“Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too.”Heinrich Heine
By: Gabriela Yareliz
I write this in reflection of what we have been witnesses to, in the past two years. I won’t pretend to be some brave crusader, as I recognize in retrospect that in important moments, my dissent was a private one. I will also say that since the confusing inception of all of this, I have also been vocal and had unpleasant, yet respectful conversations with leaders in ministry and the public space. Sometimes, it takes us a minute to find our bearings, though I will say that unfortunately, there is often not a moment to spare.
It is common, nowadays, to hear people ask that we not compare what is happening now to past moments in history. There is a real fear in looking back. It’s even scarier to see we are in the same place and/or headed in the same regressing direction. The easiest way to have history repeat itself is to cast history as a forgettable haze where people’s actions are passé, and to embrace the lie that we are presently incapable of those actions. I disagree that we are incapable of them, however. To think we are incapable of such actions ignores our very human nature and is unbiblical.
I won’t be debating numbers here. That is not the point of this message. Nor is this reflection dedicated solely to my own country of the United States, but I find it to be applicable worldwide.
We find ourselves in a strange place. I was listening to an Austrian church leader, the other day, asking earnestly for prayers from around the globe. Prayers for deliverance. Given heavy censorship on the platforms we once used as mainstream, we are blinded to the plight of our brothers and sisters around the world. Many think that today’s issues and information are restricted to whatever is coming from a governmental source, with a celebrity thrown in.
I wrote about a lecture I heard from Eric Metaxas, not long ago. It sort of found me on an anxious night. His Bonhoeffer book stayed on my mind, and as I read it, it has amazed me. I won’t be delving into the Holocaust. Instead, I wanted to just focus on the initial governmental shifts in socialist Germany and Bonhoeffer’s profound thoughts on leadership and the role of the church in relation to the state. That’s it. I want us to revisit the past, and I hope you reflect on what is actually happening around the world in relation to this. And I ask that you really look closely at what is happening, notice I did not say to look at what you are being shown.
One of the first things Metaxas tackles in this portion of the book are Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on authority. One of the most critical pieces of this is context. The German people had undergone a war (WWI) and severe penalities from the rest of Europe that left the country economically destroyed and demoralized. Any average student of history knows this. The Germans were frustrated with their current state of government and wanted structure. This goes to show that when you are scapegoated or made to suffer, how you react can change everything.
“So the German people clamored for order and leadership. But it was as though in the babble of their clamoring, they had summoned the devil himself, for there now rose up from the deep wound in the national psyche something strange and terrible and compelling.”Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer
Who we summon and permit in leadership has its consequences. Bonhoeffer wrote: “Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him…” Bonhoeffer wrote and spoke at length about discerning leadership character. Metaxas wrote: “According to Bonhoeffer, the God of the Bible stood behind true authority and benevolent leadership, but opposed the Fuhrer Principle and its advocate Adolf Hitler.”
I found interesting how Metaxas points out that evil leadership doesn’t necessarily denounce God. He points out that Hitler never denounced God. Hitler ridiculed Christianity, but he played off of the churchgoers who weren’t secure in their principles and values. Hitler knew “churchgoers in Germany who had some vague idea that real authority should come from their God, but unlike Bonhoeffer, they had no idea what this actually meant.”
This brings us to an important point of discernment. I find that the church is always quick to embark on the easy path of least resistance that leads to its own destruction. It loves to misconstrue Romans 13 on submission to governmental authorities, and if we look at history, whether it be in Nazi Germany or the United State’s own history of discrimination and segregation, the church was always wrong (with the exception of the churches who heeded the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.). Romans 13 does not call us into submission to a leadership that gives, as Metaxas writes, “lipservice” to God while rejecting His very authority and character. And when we don’t understand what real authority and leadership looks like, we find ourselves hurting our fellow brother.
What does a Godly leader look like, practically speaking? Godly leadership was defined by Bonhoeffer in the following ways:
“He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads… He serves the order of the state, of the community, and his service can be of incomparable value. But only so long as he keeps strictly to his place… [H]e has to lead the individual into his own maturity. He must let himself be controlled, ordered, restricted.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
A leader is humble, doesn’t elevate himself or make himself the “ultimate authority.” My favorite part is he leads others to mature. True leaders don’t keep people controlled, manipulated or insecure. They inspire others to become leaders themselves.
Bonhoeffer issued this warning to the church as it weighed what the Germans called “the Jewish question”:
“The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority… we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Something that led to the downward spiral of Germany was the wait. A re-emerging theme is the constant notion that people didn’t expect how quickly things would deteriorate.
“It was all a terrible nightmare that, come morning, would disappear. But morning never seemed to come,” Metaxas wrote.
“Within days the Nazi storm troopers were in the streets, arresting and beating their political opponents, many of whom were imprisoned, tortured and killed. The ability to speak against them in the press was gagged; the ability to assemble publicly against them was illegal.”Eric Metaxas
We only need to look around the world to see how countries are treating dissenters. Look at Australia, Europe as a whole, look at the United States and how it has blacklisted and reputationally destroyed scientists and other dissenters. Look at social media, right in our very palm, and how people are banned from posting or accounts being taken down without warning. Look at people who surprise their network hosts with logical discourses and are cut off mid-sentence from the broadcast. Do we really need to look too far for censorship and all that it can bring? The fact that Europe wants to suspend the Nuremberg Code, put in place to prevent another genocide. Some countries thinking about banning public assembly. Old literature that seems to be on no shelves these days. I’m being direct here because I don’t understand how long or what it will take for us to realize what censorship unravels.
Power Against Power
Another element we see in Germany that was interesting is the concept that freedom can allow people to destroy freedom. Democracy can be used to end democracy. Metaxas writes of the German government that, “like a snake swallowing its own tail, the Reichstag passed the law that abolished its existence. With the tools of democracy, democracy was murdered and lawlessness made ‘legal.’“
Legality is not morality. Plenty of atrocious things have been made legal. The only thing that stands on its own legs are the principles we find in the Bible that reflect God’s character. We cannot shield ourselves using legality (and I am an attorney who has a great respect for the rule of law). We currently await court cases and determinations to see if certain governmental actions will be upheld as “legal,” but the truth is that if a political court decides to uphold something on the basis of politics rather than truth and merits, that doesn’t just make it right. Just because Australians find it legal to put their indigenous people in camps, that doesn’t make it right. Just because Austria decided that an individual’s body belongs to the state, that doesn’t make it right.
And we see that in the world we learn nothing. Nothing at all. In the United States, many cities have enacted a two tier citizenry based on the desire to punish noncompliant residents and visitors; this isn’t tied to science, as one can clearly see in the data regarding transmission and infection. And yet, they are proud of it. This is good. This, they argue, is legal.
Segregation and Obedience
A common slogan in Nazi Germany’s beginning was: “Germans, protect yourselves! Don’t buy from Jews!”
Jews were seen as “other,” carriers of disease and malicious manipulators. All political woes were attributed to them. Signs were posted on their business doors. They were ousted from public positions and fired from employment.
Where have we seen signs in windows of businesses? People not permitted to enter or buy? People being fired? People banned from churches based on being othered? One would think that we in the states learned that “separate but equal” didn’t work.
The discrimination in Germany came about through the Aryan Paragraph, which was there to make sure government employees were of “Aryan stock.”
A quote from the book held my attention: “‘Leibholtz must not lecture, he is a Jew. The lectures are not taking place.’ Obediently the students went home.”
So much of this spiraled out of control due to the obedience of the general population.
“Jews were banned from all cultural and entertainment activities, including the worlds of film, theater, literature and the arts. In October, all newspapers were placed under Nazi control, expelling Jews from the world of journalism,” Metaxas wrote. NYC, along with many other cities and countries at this point, seemed to have ripped this straight out of the playbook.
Sadly, the church, just as many today, has decided to submit to this and also embrace it. We saw it in the past with racially segregated churches (there are still some that remain). Now, we see churches segregated based on vaccination status (I am not kidding). People are not allowed to enter. In fact, just as state and church decided to hold hands in the past, we see it today based on funding. Church and religious hospital networks firing people they worked to the bone during the height of the pandemic, all for what? To complain about staffing shortages later? Churches receiving money “incentives” from states and cities based on how many in their parish receive a medical intervention; the list can go on.
“It is high time we broke with our theologically based restraint toward the state’s actions–which after all, is only fear. ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak.’ Who in the church today realizes that this is the very least that the Bible requires of us?”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Role of the Church
“Here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof of whether a church is still the church or not.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
As in many times in history, the church has a role to play, and we are the church. Had the church stood up against the Nazis, history would have been different. But it required a citizenry who knew what it stood for and could stand up against power rather than blindly seeking power.
I would dare say that the same Bonhoeffer words apply to us today. If two different people can stand side-by-side in unity, that is what shows us whether the church is really a church or whether it is simply a sector of the state playing Christian.
Bonhoeffer thought a lot about the role of the church in Germany’s impending crisis, and I dare say this role applies to the church in any point of the world’s history. He narrowed it down to three points:
First, the church was to evaluate the state’s creation of law and order. it must “question the state regarding its actions and their legitimacy.” (Metaxas) “If the state is creating an atmosphere of ‘excessive law and order,’ it is the church’s job to draw the state’s attention” to it. The church should weigh this by seeing if the state’s rules deprive “Christian preaching and Christian faith… of their rights.” Id.
“[The church] must reject this encroachment of the order of the state precisely because of its better knowledge of the state and the limitations of its action. The state which endangers the Christian proclamation negates itself.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Second, the church was “to aid the victims of state action.”
“[The church] has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society… even if they do not belong to the Christian community.“Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Metaxas points out that Bonhoeffer often quoted Galatians, often saying, “Do good to all men.”
Third, the church was “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” In other words, the church is not only to help victims suffering the repercussions of current irresponsible and damaging leadership, but it was to find a way to stop more suffering from happening, from the source.
“It is sometimes not enough to help those crushed by the evil actions of the state; at some point the church must directly take action against the state to stop it from perpetuating evil.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“The church has only one altar, the altar of the Almighty… before which all creatures must kneel… Whoever seeks something other than this must keep away; he cannot join us in the house of God… The church has only one pulpit, and from that pulipit, faith in God will be preached, and no other faith, and no other will than the will of God, however well intentioned.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Finally, Bonhoeffer warned the church of idolatry; idolatry to the state and its leaders. Metaxas writes that it was clear that “Hitler had stepped onto the altar,” in the German church at the time. Which made me think about us as a global church. Who has stepped on our altar? It may be someone different for different people. The only way we will live this life right is if we clear the altar and make sure only God is found there. No other person, no other faith, no other will, “however well intentioned.”
We have a lot to do, and the time is now. In the words of Bonhoeffer, “What are we waiting for? The time is late.”