When Silence is Complicity Rather Than Golden

Hello from Wilkes University on a Saturday,

Earlier today I found a quote from the German Lutheran pastor, who was the subject of my dissertation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred German theologian, who had the courage to stand up against the evils of worshiping the idol that Adolf Hitler had become to much of the German nation noted this when considering what was happening to the Jewish people, particularly after Kristallnacht. He wrote, “Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.” He would note this date in his Bible and then wrote in the margin, but the church was silent. It was Bonhoeffer’s own work in helping Jewish people escape that would lead to his arrest in 1943. Part of the group he helped leave were relatives. His twin sister was married to a Jewish person. Bonhoeffer was from a prominent family, but he did not grow up with an active faith, but rather his understanding of God (and the church) was more intellectual. As such, it is not surprising that he was more interested in the systematics and to some extent the nature of God versus personal piety. Influenced by Adolf von Harnack, Bonhoeffer would understand the importance of the church and the sort of practicality of the church (a social gospel of sorts). The second profound influence on Bonhoeffer was the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Out of the liberal theology of von Harnack and Friedrich Schleiermacher, Barth was called the most influential theologian since Aquinas by Pope Pius XII. This was Bonhoeffer’s pedigree and would lead him to  a position of leadership in the Confessing Church, the group of theologians and pastors that would warn about and argue against the elevation of a political power or figure, and in this particular case, the Fuhrer. Barth was a primary author of the Barmen Declaration that would tell those the church’s only allegiance was to the Lord and not earthly power. Both Barth and Bonhoeffer would refuse an oath of loyalty or allegiance and consequently were stripped of their positions and not allowed to speak or preach in public. Barth would return to Switzerland and Bonhoeffer would leave the university and lead an outlawed seminary in Finkenwalde.

It is easy to want to see Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church as a sort of paragon of moral standing for confronting the ideology that the Reich’s Church would adopt, swearing allegiance to National Socialism, and particularly to Hitler, but it was a much more complicated issue. The position of Barth, Niemoeller, and others would separate them from the mainstream position of National Socialism, but the imprisonment of some would cause the church to once again shrink back from an all out denunciation of the racist, anti-Semitic, and counter-evangelical actions of the late 1930s. As I noted for my rhetoric students this week, one of the most influential and successful rhetoricians of all time was Adolf Hitler. That does not minimize in anyway the horrendous, tragic, or cacodemonic reality of the pogrom. The fight of the church was for the soul of the German nation, but interestingly, many were unprepared for the fight. As early as 1932, before Hitler became chancellor, Bonhoeffer asked whether or not the church was needed? However, he went on to assert that very question was misguided. He would note that both the church and God exist, so the more appropriate question was “Are we willing to be in service of the church?” That would be a precept for what would come when in February 1933 when in his radio address he would refer to the leader who would become the misleader. Bonhoeffer’s attack on the chancellor did not go unnoticed and, in fact, his broadcast address was cut short. Bonhoeffer would soon lay put the role of the church when the actions of the state or the government abrogates basic human rights, including miscarriage of justice, discrimination, or abuse of power, the very things they are supposed to protect. Bonhoeffer asserted that the church is obligated to question if “the actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state” (Wind 69); in addition, second, “[the church] can aid victims of state action,” noting that the church actually had an “unconditional obligation” when a reordering of society caused harm, even if the victims were not Christian; and “furthermore, the church was not there merely to bandage the victims, but “to put a spoke in the wheel itself” (Wind 69). Another prominent theologian, Paul Tillich, who was a religious socialist, and already persecuted for being such, had also argued being open to National Socialism and rejecting the socialist was a betrayal of God’s call of the church in the world. For those who are wondering, you might consider the idea of liberation theology, which seems to rise from some of this. Bonhoeffer would call on the church to open its mouth for those who are silenced. As Bonhoeffer continued to speak out about the role of the church in the world, he argued one could not practice their faith on Sunday and not be fully immersed in the difficult civic life that was enveloping the German nation. For Bonhoeffer it was the Christocentric faith that argued all other gods of the world must be renounced, and this included the Reich. His argument against the armament of Germany was believed to be pacifist in nature and that position would be another reason Bonhoeffer was dismissed from any possibility of teaching. As he stood his ground, the more he became reviled  and ostracized. It was then he wrote one of his most influential works, The Cost of Discipleship. It was here that he argued that grace without cost, grace without price was cheap grace, the most deadly enemy of the church. If grace is sold in the market and the forgiveness of sins is thrown in at a rock bottom price such actions were at fatal misunderstanding of Luther’s doctrine of grace through faith.

I believe this is often where we find ourselves. If we merely speak out when the discrimination is too vile; if we simply protest when our brothers and sisters from other countries and faiths are demonized; if we send only our prayers and thoughts when yet another group of people are murdered in senseless gun violence; we too have cheapened the grace of God. We have failed to even bandage the wounds of the other. We have made no genuine effort to become the “spoke in the wheel.” Perhaps it is here we can find some appreciation for some of what Bonhoeffer began to argue, a religionless Christianity. Bonhoeffer demanded that his student encounter scripture daily and in a reflective and meditative manner. Many have argued this sort of retreat is counterintuitive to his call to be in society, but wait and hear this out. What might seem to be a call to silence was anything but. In fact, Bonhoeffer would ask how obedience to the gospel might happen in a world where much of the church was taking an oath of loyalty to their leader? His answer was simple, but difficult. “Live out the Sermon on the Mount, without compromise” (Wind 116). The “cost of discipleship” was a complete calling one that encompassed both faith and society; a call that believed the role of the church was to be in opposition to a world, a government, or a leader who claimed to be all powerful, an idol of sorts. This was occurring at the same time Jews were being rounded up and gathered into ghettos and camps. This argument was occurring as the Nazi party began to claim that anyone who could not swear an oath of loyalty to the Fuhrer  would be considered treasonous. It was the same time that the Reverend Martin Niemoeller would be arrested.

Bonhoeffer would leave Germany once again, only to return weeks later. While he could understand the serious attempt of some to avoid persecution from the Reich, he could not do so himself. He would assert, “If I am not there is the battle for my country, I cannot be there to pick up the pieces.” It was then Bonhoeffer believed intimately, he would have to become the “spoke in the wheel.” It was then Bonhoeffer would move from complicity to action. The premise of discipleship, the belief in ultimate social justice in a nation of incomprehensible allegiance to a person who believed himself above all, including the church and law, was more than Bonhoeffer could tolerate. His believe in justice for the least of his brothers and sisters compelled him to move toward something he might have one considered unthinkable. After returning to Germany, he would become an integral part of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

What I still find fascinating about Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the astute way he was able to connect his faith and his understanding of the gospel to the evil and difficulty of the world in which he lived. He was able to be not only a faithful person in word and thought, but in action. Even in the most desperate of times. After his arrest and initial imprisonment in Tegel, he found himself reassessing what it meant to be faithful, what it meant to be truthful, what it meant to go beyond the bounds of the faith he had practiced to this point. There is so much we might consider about our current national situation as we ponder anew the life of this martyr, the life of a theologian and pastor who was strong enough to claim the totality of discipleship that was of and in the world. Bonhoeffer wrote, “As we embark on discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death — we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a [person]. he bids [them] come and die.” These are incredible, profound, and frightening words. They are words that command us to speak out against the injustice of the world around us. They are words that should compel us to question any in the church, a modern day Reich’s Kirche, that supports the discrimination, racism, or xenophobic nationalism that seems to mirror more of the Germany of the 1930s than many want to admit. As we hear the questioning of anyone, within the government or as a citizen,  who argues, labeling them as unpatriotic, losers, scum, lowlife, stupid, what happens to the tenor of our discourse? Bonhoeffer would eventually note this as he was asked about the reality of standing up against another egomaniac. When his co-conspirators asked for an absolution for their participation in the plot, he responded, “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?” This is what elections are for. We still have democracy. We still have a voice. As I hear the words of a President, I fear for the country and the people we have become. I know this is a difficult post, but I feel compelled to question our decency. Here are the words of Bonhoeffer above as a form of visual rhetoric. It is the same clip I used at the beginning of my dissertation defense.

May I be a faithful disciple.



Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

2 thoughts on “When Silence is Complicity Rather Than Golden

  1. Dear Dr. Martin,

    As a Christian, I believe the title of this article speaks volumes to the Church community. I think we often fall short of God’s will way more frequently due to inaction than action. I thought this post was very interesting because in my fascination with WW11 I never really considered what the Church was doing at the time. And I think it is really interesting how little has changed since that time. I think a lot of Christians today go along with what is happening in our society or blame it on other people. We fail more times than not to stand up to the wrongdoing we see. And I think a lot of times we make idols out of our political figures or maybe even the people we despise from the “other side” of the political spectrum. Within the Christian community, there is often a lot of talk and hate about the other side (whichever side that may be). In that talk, we make an idol out of those people even though we dislike them because we let them control so much of our time and thoughts. And honestly, I think a lot of “Christians” would deny their allegiance to God before they would deny their political party. I also think the part about it being the Church’s role to speak up when the government is out of place is quite interesting because American culture goes completely against that. American culture says that the Church and the State must be separated, and culture today is usually telling the Church that it has no place in declaring what is right for the nation. But I agree with you (as a part of the Church) that it is the Church’s duty to initiate change and “to put the spoke in the wheel” to be in opposition to the world.

    When it comes to Bonhoeffer’s plot to assassinate Hitler I do not know how to feel about this. This is something I have pondered many times because where is the line drawn? One of the ten commandments is “Thou shalt not Murder” but time and time again in the Old Testament God called people to put thousands of people to death. And Hitler obviously was not a good person and was killing millions of people and not doing good for the Church or humanity as a whole. But doesn’t God get to decide his punishment? Where does the line fall?


    1. Cheyenne,

      Thank you for your response, and for your observations about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his role in the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. This is what I wrote my dissertation on, and I did a rhetorical analysis of some of this work. We should have coffee sometime, and perhaps chat about this. Again, thank you, and I hope you have a great week.

      Dr. Martin

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