Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the Church: The Culture War is Yours to Fight. Battleground:Ideas October 13, 2023

Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the Church: The Culture War is Yours to Fight.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For all the rhetoric and bluster, the Church is a pathetic no-show in the culture wars. We watch our communities change in ways that horrify us while our teens flee from God in record numbers. The unimaginable is forced on our kids in schools, yet we don’t engage. We lament the cultural carnage as we sit in our pews, clutch our Bibles, and hope God allows mess to pass over our homes, sparing our children. We comfort ourselves with convenient slogans that exempt us from hard-fought battles: God is in control, the battle belongs to the Lord, we fight powers and principalities in the heavens, not here on earth, and best of all, its politics, we can’t get involved (lest we lose our precious 501C3).

The Church is absent from the fight, and there are consequences.  

There’s a cultural reality here that the Church is unwilling to see.  Disengaging from intellectual battlefields grants philosophies of this world easy victories. Absence creates spiritual vacuums, uncontested intellectual spaces quickly filled by ideologies that defy God’s Word and basic common sense. Concede enough intellectual ground, and the unimaginable becomes reality. That’s where we are in America.

Critical Race Theory, BLM riots, Gender Fluidity, LGBTQ pre-K educational agendas, Defunding of Police, Abolition of the prison system, Equity, FBI listing concerned parents on domestic terrorist watch lists, abortion to the moment of conception…it’s nothing more than Marxism repackaged for 21st century America. The Left is battling to create a post-Christian America, making Marxism the organizing principle of our society (it’s winning the fight). The Church sits idle, giving our schools, communities, and country to an ideology, Marxism, that’s responsible for more genocide and human suffering than any other in the 20th Century.

Memo to the Church: Read the prophets; every one of them stood against the corrupt cultures of their day. The people of God have been fighting culture wars since the beginning of time. We can’t exempt ourselves from ours.

If we need modern-day confirmation, we look to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer speaks to the personal challenges we experience during our moment in history. His life is not unique; his response to his doubts, fears, and difficulty accepting the harsh reality of living the Gospel during perilous times is. He faced the same difficult questions we face, the same temptations to rationalize responsibility, and the same desire to find a plausible escape from the fight. But he recognized that the Gospel required him to stand, ultimately requiring his life.

Bonhoeffer was a young pastor and gifted theologian serving the Confessing Church in Germany during a time when Christians were desperate for answers.

How do you deal with the stranglehold of the Nazis, given Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation? How do you overcome unimaginable evil with peaceful prayer? How does a pastor deal with the inescapable conclusion that Nazi depravity required the end of Adolph Hitler? Do Christians cloister in buildings and trust God for the outcome (the end of Hitler), or does the Church (meaning Bonhoeffer) actively engage in the fight?

He came to the undeniable conclusion that Hitler must be eliminated, and the Church, meaning Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had to be a part. The Word required the Church to stand against evil in every generation, and Hitler was the personification of evil at its worst. Looking back through history, the conclusion seems obvious. But Bonhoeffer had difficulty accepting the implications and demands of a young pastor’s fight against evil in his own country.

Culture wars are brutal battles. Standing for God outside our churches comes with tremendous cost. We know this, and our flesh wants no part of it. Our first choice is to rationalize, to find reasons to avoid the difficulty. Humanity seeks the path of least resistance. The ranks of the saints are full of Jonahs who sought refuge, sought every reason to convince God to choose another, to send someone else in their place. We all want to retreat into the comfort of our buildings, find a protected space, and find a way out. It’s a part of being human.

Bonhoeffer had a way out and every reason to take it. This brilliant and gifted theologian gained the respect of the likes of Karl Barth, which brought offers of academic positions in America where he could think and flourish. He could thrive in America under the protection of theology because theologians easily sidestep the responsibilities of culture wars. Good theology is the lifeblood of the Church, and brilliant theologians are hard to come by. The Church protects them in their institutions where they continue their brilliance, insulated from the mundane tasks of society. In 1939, Bonhoeffer received an invitation to teach in New York from the esteemed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, which he gladly accepted. For Bonhoeffer, it meant a way out of the coming turmoil in Germany.

Niebuhr recognized Bonhoeffer’s brilliance and wanted him to enrich the American theological landscape; Bonhoeffer clearly understood that teaching in America removed him from the chaos of Germany headed for war. But the security of America didn’t bring this bright young theologian peace. It brought turmoil.

Theology is a tough business when you are a man pursuing and being pursued by God. Theology deals in truth; truth speaks to the heart, and God convicted Bonhoeffer. After only a month, he knew he made a mistake. He couldn’t avoid the battle for the soul of his people. Bonhoeffer knew he must return to Germany to deal with the challenge of the Nazis.

In a letter he wrote Niebuhr before his return, Bonhoeffer recognized that culture wars belong to the people of God across all generations. He could not abandon the German people by retreating to the security of America. The Word of God required active engagement; he had to return home. He had to fight to preserve Christian Civilization.

“I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people….Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation so that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make this choice in security.”

Faith without works is dead, and so is theology without praxis. Bonhoeffer understood theology must incarnate within every Believer regardless of the risk. It’s the way of the Cross. We cannot hide behind our confessions and verbal professions of doctrine; our faith must be lived outside the walls of churches if we are faithful to our calling.

“We must finally stop appealing to theology to justify our reserved silence about what the state is doing — for that is nothing but fear. ‘Open your mouth for the one who is voiceless’ — for who in the church today still remembers that that is the least of the Bible’s demands in times such as these?

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to take an active part in the Resistance. Desperate times call for the people of God to rise to the challenge.

He knew the risks; disengaging was not an option. He could easily have retreated to the confines of a church, preaching veiled messages about evil, imploring the faithful to wait patiently for the ultimate victory in Christ. But Bonhoeffer knew that the depravity of Hitler called him to active engagement, and he chose a rather extraordinary path. Bonhoeffer joined the Abwehr, a military intelligence service, as a double agent to gain vital information for the German resistance in their plot to assassinate Hitler. When the action failed, Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price. The Nazis hung him for his connection to the Resistance and the failed July 20th, 1944, bombing against Hitler.  

“When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”

This is Bonhoeffer’s most recognized quote, yet few of us know how he experienced the reality of these words. Discipleship has an ultimate cost for every Believer in every age, whether it was Moses, Joseph, The Prophets, Daniel, The Disciples, The Martyrs, Bonhoeffer, or us. God calls each to rise to the challenge of the moment of history they were placed into. Bonhoeffer fought for Christian civilization during the time of the Third Reich. How will we respond to Marxism and the cultural decay of our time?

This is our challenge. Do we rise to fight or sit in protected spaces, repeating our verses, ignoring the culture war, and conceding more ground every day? Disengaging from culture wars has consequences; we have surrendered far too much.

How much more must we surrender before we say, “Here am I, Lord send me.”

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