Not Another “Bonhoeffer Moment”

As I’ve mentioned before, I read Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In doing so, certain passages jumped out at me as offering interesting suggestions of parallels between Bonhoeffer’s sociohistorical context (the rise of the Third Reich) and our own. So I want to reflect on some of them with you, gentle reader. However, I need to offer some disclaimers:

  • I have no intention of fueling the fire of those who search for a “Bonhoeffer Moment” (Huffpo has published an article with that phrase in the title each of the last three years: 2015, 2016, 2017). We have enough problems without dragging poor Dietrich into it…
  • I don’t intend to claim that the present administration is fascist and racist in a way analogous to the Nazi regime. There are times when I’m inclined to claim that, and I’d certainly claim that there are members of it who are demonstrably racist and have clear fascist tendencies. And I hear people talking, saying we have fascists in the White House. I don’t know; that’s just what I hear. We should just make sure that we don’t give ourselves (and them!) the opportunity to find out if the analogy holds…
  • I don’t intend to claim that the current president is analogous to Hitler. Again, I hear people talking and lots of people are saying this. I don’t know; that’s just what I hear. And again, we should just make sure that we don’t give ourselves (and him!) the opportunity to find out if the analogy holds…


With those provisos in place, on to the first excerpt from Marsh’s text. This refers to the autumn of 1931:

While Dietrich was still in America, his brother Klaus had sent him a grim report on recent developments in Germany. “People are flirting with fascism,” his brother wrote. If the “radical wave” of right-wing sentiment captured even the educated classes, Klaus feared, soon it would be all over “for this nation of poets and thinkers.” Bonhoeffer’s friend Helmut Röβler had also warned of a “purified, glowing national pride” linking arms with “a new paganism.” (143–44)

What interests me here is the idea of “flirting with fascism”: this seems an accurate description of the 2016 presidential election. Even if many people who voted for the current president do not think of themselves as authoritarians or fascists, it is clear that they were willing to ignore tendencies in this direction. That is, they were willing to flirt with it. Let us hope that such flirtation isn’t taken as an invitation for then our protestations may be drowned in the traditional misogynist response: you were asking for it! Furthermore, the connection between “glowing national pride” and “a new paganism” is pregnant with significance. Our country’s political discourse, especially from reactionary elements, is increasingly accompanied with claims to bear the mantle of Christianity. The cross is draped with the flag (or is the cross reduced to serving as flagpole?). But the deity on offer here is most certainly not the self-sacrificing, power-rejecting, liberating, and radically hospitable God that the gospel proclaims was reconciling the world in Jesus Christ. For more along these lines, see this post about Paul M. van Buren.

Ok, second passage, this time reflecting on the situation in 1933:

In the Protestant faculties and congregations, churchmen of fixed and iron-hard purpose, who called themselves the Deutsche Christen, the “German Christians,” were pledging their loyalty to the fatherland. . . . They wanted a strong church of muscular virtues—a manly church, eine männliche Kirche—unified by German ideals. They even convinced themselves that Jesus was not a Jew. (158)

On the German Christian front, I can’t help but think of the nationalist, American Christianity of people like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. It’s been pretty well established that white evangelicals voted for the current administration. In fairness, I haven’t heard of them draping their pulpits with the Christian flag, or replacing crosses in their spaces of worship with pictures of the current president, or swapping out the Bible for something written by (sorry, ghost-written for) the current president (these are the sort of things the German Christians did; Marsh quotes a German Christian pastor as follows: “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler” [176]). At least not yet; and may it so remain. But at this point, it wouldn’t be entirely inconsistent if they did these things.

Also, that stuff about a muscular Christianity is certainly reflected today and in the past few decades of American Christianity. Just think John Eldredge or “Fight Church”. This dovetails with the above in this interesting article: Evangelicals Looking to Trump to Make America Manly Again. Marsh also relates the following with reference to Hitler: “Passion and vigor, a brash and cocksure manliness, a Führer whose countenance fairly radiated these virtues—a nation was smitten. It felt good to be a German, again” (176). All they were missing was red hats proclaiming “Make Germany Great Again.”

Finally, a Jewish student whom I know fell down an internet rabbit hole the other day and found himself on some alt-right blogs that claimed Jesus wasn’t Jewish. Granted, this is hearsay. But it fits the pattern.

This third (and final!) excerpt continues the “manliness” theme a bit, but also highlights the theological / spiritual / religious and political naiveté that plays into all this. And it does so with reference to the Oxford Group, about which Karl Barth and Emil Brunner strongly disagreed (Brunner was fer and Barth was agin):

[The Oxford Group’s] founder, an eccentric American evangelist, named Frank Buchman, was driven by the dual mission of persuading young men to abstain from masturbation and leading Hitler to Jesus. Believing he could turn Hitler into a born-again Christian if only he could meet him, Buchman was desperate for an introduction to the Führer. . . . The German leader, it may be said, appealed to the American’s ideal of rugged individualism: Hitler seemed to Buchman a man’s man, who by sheer will had concentrated epochal powers at his command. He was missing only one thing: a personal relationship with Christ. (208)

Leaving aside that Buchman obviously liked crusading for lost causes, I think it is interesting how the only thing that seemed to need changing about Hitler was the addition of a certain spirituality. All the rest of it was just fine and dandy. In other words, a certain brand of American Christian from 75 years ago thought Hitler was great and wished he would only love Jesus! Denounce the racism and authoritarianism? Nah, not necessary. Of course, who can forget that last summer another person beset by similar dangerous character flaws helped ensure the support of white evangelical Christians in American by professing conversion. Of course, it was enough to get him a fawning photo op with a high profile evangelical (mentioned above) and his wife in front of a cover of Playboy.

Food for thought.

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