulder to shoulder with the Nazis and saw no contradiction between faith in Christ and faith in Hitler, so long as they were free to interpret faith in Christianity according to the new realities in Germany” (23).
Maybe it’s Hitler’s January 30thand Trump’s January 20th inauguration dates which prepare us for the true eeriness: the inaugural message of “You must save [America],” and Franklin Graham’s systematic pronouncement of blessing over this supposedly-divine mission. But here’s where I want to make myself clear: I don’t think Trump is America’s Hitler. Our government has NOT turned fascist; it has turned proto-fascist, particularly when you consider the influence of Breitbart News’s white nationalist Steve Bannon, now Trump’s Chief Strategist and newest member of the National Security Council. The prefix proto- means "first in time, early, the ancestor of." Proto-fascism is when a culture first explores, cultivates and blesses ideologies of nationalism, racism, and militarism. Are today’s American evangelicals the equivalent of the German Christians of 1932 or 1933? No, not in my opinion, but I am more interested in the trajectory of meaning ascribed to those names. “German Christians” BECAME German Christians, and their trajectory seemed to be the result of three shifts over time, shifts which we can see happening in American Christianity today:
1. They sought political POWER for Christianity-- not faith, hope, and love.
Compare this to Trump’s promises to evangelicals last summer: I will give you back your lost power (LibToday 8/22/16)
2. They conflated Christianity with a particular RACE or NATION.
The German Volk and the Fatherland’s goals were indistinguishable from the “people of God” and the “kingdom of God.” In 2015, Christian sociologist Ed Stetzer asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement “God has a special relationship with the USA.” Fifty-three percent agreed, but “Among evangelicals 45 and older, the share soars to 71 percent.” Stetzer say, “A lot of this, of course, is rooted in our sense of American exceptionalism. . . Some Christians view America as an archetype of biblical Israel, chosen and uniquely blessed by God. That’s why Christians sometimes speak of God ‘healing our land,’ when most theologians say this American ‘land’ is not in the same category as the ‘land’ of biblical Israel.”
3. They used Christianity to self-protect themselves from the OTHER, rather than figure out how to love and evangelize them.
We all like to think that we American evangelicals would have been as heroic as Corrie ten Boom and the other “Righteous Gentiles” who saved Jews, but actually anti-semiticism was rampant in America in the 1930s and when a boatload of Jewish refugees came to New York in 1939 aboard the MS St. Louis, we sent them back to Europe. (Historians figure that a quarter of them subsequently died in death camps.) The Smithsonian Magazine’s article has this headline: “The U.S. Government Turned Away Thousands of Jewish Refugees, Fearing That They Were Nazi Spies: In a long tradition of “persecuting the refugee,” the State Department and FDR claimed that Jewish immigrants could threaten national security.” Make no mistake: in this time of proto-fascism, Muslims are our equivalent.
To finish our riddle, when a brother-in-Christ (or an unbeliever for that matter) from Bonhoeffer’s point of embarkation asks him, “Are you a German Christian?” it is right and fitting that Bonhoeffer would say “yes.” He is a German patriot and he holds to the orthodoxy of the Christian faith. But Bonhoeffer, like American Christians today, is on a journey where he will disembark into a new context. Words and labels there have been co-opted by a powerful group, and have been redefined either proactively or unconsciously. When a German passenger, in our riddle, asked Bonhoeffer, “Are you a German Christian?” it was an act of obedience to God to answer, “No.” In the end, Bonhoeffer did find a new name in the Barmen Declaration of 1934. He was part of the “Confessing Church;” he was a “confessing Christian.” The first article of the Declaration:
Jesus Christ, as he is witnessed to in the Holy Scriptures, is the one word of God that we are to hear and in whom we are to trust and obey in living and dying. We reject the false teaching [of the German Christians] as if the church could and must recognize as the source of her proclamation other events and powers, figures and truths as God’s revelation outside and alongside this one word of God.
This article with quotations was sourced from:
Dean G. Stroud, Preaching in Hitler's Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).