The Commandment to Peace (I)

The Commandment to Peace (I)

Learning from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in times of war

Based on this paper the author gave a lecture at the consultation of the Reformed churches of Lithuania, Poland and Lippe in Kaunas, October 20–23.


Resisting the lure of propaganda

Adolf Hitler and his party made masterful use of propaganda to come to power, establish it and entice the whole German people. February 1, 1933, two days after he was appointed chancellor of the German Reich, Hitler addressed the nation in a radio speech:

“The national government sees as its first and foremost task the restoration of the unity of spirit and will of our people. It will preserve and protect the fundamentals on which the strength of our nation rests. It will preserve and protect Christianity, which is the basis of our system of morality, and the family… It will use reverence of our great and glorious past and pride in our ancient traditions as a basis for the education of German youth. In this way it will declare a merciless war upon spiritual, political, and cultural nihilism.”

At the of the thirteen-minute appeal Hitler declared that the new government was “swearing fidelity only to God, our conscience, and our people”. He even invited the people “to put us on trial and judge us” and to hold them accountable in four years if they had not fulfilled their promises. “May God Almighty take our work into his grace, give true form to our will, bless our insight, and endow us with the trust of our people,” he ended.

How could a believing Christian in Germany in these days not be deceived by these words? Everybody was used to violence on the streets, and nobody among the Christians cried a tear for the Communists who were already being murdered. Two months after the radio speech the first state-sponsored boycott of Jewish shops started. Also in April 1933 a law was passed that demanded civil servants not of Aryan descent to be kicked out of job and being retired. The exclusion of the Jews started slowly. You had to take a closer look at it to be concerned.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, young German theologian and ordained Lutheran minister, was not deluded by the Nazi-propaganda. He looked deeper and into the future. Early on in the “Third Reich” he sometimes even publicly spoke about the challenge of radical nationalism and rekindled racism. In summer 1933 Bonhoeffer stated in a letter that “the question really is: Germanism or Christianity?”.

Bonhoeffer clearly saw what was at stake because he had established the right fundamental framework of theology and ethics. Some years later he outlined it in chapter “Christ, Reality, and Good” of his Ethics, written during the War. There he underlined the centrality of Jesus Christ and the “indivisible whole of God’s reality”:

“There are not two realities, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world. Partaking in Christ, we stand at the same time in the reality of God and in the reality of the world… Hence there are not two realms, but only the one realm of the Christ-reality [Christuswirklichkeit], in which the reality of God and the reality of the world are united.”

Yet unfortunately,

“Since the beginnings of Christian ethics after New Testament times, the dominant basic conception, consciously or unconsciously determining all ethical thought, has been that two realms [Räume] bump against each other: one divine, holy, supernatural, and Christian; the other worldly, profane, natural, and unchristian. This division of the whole of reality into sacred and profane, or Christian and worldly, sectors creates the possibility of existence in only one of these sectors: for instance, a spiritual existence that takes no part in worldly existence, and a worldly existence that can make good its claim to autonomy over against the sacred sector. Christ without the world or the world without Christ—and in both cases we deceive ourselves.”

This separations of realms or spheres, this sacred-secular divide, is very dangerous for every Christian. It makes us vulnerable to propaganda because we simply do not care enough about the profane world. Yet the one “Christ-reality” demands that we do take seriously the Word of God (more about that later); at the same time, we have to make an effort to see what is happening in this world of God – we have to look around us, look deeper and speak about it. Anglican theologian John Stott (1921-2011) stressed that we are called to “double-listening”: humbly listening to the Word of God, critically listening (and analyzing) the world of God.

Then and now this poses a major challenge for people of the Church. Reformed Christians are rightly proud of the famous Barmen Declaration of May 1934. Nevertheless, many delegates sympathized with the Nazi-government and viewed positively the “National Revolution”.  The Declaration of the Confessing Church was a stop sign: to do not intrude into the Evangelical Church. But among the delegates of the Synod no-one seemed to care about the destruction of democracy, the concentration of state-power and the swift establishing of a rude dictatorship. Most tragic was the absence of a word about the Jews and their plight.

Except for very few ministers and theologians (like Bonhoeffer) even the Confessing Church as a whole did not withstand the euphoria of the national rebirth. Today we are facing another challenge – a war in Eastern Europa which may expand to a worldwide conflict. The machine of propaganda is working again, and the naivety of many people and Christians too is simply mind-boggling. The war in Ukraine is part of God’s reality, and we must think deeply about it.

This war which started end of February is different in many respects. For example, there is almost no footage of war reporters from the frontline. In the media we are presented only well-edited, carefully chosen video snaps. In 1970 a CBS reporter accompanied a platoon in a fight in the Cambodian jungle during the Vietnam war. After interviewing a wounded American soldier, he finished his reportage, “You see how it really was”. Have we ever seen wounded Ukrainian soldiers in the Western media?

Former war correspondent Chris Hedges saw enough blood shedding to write a great book on armed conflicts: War is a force that gives us meaning. “War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one… Tragically, war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning”, he explains the book’s title.

Hedges quotes US senator Hiram Johnson’s famous words of 1917: “The first casualty when war comes is truth”. He elaborates, “The prosecution of war entails lying, often on a massive scale – something most governments engage in but especially when under the duress of war.” Distorting truth we dismantle our moral universe to serve the cause of war, “and once it is dismantled it is nearly impossible to put it back together.”

What is the truth about war in general and this war? What is the truth about the human condition? Do we still believe that we all have “a natural tendency to hate God and [our] neighbor”, as the Heidelberg Catechism says in Q 5? Yet in war it’s always the people on the other side who lie, deceive and embody evil itself. Hedges again,

“Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder… Patriotism, often a thinly veined form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us. Never mind the murder and repression done in our name…”

During war Christians tend to forget even the most basics tenets of Biblical anthropology: we all are sinners and thus capable of awful and atrocious deeds. The idolatry of war is also mostly ignored. Hedges reminds us that “war is a god, as the ancient Greeks and Romans knew, and its worship demands human sacrifice.” The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort. Commenting on the War on Terror after 9/11 Hedges explains,

“The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura. We, even those in the press, spoke in the collective. And because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war. The state and the institutions of the state become, for many, the center of worship in wartime. To expose the holes in the myth is to court excommunication.”

“The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism”, he writes. The virtue of self-critical examination is reduced, “self-doubt is minimal”. Everybody revers the cause of the nation, makes sacrifices at its shrine. Hedges again,

“National myths are largely benign in times of peace [… but they] ignite a collective amnesia in war. They give past generations a nobility and greatness they never possessed. Almost every group, and especially every nation, has such myths. These myths are the kindling nationalists use to light a conflict… [in former Yugoslavia] The nationalist governments, rather than allow for the discussion of competing ideas and viewpoints, used the absolute power they wielded over the broadcast media to play and replay images that provoked outrage and anger. They told stories, many of them fabricated, about alleged atrocities committed by the enemy. Impartial information disappeared… The principal religious institutions… were willing accomplices. They were national churches and worked as propagandists for the state. The clerics, on all three sides, were a disgrace.”

Fortunately, there are always those who question the state’s lust and need for war. But if you expose, e.g., the idolatry of war and the lying of the state and its accomplices, the media, you might be the first to be silenced. “These dissidents are the most dangerous”, writes Hedges. They are dangerous because “they give us an alternative language, one that refuses to define the other as ‘barbarian’ or ‘evil’, one that recognizes the humanity of the enemy… Such voices are rarely heeded.”

This is true of Bonhoeffer too. He was not arrested because of violent resistance of a kind. He helped a group of Jews escaping Germany, illegally, of course, and was a troublemaker with his words – his teaching, writing, preaching. He avoided being drafted to the military and was regarded as an “enemy of the state”.

The only antidote to ward off the temptations of modern warfare is love for truth and a renewed appraisal of true humility and, ultimately, compassion. Hedges also sees his book as a long “call for repentance”.

Becoming a Christian and a pacifist

Since the beginning of the war between Ukraine and Russia pacifism as fallen upon hard times. To many it seems obvious that nonviolence and the resistance to take up arms cannot be a responsible answer. “Pacifist” has almost become a swear word, an insult; the word is supplemented in disdainful ways: naïve, ragged, dangerous and toxic pacifism or even “Putin’s pacifism” (pacifism which plays into the hands of the Russian president). Even many Christians who are critical of warfare have been intimidated and do not dare to speak out loudly for nonviolence approaches.

Pacifism is ridiculed but we tend to forget that one of the most important evangelical theologians in the last century and a kind of icon of German resistance to Hitler’s regime was also a pacifist: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He grew up in the big family of a professor of psychiatry in Berlin, studied theology against the will of his father and wrote his dissertation at the age of 21, followed by his habilitation thesis only three years later. A brilliant mind, yet he still had to make his most important spiritual discovery.

Before his ordination in the Prussian Union of Churches in November 1931 the year before, September 1930, Bonhoeffer went to New York for further academic studies. There he experienced a permanent spiritual and theological transformation. In a letter of 1936, he referred to this crucial event in his life as to his “great liberation”. The young, talented theologian confessed: “I was not yet a Christian, but rather in an utterly wild and uncontrolled fashion my own master… The Bible, especially the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from all this. Since then, everything has changed.” Christian pacifism “suddenly came into focus as something utterly self-evident”.

1930/31, the academic year in the US, became a turning point for Bonhoeffer and his theology. In a decade when the world moved, as we now know, towards war he turned to an adamant proponent of peace and nonviolence. From 1931/32 on he clearly opposed every kind of war.

Back in Germany in a sermon on the evening of Memorial Day, February 21, 1932, Bonhoeffer said “that we can really mourn the dead of the world war only if we, with the same devotedness in which we stood out there, now pass on the message of peace… and preach it more loudly”. In an address July 26, 1932, in Czechoslovakia he said:

“Because there is no way for us to understand war as God‘s order of preservation and therefore as God‘s commandment, and because war needs to be idealized and idolatrized in order to live by, today‘s war, the next war, must be condemned by the Church… we must face the next war with all the power of resistance, rejection, condemnation… We should not balk here at using the word ‘pacifism’. Just as certainly we submit the ultimate pacem facere [to make peace] to God, we too must pacem facere to overcome war.”

A month later, August 29, in Switzerland: “Has it not become terribly clear, again and again, … that we are no longer obedient to the Bible? We prefer our own thoughts to that of the Bible. We no longer read the Bible seriously. We read it no longer against ourselves but only for ourselves.” In a lecture in December 1932, “Christ and Peace”, Bonhoeffer directly stated that “for Christians, any military service, except in the ambulance corps, and any preparation for war, is forbidden”. A main reason is that you must not kill a brother in Christ: “Pure love, in obedience to the fifth commandment, gives up its life for a brother, whether he is on this side or the other side. Pure love quite simply cannot lift up a sword against a Christian, because that would mean to lift it against Christ.”

Starting in autumn 1931, Bonhoeffer worked as a youth secretary for the “World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches” and became involved in the ecumenical movement. At an ecumenical conference in Fano, Denmark, in summer 1934, Bonhoeffer said that “only the One Great Ecumenical Council of the Holy Church of Christ from all over the world” can and has to say “the word of peace” to the nations. This worldwide Church, “in the name of Christ, takes the weapons out of the hands of her sons and forbids them war and proclaims the peace of Christ over the raging world.”

In Fano Bonhoeffer emphatically stressed that peace is a “commandment of God”:

“‘Peace on earth’ is not a problem, but a commandment given with the appearance of Christ himself. There is a double attitude to the commandment: the unconditional, blind obedience of the deed or the hypocritical question of the serpent: should God have said? This question is the mortal enemy of obedience, is therefore the mortal enemy of all true peace. Should not God have known human nature better and have known that wars must come in this world like laws of nature?… Shouldn’t God have said that we should work for peace, but that we should provide tanks and poisonous gases to secure it? And then the seemingly most serious: Should God have said, Thou shalt not protect thy people? Should God have said Thou shalt abandon Thy neighbor to the enemy? No, God did not say all that, but said that peace should be among men, that we should obey him above all other questions, that is what he meant. Whoever questions God’s command before he obeys has already denied him.”

In this short but famous speech Bonhoeffer did not intend to unfold a detailed ethics of war and peace. It seems that he permitted to defend oneself and one’s country. He was clearly focused on the members of the worldwide, ecumenical Church who, again, “cannot turn weapons against each other because they know that by doing so they are turning weapons on Christ Himself.” He goes on,

“And this Church of Christ lives at the same time in all peoples and yet beyond all boundaries of a national, political, social, racial kind, and the brothers of this Church are bound more inseparably by the commandment of the one Lord Christ, to which they listen, than all the bonds of history, blood, classes and languages can bind people. All these bonds of an inner-worldly nature are indeed valid, not indifferent, but before Christ they are also not final bonds.”

The mentioned “bonds of history, blood, classes and languages” are good, but they belong to the realm Bonhoeffer in his Ethics called “The Penultimate” (das Vorletzte) – this earthly age which is to end one day. In contrast, to “The Ultimate” (das Letzte) belong justification by faith, eternal life, brotherhood of true believers, the Church as the Body of Christ – all these things are final, never-ending or ultimate. On the one hand, the Penultimate and the Ultimate are in various ways connected, they even depend on each other. On the other hand, they must not be confused and the order of the two has to be respected.

To be specific, the mentioned bond through Christ in the Church is much closer than the bond of kin and tongue, secular culture and citizenship, and even of comrades-in-arms fighting enemies. Yet in a war the great danger is that the Penultimate pushes aside the Ultimate or even swallows it up. The deep connection with the brother in Christ in the country of the enemy is ignored, the brothers in arms of the Penultimate perspective dominate. A concrete result is that churches in the wars of the past and today often just pray for the victory of their country and their allies, yet the Christians in the enemy state are not mentioned and supported – the inseparable bond in Christ seems to disappear.

In the 1930s Bonhoeffer repeatedly warned of a “military spirit” and demanded a readiness to take seriously the Christian message of peace. During his pastorate in London (1933-35) he said in a sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9: “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence… Christianity has adjusted itself too easily to the worship of power.” In all this the theologian only wanted to stay true to the message of the Bible. In a letter of 1936 (April 8):

“I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we merely need ask perpetually and humbly in order to get the answer from it. One cannot simply read the Bible like other books. One must be prepared genuinely to query it… Only if we finally come to the Bible assuming that the one speaking to us here really is the God who loves us and has no intention of abandoning us with our questions will we come to rejoice in the Bible.”

Bonhoeffer, the pacifist and advocate of nonviolence – but wait a minute: Didn’t he become a conspirator against Hitler, an advocate of active measures against a tyranny? Did Bonhoeffer turn from a pacifist and theologian into a political resistance fighter who had come to realize the need for violence? Did his theological development reach a final stage in which he gave up or at least modified his pacifism and conceded the need for violence as part of being a Christian? The answer to these questions is admittedly complicated and debated until today.

Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (Nachfolge), interpreting mostly the Sermon on the Mount, was published in 1937. From 1940 he wrote his Ethics which was never finished. In 1939 Bonhoeffer started working for the Abwehr, the military-intelligence agency of the Wehrmacht. In the Abwehr several conspirators worked under-cover, one of them Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi. Did Bonhoeffer move away from the pacifism of Discipleship to a more realistic position in Ethics, as some claim?

Indeed, Bonhoeffer qualified some of his statements in Discipleship, but he rather added to them and never retracted from them. It’s true that in Ethics (published after his death) Bonhoeffer made the concession that war in self-defense may be just and that killing the enemy in itself is not to be condemned as murder. Nevertheless, again he underlines that “The Sermon on the Mount is either valid as the word of God‘s world-reconciling love everywhere and at all times, or it is not really relevant for us at all.”

Eberhard Bethge, former student of Bonhoeffer, writes in his biography of his friend and mentor, that he “pleaded for the necessity of the assassination” of Hitler as the one precondition for peace. Yet Bonhoeffer, as far as we know, did not enter the Abwehr to be actively involved in the elimination of Hitler or even turn down the tyranny. He primarily intended to escape military service, and thus to maintain his personal conviction of conscientious objection to carrying arms. Mennonite theologian Mark Thiessen Nation writes, “I have seen no evidence to confirm what Bethge implies, namely that Bonhoeffer went to work for the Abwehr to join the conspiracy”. He goes on,

“To be clear, there is no evidence that Bonhoeffer had any role in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler itself. Rather, he was involved only in what Bethge refers to as an effort ‘parallel to the conspiracy’, namely, seeking to broker at least a temporary peace agreement with the Allies…” (Discipleship in a World Full of Nazis – Recovering the True Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

In September 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested, as mentioned above, also on charge of avoiding the call-up to military service and thus “subverting military power”. He was already known as a pacifist and that was simply not an option for German citizens in these days. Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945. We don‘t know exactly why he was hanged on that day. There was no real trial. It is possible that his name was found on a list of conspirators of July 20.  What we can say is that Bonhoeffer remained true to his conviction never to wear arms. Furthermore, since 1931 until his death he saw the striving for peace and the avoidance of violence as one of the main characteristics of Christianity.

(To be continued)