Putting a spoke in the wheel

When the Church has a Responsibility to Challenge the State

My summer reading began with Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  It is a masterpiece by Eric Metaxas and won many book awards.  Now I see why.   Most know something about the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his resistance to Hitler and the Nazi regime and final execution, only weeks before the Allied invasion.  But few know of his incredible courage and passion for truth and justice in the face of monstrous evil.  If he was alive today, I believe this man would not allow the church of the West to remain in the sleepy state that is currently in, but would be calling it to repentance and moral action.

Which brings me to a particular part of the book that I would like to draw your attention to.  It concerns the responsibility of the church to the challenge the state, when it is not acting as the state should be.  In Romans chapter 13 verse 1 Paul says,

“Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1)

The governing authority at this time, was the Third Reich, which had just come into power.  They were implementing policy after policy restricting civil liberties and granting to themselves greater and greater power.  One policy that was particularly disturbing was called “The Aryan Paragraph” which stated that Government employees must be of “Aryan” stock, anyone of Jewish descent would lose his job.  If the German church (essentially a state church), went along then all pastors with Jewish blood would be excluded from ministry.  Many were confused as to how to respond.  Bonhoeffer instinctively knew something had to be done and that needed to be thought through very carefully.  The result was his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.”

Bonhoeffer argued that the church does play a vital role for the state.  What is that role?  The church he said, 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.”  In other words, it is the church’s role to help the state be the state – both in terms of creating an atmosphere of law and order and not creating an atmosphere of excessive law and order.  If the state is responsible for encouraging excessive law and order (as the Nazi’s were doing), then the church has a responsibility to correct that, because that is a condition which will limit freedom of speech, civil liberties and particularly – gospel proclamation.

Bonhoeffer then outlined (and this is where it gets interesting) three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state.

1. The first, was for the church to question the state regarding its actions – to help the state be what God ordained it to be.

2. The second way (and here is where he gets bold), was “to aid the victims of state action.”  Bonhoeffer stated, “The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if the do not belong to the Christian community.”  He was referring of course, to the Jews.  He then quoted Galatians 6:10: “Do good to all men.”

3. The third way the church can act toward the state he said, “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”  It is sometimes not enough to simply help those crushed by the evil actions of the state; at some point the church must take direct action against the state to prevent it perpetrating evil.

In the spring in 1933, Bonhoeffer made himself very clear: he was declaring that it was the duty to stand up for the Jews.  This was long before the Jews began to suffer the horrors they would suffer in a few years.  As far as Bonhoeffer was concerned, the writing was on the wall.  Metaxas then writes,

“Bonhoeffer’s three conclusions – that the church must question the state, help the state’s victims, and work against the state, if necessary – were too much for almost everyone.  But for him they were inescapable.  In time, he would do all three.” (p.155)

I personally found all this to be very provoking.  I had always taken the view that Christians should submit to the government in an almost passive manner and any protest must only be done by petitions and letters.  Well after reading Bonhoeffer’s response, I’m thinking differently.

To be sure, we don’t have a Nazi State here in quiet, little New Zealand.  But we are seeing some changes in policy coming down the pipe that are alarming and in my estimation, coming very close to points number 2 and 3.  I’m speaking of euthanasia and the deadly effect that could have on our aging and mentally ill as well as physically challenged.  If life could be snuffed out quickly with the help of a relative or physician, many people could become helpless victims.  Human life – life made in the image and likeness of God, will no longer be seen as precious in our society, but something to be eradicated when it interferes with the progress and improvement of society.

Will the time come when Christians in our small nation will have to take a stand?  Will they be bold and courageous enough, as Bonhoeffer was, to take on the state?  Will I?  Would I put my life on the line for the cause of truth and the protection of the helpless?

I very much hope that I will.

FOOTNOTE: Many in Bonhoeffer’s day believed Hitler was a Christian. He was anything but. Hitler was a master pragmatist; he made statements in public that made him sound like he was pro-church or pro-Christian, solely for political gain. In private, he made a tirade of comments against Christianity and Christians. According Hitler, Christianity preached “meekness and flabbiness,” and was not useful to the National Socialist ideology, which preached “ruthlessness and strength” (Metaxas, p.166).  In a meeting between Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, Heydrich said, “Just you wait. You’ll see the day, ten years from now, when Adolf Hitler will occupy precisely the same position in Germany that Jesus Christ has now.”  His words were chillingly accurate.
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