Archive for June, 2016

A fundamental concept in the thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was “responsibility.” We are responsible to God for ourselves. We are accountable to God for being responsive to God.

With that idea in mind, it was easy for him to see that Hitler was a fearsome tyrant because he fostered irresponsibility toward God and responsibility/responsiveness toward Hitler alone. When an absolute autocrat is in place, the people have the sense that responsibility for justice has been removed from their shoulders. They feel they never have to ask whether something is right or wrong. They just have to do what they are told.

And, as Bonhoeffer recognized, there was also another sense in which Hitler urged irresponsibility: scapegoating. Nothing is my fault because it is always somebody else’s fault. Germany did not “lose” WW I; the Jews simply gave Germany into the hands of the enemy. Germany did not destroy its own economy; the Jews sucked all life from the economy.

Now jump ahead in time and look at donald trump. We don’t have full employment? It’s the fault of the illegal immigrants. I don’t have to temper my outrageous mocking of other people — whatever I say is their fault because they criticized me.

Many thoughtful people wonder why trump’s followers don’t seem to care that he leaves major questions unanswered or that he changes his answers unpredictably. Why not care? Because the followers are not responsible for evaluating trump’s answers. He can do whatever he wants because he is responsible, not us.

trump, precisely like Hitler, believes that that law is whatever he wants it to be. That’s the way tyrants always think. And irresponsible, blind followers always say Yes.


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By far the two most popular of my blog pieces have been discussions of Bonhoeffer’s brief essay called “On Stupidity,” part of the set of remarks entitled “After Ten Years.” It is found in the notes from which Bonhoeffer was in the process of forming the book “Ethics,” which he was never able to complete because of the turmoil of the times. In December of 1942 he sent it as something of a Christmas gift to his friend Eberhard Bethge and two of his co-conspirators, Hans von Dohnanyi (Bonhoeffer’s brother in law) and Hans Oster (deputy head of the counter-espionage bureau in the German military intelligence). It is a series of brief reflections on lessons they have learned in the ten years since Hitler had become Chancellor in January, 1933.

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“Have there ever been people in history who in their time, like us, had so little ground under their feet, people to whom every possible alternative open to them at the time appeared equally unbearable, senseless, and contrary to life? Have there been those who like us looked for the source of their strength beyond all those available alternatives? Were they looking entirely in what has passed away and in what is yet to come? And nevertheless, without being dreamers, did they await with calm and confidence the successful outcome of their endeavor? Or rather, facing a great historical turning point, and precisely because something genuinely new was coming to be that did not fit with the existing alternatives, did the responsible thinkers of another generation ever feel differently than we do today?”

This brief section follows the prologue and simply raises the question, Have others been in this difficult situation in which there are no good alternatives before them? It is tempting to say Bonhoeffer would not have bothered rising the question had he known much about presidential elections in the U.S. In fact, for this year in particular, the difference may be only a matter of degree.

Bonhoeffer raised the question in 1942, with Germany already engaged in war, wrecking devastation  where there had been no enmity. Bonhoeffer, along with a great many others, was working not to depose Hitler but to kill him.

They knew that his evil could not be stamped out by mere political reformation. Hitler did not operate by or respond to political realities, only by power and intimidation. They knew also that Hitler could not be put in his place by rational argument. his supporters were not rational people and were not interested in thoughtful reasoning. Theirs was a blind, self-chosen enslavement to a master manipulator who seemed to be fulfilling his promise to make Germany great again.

It is true that we in America today are in a similar situation, though not nearly so drastic. Our political institutions are strong enough to limit the damage that would be done were trump, the petty tyrant, to be elected. Our moral foundations, though seriously weakened by our entertainment and advertisers industries, remain sufficiently firm that  the vast majority of people will never surrender to the meanness of spirit shown by trump.

Most of us in America are frustrated by how ineffective our government has become. We’re even raising the question of whether we have pushed the idea of representative democracy as far as it will stretch. That’s why Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” has gained such popularity that he almost won the Democrat nomination for the presidency.

So we have now to choose between the candidate on the left who represents too little change and a candidate on the right who is irresponsible, unable to think in terms other than his own self-interest, and who is a genuinely mean manipulator and intimidator.

Not much ground under our feet unless we know and rest in the sovereignty of God. If our faith is in the Constitution, we’re in trouble. If it is in the Bible, we have solid ground for hope. Thanks be to God!

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By far the two most popular of my blog pieces have been discussions of Bonhoeffer’s brief essay called “On Stupidity,” part of the set of remarks entitled “After Ten Years.” It is found in the notes from which Bonhoeffer was in the process of forming the book “Ethics,” which he was never able to complete because of the turmoil of the times. In December of 1942 he sent it as something of a Christmas gift to his friend Eberhard Bethge and two of his co-conspirators, Hans von Dohnanyi (Bonhoeffer’s brother in law) and Hans Oster (deputy head of the counter-espionage bureau in the German military intelligence). It is a series of brief reflections on lessons they have learned in the ten years since Hitler had become Chancellor in January, 1933.

In the prologue, Bonhoeffer calls memory a gift of grace and, for this context, defines it as “the repetition of received teachings, part of responsible life.” It is not enough, however, merely to receive the teachings learned long ago. Valuing the heritage of cultural memories is only part of responsible life. The other part is what concerns him here, the lessons learned along the way, lessons learned by experience.

Whenever we bump into the word “responsible” in Bonhoeffer’s writing, we need to pause to remind ourselves of how central this is to his thinking. The very essence of the Christian life for Bonhoeffer is our perpetual responsiveness — our responsibility — to the living and present Lord Jesus Christ. We are always responsible to God for ourselves.

“After Ten Years” is Bonhoeffer’s way of taking stock of the time under Hitler’s shadow. the time would have been merely lost had they not “lived, experienced things, learned, worked, enjoyed, and suffered at human beings.” In other words, our years are lost, counting for nothing, unless we have been fully and actively engaged in our days.

For many of us, there is always a part of our mind and soul standing off to the side, observing ourselves self-consciously. “Consciousness,” said Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground, “is a disease.” We think we have to keep watch over ourselves, not being able to trust our natural instincts, not entrusting ourselves fully and openly to each day and each experience. Bonhoeffer, on first getting to be in a class with Barth, was really captured by the sense that somehow Barth was fully present in his engagement with students. it was that presence which Bonhoeffer wanted with God, knowing God is always fully present with us.

Bonhoeffer cannot look back on the lessons learned over the Nazi years without being deeply grateful for having been a part of a circle of friends. He writes,

One cannot write about these things without every word being accompanied by the feeling of gratitude for the community of spirit and of life that in all these years was preserved and shown to be worthwhile. 

As far back as 1924, while in Rome and watching Catholic worshipers stream into their churches, Bonhoeffer came to sense the essential nature of the church as community. In the “communion of the saints,” we are present for one another and — very importantly — God is present for us, revealing himself to us in our communion together.

So, whatever else we may find in the brief essays to follow, we will certainly find reminders of responsibility and communion. Bonhoeffer’s mind never strays far from these two ideas.


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Hitler’s First Conquests

The military conquests did not begin until 1939 but before that Hitler had proved himself to be a conqueror in other ways.

First, he conquered several political leaders such as former Chancellor von Papen, who thought Hitler to be irritating but controllable. So von Papen urged the President, von Hindenburg, to appoint Hitler as Chancellor. Obviously, von Papen seriously underestimated the extreme will power of Hitler.

Second, he conquered von Hindenburg, who despised him but could find no one else to be Chancellor.

Third, he conquered the parliament by burning — or allowing to be burnt — the parliament’s building, the Reichstag, and using that as an excuse to proclaim military law, with nearly total dictatorial powers in his own hands.

Fourth, he conquered the church, except for the small minority of churches who formed the Confessing Church in resistance. In mid-July he reached an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church by which each agreed not to interfere with the other. It was formally ratified in September. He began his conquest of the Protestant churches in April by appointing a first-ever Reich bishop, a toady named Muller, and completed the conquest in September when the newly formed “national” church — calling itself the German Christian Church — held what came to be known as the Brown Synod. More than half the representatives showed up in brown SA uniforms, thus signalling their domination of the proceedings.

Fifth, he began in April his deadly conquest of the Jews. He issued civil service laws which included the infamous “Aryan paragraph” excluding Jews from all civil service positions. On April 1 he called for a one-day boycott of all Jewish businesses, probably using the day as a way of testing the waters to see how well the German people would join him in oppressing the Jews.

Sixth, he conquered the university world without even having to work any of his manipulative magic. Large numbers of professors simply chose to broadcast their loyalty to him. Foremost among them was Paul Althaus, probably the world’s leading expert on the theology of Martin Luther, who led others in April to issue a proclamation of support for the Nazi takeover of Germany.

Along the way in these early months Hitler conquered crime by incarcerating everyone suspected of a crime. He conquered the communists and the unionists simply by arresting all their leaders. He conquered the broken economy by massive government spending, especially on his military buildup. He conquered the broken morale of the people by making wild promises about making Germany great again and and by staging huge colorful rallies.

Bonhoeffer worked hard to persuade his fellow churchmen to resist Hitler but became discouraged that even those who saw his evil were timid and afraid of offending him. Years later, popular WW I hero Martin Niemoller, who came slowly to resist Hitler and spent nearly a decade in prison for it, reflected on 1933 with these words (spoken by him in a variety of contexts and with several variations):

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. 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.


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This is just a brief note to recommend a book review to be found in the London Review of Books online:


It makes clear for those not fully acquainted with Germany in 1933, just how Hitler amassed a power he never fully controlled.

I will comment more extensively on the article later. For now I’ll just make two comments:

  1. The article mentions that ex-Chancellor von Papen commented after Hitler has proven himself a vicious tyrant, “We engaged him for our ends.” A book review obviously cannot give a full and balanced view of Nazi Germany but I would suggest that any student of the era look more closely at von Papen and his remark. Hitler didn’t come to power by himself. He was “sponsored” by those who thought him controllable.
  2. The review should be read for insights not just into Hitler but into Trump as well, since the two are so extremely similar.


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The Jewish Question
Very soon after Hitler came to power, Jewish leaders around the world began calling for a boycott of all German goods. In response, Hitler called for a one-day boycott of all Jewish businesses in Germany. Few non-Jews dared challenge the SS men blocking entrance to the stores on April 1. One who did was a 90 year old woman named Julie Tafel Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s grandmother.

Seeing the support of the people for the boycott, Hitler then took the next step and called upon Parliament to pass new Civil Service Laws, the most consequential of which was the exclusion of non-Aryans (i.e., the Jews) from civil service positions. It was in response to these laws that Bonhoeffer wrote his now-famous essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.”

One gets the impression in this essay that Bonhoeffer is thinking the matter through while writing. Like many of his writings at this time, there is a sense in which Bonhoeffer is “looking for his voice,” seeking to clarify in his own mind the perspective from which he must understand what is happening around him. In part, this reflects the fact that Hitler’s sudden rise to power had precipitated a crisis for followers of Christ. Having neglected to think matters through before the crisis came, they were having to scramble to come to a whole new understanding of the relation between the church and the state.

He starts with what is clear. “There is no doubt,” he writes, “that the church of the Reformation is not encouraged to get involved directly in specific political actions of the state.” That was the dominant Lutheran position in Germany, 1933.

If the church itself is not to become involved in political matter, “It remains for the humanitarian associations and individual Christian men who see themselves called to do so, to make the state aware of the moral aspect of the measures it takes in this regard, that is, should the occasion arise, to accuse the state of offenses against morality.”

That is, Christians who are speaking for themselves and not in an official church capacity, may speak out against the state on moral grounds.but the church may not do so.

Even on the Jewish question today, the church cannot contradict the state directly and demand that it take any particular different course of action. But that does not mean that the church stands aside, indifferent to what political action is taken. Instead, it can and must. . . keep asking the government whether its actions can be justified as legitimate state actions, that is, actions that create law and order, not lack of rights and disorder.

Bonhoeffer comes to conclude that there are three levels of response to state sponsored immorality. First, question the actions of the state.  Second, to minister to the victims of state injustice. In the context of this essay, that very clearly means Christians should be helping Jews, “even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” This is a radical proposition but the third suggestion is much more so.

The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel to to seize the wheel itself. By “seize” he does not mean merely to grab the wheel of state but to cause it to “seize up,” as we might say today, to cause it to stop turning altogether.

It is unlikely that Bonhoeffer could yet envision what these words would cost him twelve years down the line. By the end of the 30s it had become clear that the only way to stop the Nazi juggernaut would be to assassinate Hitler, so Bonhoeffer accepted the invitation from his brother-in-law Hans Dohnanyi to join the conspiracy against Hitler.

To that end, Bonhoeffer and the others sacrificed their lives. Bonhoeffer was hanged to death on April 9, 1945. Twenty one days later Hitler committed suicide and the war was over.


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