Lessons From the Reich Church (Part 5 of 6)
The 1930s and 40s in Germany are remembered as a particularly dark time for humanity, as millions of lives- Jews, the mentally retarded, and other so-called undesirables- were lost to the twisted ethos of National Socialism. One aspect that is difficult to understand today is the way that many common citizens, including the German Evangelical Church, were complicit in the Nazis’ rise- from pledging allegiance to Hitler to adopting the Aryan Paragraph and the Nuremberg Laws. We are posting a series of articles considering five mistakes made by the German Christians in the years leading up to World War II.
2. Bad Theology: Legalism and Faith Without Works
Saint Maximus the Confessor wrote that “Theology without action is the theology of demons.” Gustavo Gutierrez, father of ‘Liberation Theology’ (a topic for another day), wrote extensively about the necessity of praxis which is performed in conjunction with theological examination—they both become useless if they’re divorced from one another. James 2 says “Faith without works is dead.”
It is easier said than done to put these words into action, which was exactly the conundrum facing Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church. What is expected of the church when facing evil? Is it enough to remain a pure, separate bulwark, remaining untainted by the evil outside the walls? Is God only concerned with our beliefs and religion, or with our actions as well? Is he God of the church only, or of the whole world?
These are some of the fundamental questions that every Christian must face. Bonhoeffer and a few others ultimately understood that they must act against the Nazis—simply ‘Confessing’, or testifying to the truth, was not enough. Bonhoeffer’s good friend Eberhard Bethge wrote:
“The levels of confession and of resistance could no longer be kept neatly apart. The escalating persecution of the Jews generated an increasingly intolerable situation, especially for Bonhoeffer himself. We now realized that mere confession, no matter how courageous, inescapably meant complicity with the murderers, even though there would always be new acts of refusing to be co-opted and even though we would preach ‘Christ alone’ Sunday after Sunday. During the whole time the Nazi state never considered it necessary to prohibit such preaching. Why should it?
“Thus we were approaching the borderline between confession and resistance; and if we did not cross this border, our confession was going to be no better than cooperation with the criminals. And so it became clear where the problem lay for the Confessing Church: we were resisting by way of confession, but we were not confessing by way of resistance.”
Bonhoeffer and others eventually ‘crossed the border’ and joined the plot to assassinate Hitler. The dead “religion” that Barth wrote about would never allow for this, or for the deception that the plotters used; to simply say ‘thou shalt not kill’ and to never tell a lie is easy legalism that ignores the deeper commands to love your neighbor and to obey God. Metaxas writes:
“He had theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive. It had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believing theological notions or principles or rules or tenets. It had everything to do with living one’s whole life in obedience to God’s call through action.”
Neither I nor Bonhoeffer is advocating a do-whatever-you-want lifestyle; I do, however, believe that legalism is wholly insufficient for pleasing God. The Reich Church allowed legalism and a theology divorced from praxis to creep in, and when National Socialism arrived, they were content to rest on their laurels and avert their eyes from the evil around them.