A Discipleship of Resistance

What an 82-year-old letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer can teach us about Christian faithfulness under a President Trump.

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First, a caveat: It is pointless to compare our next president to any specific political strongman or tyrant of the past, including the most infamous one who will make an appearance below. Such blunt comparisons ignore important distinctions and claim a vantage point available only to our grandchildren. Even so, and despite our tendency to make false equivalencies, history remains our best teacher and so it’s worth revisiting the past with care and nuance.

And another: Those for whom our president-elect is a literal answer to prayer will probably find what follows to be misguided or, more likely, incomprehensible. I’m resigned to this but will still aim for as much coherence as possible.

Finally: I genuinely want to be wrong about the president-elect. I pray and hope that everything I’ve assumed about his presidency and its devastating impact on people I love will be totally wrong. Nothing would make me happier. But until then…

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In 1934 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was serving as a pastor to two German-speaking congregations in London. Hitler’s rise to power was almost complete: the first concentration camp in Dachau had opened the previous year and in 1935 he would announce himself the Führer of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer watched the rapid changes in his country first from New York where he studied at Union Seminary and worshipped at Abyssinian Baptist Church under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell and later from a poor section of Berlin as he taught confirmation classes to rowdy and easily distracted boys. Now, from London, the 28-year-old reflected on how quickly everything was changing and how blind most of the German church was to the encroaching evil.

In April he replied to a letter from Erwin Sutz, a Swiss friend from his days at Union. With the previously-stated caveats in mind, I think Bonhoeffer can provoke our imaginations as we face our own uncertain days.

London, April 28, 1934

My dear Sutz,

I have just destroyed the remains of a letter to you that I started more than four weeks ago and never finished. I hope this one will not meet the same fate!

What is going on in the church in Germany you probably know as well as I do. Nat. Socialism has brought about the end of the church in Germany and has pursued it single-mindedly. We can be grateful to them, in the way the Jews had to be grateful to Sennacherib. For me there can be no doubt that this is clearly the reality that we face. Naive, starry-eyed idealists like Niemöller still think they are the real Nat. Socialists —and perhaps it’s a benevolent Providence that keeps them under the spell of this delusion. Maybe it is even in the interest of the Church Struggle, for anyone who is still at all interested in this struggle.

The German church had, mostly, succumbed to the promises of National Socialism which included abandoning their Jewish neighbors to the new regime. A month after Bonhoeffer wrote to Sutz the Reich Church would add the swastika to its official crest. Some Christian leaders, like Martin Niemöller, thought the church could still be rescued if enough resisters joined the Nazi Party and changed it from within. Bonhoeffer knew such efforts were futile, that the struggle for the German church had been lost and could only be seriously engaged by “starry-eyed idealists” who hadn’t come to grips with the extent of its apostasy.

In the days since our presidential election there has been much handwringing about the overwhelming percentage of white Christians (Evangelicals especially, but not only) who voted for the now president-elect. They voted for him despite the sustained witness by African American and Latino Christians about his bigotry and fear-mongering. They voted for him despite his disdain for women. They voted for him despite the threat to religious freedom that begins with barely-veiled Islamophobia. And they voted for him despite his claiming Christian faith while disdaining the Biblical requirements of confession and forgiveness, a reworking of the faith that, at a very basic level, cannot seriously be considered orthodox Christianity.

bonhoeffer-and-sutz
Erwin Sutz and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Cuba for Christmas, 1930.

Bonhoeffer was sympathetic to those who fought for the soul of the German Church but could muster none of their energy. The day for that struggle had passed and he would direct his efforts elsewhere. Has that day arrived for us? The structures of white American Christianity have consistently made known their ignorance of and antipathy toward those Christians who exist outside the confines of whiteness. The recent election is only the latest evidence in a long and devastating case against white Christianity, a version of the faith that consistently chooses racial exclusivity over Christian solidarity. (The question of what exactly constitutes white Christianity deserves a full answer, but it would have to include the thorough disregard for the plainly stated concerns of black and brown believers, a disregard that has been undeniable these past months.)

The struggle now, for many of us, lies elsewhere.

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For some time it hasn’t even been about what it appears to be about; the lines have been drawn somewhere else entirely. And while I’m working with the church opposition with all my might, it’s perfectly clear to me that this opposition is only a very temporary transitional phase on the way to an opposition of a very different kind, and that very few of those involved in this preliminary skirmish are going to be there for that second struggle.

Bonhoeffer was looking ahead to life as a confessional Christian under the German regime. He predicted, rightly, that the initial struggle against nationalistic and racial ideologies would fade into a second, less popular, struggle. This one would be different from the first in at least two ways. First, the fight wouldn’t be for the German Church – that one had already been lost – but for faithful discipleship to Jesus despite the church’s failure. This would be a kind of discipleship in exile and it would later be enfleshed for Bonhoeffer in an alternative seminary at Finkenwalde focused on study, spiritual formation, and the common life. And second, Bonhoeffer assumed that in the second struggle many of his former co-belligerents would disappear into the new normal. Once the Nazi Party had completed its takeover and once the German Church fell in line, those who had initially resisted would find it harder to continue their struggle. The threat of marginalization, not to mention the persecution that was still a few years away, would be enough to silence many of Hitler’s Christian opponents. From London, peering into the murky days ahead, Bonhoeffer anticipated these lonely days of the second struggle.

In these post-election days, as much of white Christianity has made plain (again) its allegiance to racial ideology, the struggle is also shifting. The scenario is different by many degrees than the one faced by Bonhoeffer and other confessional Christians. For example, America has always known expressions of Christianity that have existed in faithful distinction and, at times, opposition to white Christianity. Many of my elders have long heritages in black churches and, while they are disappointed by the man the country elected for its next president, they are not especially surprised . They’ve long taken this country at its word – a word that cannot be understood apart from the white supremacist assumptions surrounding it. They face this moment as they have many other moments, as self-consciously Christian people who will continue a path of discipleship to Jesus which puts them at odds with this nation’s motives and ends.

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Ludwig Müller, Bishop of the Third Reich, 1934.

Despite differences such as this, we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s prescience and prepare ourselves for a second struggle. This will be discipleship struggle. As much of white Christianity moves on – mostly in celebration, some in resignation – we will need to prepare for a robust discipleship that forms us as members of Christ’s diverse and suffering Body. None of us are immune to this country’s idols and so this discipleship will prioritize repentance and forgiveness. We see how fear is stoked and monetized and so this discipleship will prioritize awe-inspiring worship, Fear-of-the-Lord worship. Those of us who grew up within the confines of white Christianity will submit ourselves to churches and leaders whose existence threatens the very assumptions of our old congregations. And the list goes on…

This will also be a discipleship that is aware of its resistance to much (most? all? time will tell.) of the new president’s agenda and underlying assumptions. There is, of course, nothing unique about Christian discipleship that intentionally resists corrupt and destructive authorities, but it’s a tradition that some of us have forgotten. We’ll need to remember. More complicated is how a discipleship of resistance will place Christians at odds with those white forms of Christianity that are even now moving ahead with business as usual, some with a conviction of God’s divine intervention and others with the temporary and small sadness that comes when one’s political party loses. Over time it will become clear that these forms of Christianity have very little to say to those engaged in a discipleship of resistance. This is cause for much grief, ongoing lament, and fervent prayer but maybe not much more.

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I believe that all of Christendom should be praying with us for the coming of resistance “to the point of shedding blood” and for the finding of people who can suffer it through. Simply suffering is what it will be about, not parries, blows, or thrusts such as may still be allowed and possible in the preliminary battles; the real struggle that perhaps lies ahead must be one of simply suffering through in faith. Then, perhaps then God will acknowledge his church again with his word, but until then a great deal must be believed, and prayed, and suffered.

Later, Bonhoeffer would join those who believed Hitler had to be opposed with violence. But here, when he writes about a blood-shedding resistance, he has in mind the suffering that lies ahead for those who resist the Nazi Party. For the young theologian, Christian resistance to oppressive and violent forces was a question of faith. Who, he seems to ask, would he choose to believe in this moment when all appeared lost? When demonic ideologies had won the day, would the church have eyes of faith to see an alternative ending? Would they have the courage to pray and act with faith?

Here the historical gap lessens. We don’t need to predict any particular suffering to take seriously the challenge of faith. The temptation to despair is strong. Equally strong is the temptation to take matters into our own hands, to find places and people where our control can be exerted. And then there will be the lasting temptation to acquiesce, to content ourselves with the glittering things this nation offers in exchange for our willingness to agree with the deception, to turn away from the destruction.

Our suffering, if it comes, will begin with our choice to place our bodies in front of the deception and destruction. It will come with our choice to tell the truth, occasionally with our mouths but mostly with lives that testify to our crucified Savior. It will come with our embodied solidarity with those whose bodies and histories mark them for harassment and trouble in the days ahead.

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You know, it is my belief—perhaps it will amaze you—that it is the Sermon on the Mount that has the deciding word on this whole affair… Please write and tell me sometime how you preach about the Sermon on the Mount. I’m currently trying to do so, to keep it infinitely plain and simple, but it always comes back to keeping the commandments and not trying to evade them. Following Christ—what that really is, I’d like to know—it is not exhausted by our concept of faith.

Bonhoeffer’s posture toward National Socialism and the church’s tepid response to Hitler was deeply rooted in the Bible. He regularly returned to the  Sermon on the Mount and his question to Sutz about how to preach this passage was probably very sincere. For all of Jesus’ impossible teaching in these famous verses, Bonhoeffer finds the primary question to be whether or not a Christian will obey Jesus. Such costly obedience cannot be evaded by claims of faith, by sincere-sounding appeals to the priority of right belief over Christ-like action. In 1937 Bonhoeffer would publish Discipleship, a book in which he would explore the Sermon on the Mount in depth and differentiate between costly discipleship and cheap grace. In this letter, as he thinks about returning to Germany with its many threats, Bonhoeffer reminds his friend that appealing to Christian faith cannot replace righteous action. The former, detached from the latter, cannot in any real way be considered discipleship to Jesus.

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Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde.

We need to hear this unequivocal call to discipleship today. We have in this country a dominant form of Christianity that claims right belief and sincere faith and which has repeatedly and systematically ignored the appeals from other Christians for righteous action. It is appropriate to make this plain, with sadness. It is appropriate, in spite of the inevitable sharp and sarcastic responses, to reveal the pledge to cultural whiteness over ecclesiastical reconciliation. And it is crucial that we examine ourselves with the expectation that we too have made similar compromises. That is, this moment calls for direct appeals to costly discipleship in the way of Jesus and, precisely because it is Jesus’ way, the appeal will always begin with my own sinful heart.

From his London parish in 1934 Bonhoeffer could not fully imagine the years ahead, including his eventual imprisonment and execution by his government. But he saw enough to move forward with joyful courage. May God grant us similar companions, joyful in disposition and courageous in action, for the days ahead, whatever they may hold.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

2 thoughts on “A Discipleship of Resistance”

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