In March 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned an essay he entitled: “The Church and the Jewish Question.” This was sparked by what was called the “Aryan Paragraph” – an order that only those of Aryan descent would be allowed to participate in civil service.
Metaxas writes that Christians in Germany a unified Christianity that was “strong and masculine, that would stand up to and defeat the godless and degenerate forces of Bolshevism.” These Christians called themselves the Deutsche Christen – German Christians – and became aggressive in attacking those who didn’t agree with them. However, it was the readied acceptance of the Aryan Paragraph by mainstream Protestant Christian leaders that was most troubling.
As Bonhoeffer dialogued and reflected on the storm that was brewing, he reasoned that that the church had a vital role to play in its relationship with the State: The church must “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e., as action which leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and disorder.” Put simply, the church’s role is to help the state be the state.
Bonhoeffer provided three ways the church was to do this:
- The church must question the state regarding its actions and legitimacy – to help the state be the state as God ordained.
- To “aid the victims of state action.” The church has a unconditional responsibility to help those who have been affected by state legislation – even if they do not belong to the Christian community.
- The church “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” At some point, the church must be active in stopping the evils of the state to stop it from perpetuating evil. However, for Bonhoeffer, this “is permitted only when the church sees its very existence threatened by the state and when the state ceases to be the state as defined by God.”
The question of the church’s relation to the state has been one that I’ve wrestled with time and time again. I’ve gone back and forth on the level of involvement – falling for the ideal of Christian nationalism when I was in high school and my early university days all the way to complete Anabaptist theology via Hauerwas and others. On reflection of this journey, I can see the development of that inner question of, “What is the church?” evolving into the “What is the role of the church in society?”
What stood out to me in Bonhoeffer’s words is in particular the second point and third points. There is an ethic of love and compassion in the way the church is supposed to interact with the world – to be unconditionally obligated to aiding those who are suffering under state rule and, when it has gone too far, to be an active force in stopping it. However, the descent into “too far” is often a slow one, with little bits and pieces being taken away slowly but surely. When it is under the radar, it can be hard to notice…
…when it isn’t our people who are being directly affected by these actions.
Following up from my post last week, sometimes we don’t recognize when a spoke needs to be driven into the wheels or that compassion needs to be shown unless we take that time to step out, to zoom out, and to reflect on the current situation.
If we don’t take that time, are we part of the problem?
Are our eyes so blinded by our own little world that we not only don’t see, but even refuse to see?
 Ibid., 154.