The recent attacks in Manchester and London are in danger of being used by the elites and the establishment to erode democratic rights and take away civil liberty. Theresa May has said that she will tear up the bill of human rights in order to enforce laws against terrorism. What I write below is simply a recognition of history and the parallel we face in the UK today. What I’m not saying is that the Conservatives are Nazis. What I am saying is that democratic societies do not suddenly disappear, rather, there is an erosion of civil liberties that are enforced all in the name of combating a threat to our existence. Please read what I have written below, and decide for yourselves.
Bonhoeffer, Theology and Peace
On August 2nd 1934 President Hindenburg died, and, with his death, Adolf Hitler, as Reich Chancellor and Führer, took virtual dictatorial control of the public affairs of Germany. His influence and intimidation were immense, so much so that privately no-one dared confront or challenge him, meaning his decisions were largely unopposed within the government. Hitler wanted to establish the pride of Germany and the German Volk. WWI had brought a sense of great shame to Germany as a nation, and there were many still emotionally (and physically) wounded from the war itself and the tight restrictions placed upon Germany as a result. Germany was struggling through shame, economic devastation and international restrictions. Hitler appealed to a national identity, to restore pride to the nation, a pride that, according to Hitler and Nazi ideology, had been threatened by Communists, Jews and the powers at Versailles. With Hitler’s rise to power Germany felt a sense of pride and hope again. Hitler promised to restore the nation to its former glory. Part of his plan was to evoke Christian language, so much so that many people in Germany would have seen Hitler as an ally of the German church.
In a speech in February 1933 Hitler declared, ‘We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit, not just theoretically. No, we want to burn out the rotten developments in literature, in the theatre, in the press – in short, burn out this poison which has entered our whole life and culture during the past fourteen years.’1 There was a desire among many German Christians for Hitler to bring together the church and the state and so anchor Christian identity in German ‘race and…cultural heritage.’2 To bring back the pride of the Volk was an immensely powerful message that not only large segments of German Christians got behind, but something that the nation got behind.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a young German pastor who did not get behind Hitler’s message. He was a fierce critic of Hitler’s political ideology and warned the German church of its path towards wholehearted acceptance of a Nazi State, ‘Whether or not we want to see it, whether or not we think it is right, the churches are caught up in a struggle for their faith such as we have not seen for hundreds of years. This is a struggle-whether or not we agree-over our confession of Jesus Christ alone as Lord and Redeemer of the world.’3 Whereas for Bonhoeffer Jesus Christ alone was Lord, Hitler sought to establish unquestioning allegiance, an allegiance that would see realised his vision for a future and a time ‘when a nation of citizens would arise which would be welded together through a common love and a common pride that would be invincible and indestructible forever.’4
Such allegiance did arise within the German church whereby, in 1938, the director of the German Evangelical Church ordered all pastors to ‘take the oath of allegiance to the Führer.’5 Such an order might seem absurd to our ears today, yet Bonhoeffer recalls in that same year a cross replaced by a floodlight swastika, a sure sign that Christian identity and nationalism had been merged together. Indeed, nationalism, identity and military service were to become so closely aligned, submerged in totality into Nazi ideology, that critiquing one was to be seen to critique them all, resulting in punishment, prison and even death.
On April 7th 1933 the “Law for the Reconstitution of the Professional Civil Service” was passed. This contained what came to be known as the ‘Aryan paragraph’ in which all ‘non-Aryans’ (i.e Jews) could not hold civil service jobs. This overt anti-Semitism and oppression towards Jewish people would feed itself into the consciousness of the people resulting eventually in the night that has come to be called Kristallnacht; on November 9th, 1938, synagogues throughout Germany were set on fire, Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed, one hundred Jewish people were murdered and over thirty thousand were sent to concentration camps.
In March of 1933 Hitler managed to get passed by the Reichstag the “enabling act” that gave virtually unlimited power to himself, effectively removing parliamentary democracy. Hitler had also managed to curtail freedom of the press and the freedom to assemble ensuring that his message was not subverted on the ground amongst the common person. On October 14th 1933 Germany left the League of Nations, a move applauded by the majority of people, but not by Bonhoeffer. Hitler broke the Treaty of Versailles and built his army in secret. He reintroduced conscription on March 16th 1935 and pumped huge amounts of money into the military service. There was a very positive and high view of military service among German people at this time, including German Christians. Even with Hitler’s rise to power many saw serving in the military as a sign of patriotism. Conscientious objectors were few and far between in 1930’s Germany and, much like in Britain during the First World War, such views were seen as unpatriotic and against the common good of the country. Bonhoeffer however was a pacifist and therefore a ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’ in regard to violence and military service as there were so few who were conscientious objectors. In August of 1934 he addressed the Ecumenical Council of Churches,
‘Nationalism and internationalism have to do with political necessities and possibilities. The ecumenical Church, however, does not concern itself with these things, but with the commandments of God…For the members of the ecumenical Church…His commandment of peace is more holy, more inviolable than the most revered words and works of the natural world…They cannot take up arms against Christ himself – yet this is what they do if they take up arms against one another! Even in anguish and distress of conscience there is for them no escape from the commandment of Christ that there shall be peace. How does this peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture.’6
For Bonhoeffer the Sermon on the Mount was the ‘pure doctrine’,7 something that must not be ‘discussed as an ideal’8 but a calling to participate in the life of Christ, to recognise that what Jesus teaches in the Sermon is something ‘he really means us to on with’.9 Bonhoeffer did not expect the world to live according the Sermon, and argued against the call of Jesus to nonviolence and non-resistance as an ‘ethical blueprint for general application’, for in doing so we would be ‘indulging in idealistic dreams’.10 No, the Sermon is for the Church, a calling for the Church to live out, for Christians are called to ‘share in his passion’. He says,
‘…the cross is the only justification for the precept of non-violence, for it alone can kindle a faith in the victory over evil which will enable men to obey that precept…The passion of Christ is the victory of divine love over the powers of evil, and therefore it is the only supportable basis for Christian obedience…The cross is the only power in the world which proves that suffering love can avenge and vanquish evil.’11
So, in Germany there was a rise in nationalism, a national crying out to reclaim the nation’s former glory, a sense of shame and stripping away of identity that Hitler sought to restore. There was deep recession and poverty, a return to the pride of the military, a fear of immigrants and non- Germans, a distrust of Europe and the shame that had come through the Treaty of Versailles and the loss of sovereignty.
Bonhoeffer, writing in 1935, said, ‘Under the onslaught of new nationalism, the fact that the church of Christ does not stop at national and racial boundaries but reaches beyond them, so powerfully attested in the New Testament and in the confessional writings, has far too easily been forgotten and denied.’12 Consider then how different the language of Bonhoeffer is from Theresa May who, in her keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016 said, ‘But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.’13
The German church was largely silent. Silent through fear. Silent through a lack of understanding. Silent through theological ineptness. Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, said that Bonhoeffer ‘was ashamed of the Confessing Church’14 in its German nationalism and would distance himself further from them. Bonhoeffer, through theological study that lead to a cultural and political insight, spoke out and saw early on the reality of where Germany was heading under the rule of Hitler and why such ideology was opposed to the Way of Jesus. Perhaps we are in similar days.
Modern Day Parallels?
Nationalism, militarism, recession, pride, rejecting Europe and demanding we reclaim our sovereignty, a fear of immigrants and refugees. These were all a stark reality in Germany during the 1920’s and 30’s, and they are all present today. Martin Luther King Jr said there were three evils of society; racism, poverty and militarism. In an address to the National Conference on New Politics on 31st August 1967, King said,
‘When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people the giant triplets of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are incapable of being conquered.’
The language our government has consistently used over the past 7 years is one of ‘growth’, whereby the means to better our society will be through growing our economy. David Cameron, speaking at the G8 summit on the 15th June 2013 said that the issues of poverty needed to be dealt through ‘the benefits of growth’; Mammon it seems, continues to be served unquestionably.
Think too of the rise in military pride. Remembrance Day in the UK has grown considerably over recent years, a new-found sense of pride in the armed forces and an unquestioning loyalty demanded of society to support our troops. In such a climate it is difficult to even ask questions of the legitimacy of the military and the ethics of war without coming under fierce criticism and be seen as unpatriotic. Indeed, the conversation is shut down before it has begun in such a climate. With the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London the call to war and weapons on the streets has grown. We ignore our own political history, the way we have trained, funded, and deployed terrorists for economic gain against regimes and dictators who threatened Western power. We fund terrorist groups through the selling of arms to the Saudi’s, and fill the gap of political instability that we create through catastrophic foreign policy, with bombs and capitalist democracy, creating further instability and radicalization of people who view the West as the enemy.
And then there is the fear of ‘other’, people who are not like us. After ‘Brexit’ there were increasing reports of hate crimes towards ethnic minorities and the Muslim community. Theresa May was reckless and inflammatory in her keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference when she used the language of ‘low-skilled immigration’ taking the jobs of British people. Such language creates the climate of fear and hate towards people who have arrived in the UK from other countries. And such language instinctively brings dehumanization and further exasperates the very problems Martin Luther King Jr spoke about fifty years ago.
On 2-5th October 2016 the Conservative Party held their annual conference. The Prime Minister Theresa May, along with her cabinet, spoke in stark terms of nationalism, Britishness and highlighting ‘foreign workers’. In her keynote speech she said, ‘…if you’re one of those people who lost their job, who stayed in work but on reduced hours, took a pay cut as household bills rocketed, or – and I know a lot of people don’t like to admit this – someone who finds themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration, life simply doesn’t seem fair.’15 Throughout the speech she speaks of ‘citizenship’, ’nationalism’, how, in leaving the EU we will ‘become, once more, a fully sovereign and independent country’ and how ‘we should employ the power of the government for the good of the people.’ She goes on to say, ‘That’s what government’s about: action. It’s about doing something, not being someone.’16 Yet Bonhoeffer saw within his own context how dangerous and misguided such language is,
‘…human authorities who sought to build peace upon a political foundation find themselves shipwrecked.’17
Furthermore, orthodox Christian theology has consistently sought to root itself in ontology, in who we are in the Person of Jesus Christ and his grace. Indeed, according to the Gospels, the works of our hands are determined by our character and motivation, by who we are, and so such language by Theresa May separating action and being is thoroughly un-Christian (especially for a Vicar’s daughter…) and a false dichotomy. The Conservatives also plan to introduce a “British bill of rights” rooted in “British values” that will replace the Human Rights Act set up in 1998. The act protects 15 fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to life, privacy and free speech, which are all based on articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. The freedoms must be upheld by all public bodies and British courts and tribunals must interpret legislation in a way that is compatible with the rights enshrined in the convention. A ‘British bill of rights’ based on ‘British values’ is a frightening prospect. Who determines what ‘Britishness’ even is? What will be the measure to which someone is judged to be acting according to ‘British values’? And now Theresa May wants to tear up the bill in order to combat terrorism, as well as increasing snooping laws, arbitrarily judging language according to its ‘Britishness’ and whether or not people are speaking in ways that undermine government and the ‘war on terror’, whatever that even means; all very Orwellian in nature.
The ideology and language of this current government is consistently of ‘other’ with the cultural and historical parallel with 1930’s Germany something we should be aware of. The language of ‘the good the government can do’ and ‘centre ground’ is a language that seeks to restore faith in the political system and restore pride in British politics, British pride and British identity, yet is actually a cocktail for terrorisation when it stems from an ideology this government are committed to. The right-wing ideology of the current government will, according to Theresa May, become the new ‘centre ground.’ In reality it is neoliberalism pushed ever more to its extremes. When such political ideology becomes the norm it is common for socialism and politically left ideas to be demonized, ridiculed and feared as ‘Marxist’ or ‘Communist’. When that happens it is incredibly difficult to have an alternative voice in the political arena. Theresa May, in her desire trigger Article 50 to confirm the United Kingdom leaving the EU, as well as seeking to revoke the European Human Rights Act and install a ‘British’ version, alongside a determination to establish a set of ‘British values’ that people, especially those seeking residence here, must abide by in order to combat this so-called ‘war on terror’, together with new laws that enable extreme snooping of our electronic communication, as well as language of nationalism, fear of ‘other’ and economic hardship, create a potentially dangerous sociological atmosphere out of which there is the distinct possibility of a totalitarian regime emerging, one that will be brutal and unforgiving. Here the church’s theological task is vital and necessary. The church must not allow itself to be swept up in any kind of nationalism, in language and support of war or any kind, of segregation or oppressive practice. It must seek the distinctiveness of Christ, a peculiar people defined through Jesus’ teaching, a people who follow the Way forged by the Cross of Christ. The church must be a Beatitude people, a Sermon on the Mount revolution, a Philippians 2 kenosis people who declare Jesus and not Caesar is Lord.
Bonhoeffer says, ‘Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its apologia for the weak. I feel that Christianity is rather doing too little in showing these points than doing too much. Christianity has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should…take a much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.’18
The church must speak out. It must take a stand and recognise the dark path that is being trod. We must stand in solidarity with the oppressed. We must not be bound up in fear, for perfect love casts out fear. We must recognise our common humanity in every face, opening our hearts and our homes to all, walking in the Unconditionality and grace of God. We must reject all forms of violence and all calls to strengthen our military might. We must lay down our swords and follow the path of peace shown to us by Jesus Christ. We must think theologically if we are to have any kind of voice that is distinct to the culture and faithful to the Triune God.
‘It is as though all the powers of the earth had sworn themselves against peace; money, the economy, the drive to power, yes even love for the fatherland – all have been pulled into the service of hate, the hatred of the people, the hate of compatriots to their own compatriots.’19
Jesus is our peace, and so let us live according to this Prince of Peace, refusing the way of fear and hate. The ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen’ of God’s grace and love is greater than the ‘No’ of our hate and fear, ‘For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes.” For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God.’ (2 Cor. 1:19-20)
Revd Joseph Haward
1 Quoted in Ernest Christian Helmreich, The German Churches Under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), 128-129
2 “New Guiding Principles of the German Christians, 16 May 1933,” in Matheson, P., (ed.) The Third Reich and the Christian Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 23
3 Bonhoeffer, D., London, (Minnneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 376
4 Hitler, A., Mein Kampf, 387
5 Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (Minnneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 599
6 Bonhoeffer, D., “The Church and the Peoples of the World,” in London, (Minnneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 307-309
7 Ibid, 217
8 Bonhoeffer, D., The Cost of Discipleship, (Minnneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 138
10 Ibid, 93
11 Ibid, 94
12 Bonhoeffer, D., “The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement,” in Testament to Freedom, (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 140
14 Bethge, E., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (Minnneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 603
17 Bonhoeffer, D., “Christ and Peace,” in Berlin, (Minnneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 258
18 Bonhoeffer, D., London, (Minnneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 347
19 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Church is Dead” in Ecumenical, Academic, and Pastoral 19 Work, (Minnneapolis: Fortress, 2012), p 378