Listening to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life – Part Three

Memorial plaque, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Zionskir...

Memorial plaque, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Zionskirchplatz , Berlin-Mitte, Germany

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s courageous efforts of resistance were not due to any deep, abiding awareness of his Jewish roots as a Christian, how could this have any positive ramifications for 21st century Christians?

First of all, it should be said that Bonhoeffer’s resistance was no less heroic or noble if indeed he acted on “just” or “merely” a high moral call-to-action outside of any theological connection to “Israel” per se.  The light of his Christian witness will forever shine in the darkness.  But a question worth asking is this: What if both Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church had theologically viewed the Jewish people in true biblical theological light: as one grafted-into Israel (Romans 11), not as a triumphalistic replacement of Israel? What if this key body of resisting Christians saw themselves as residing in the  “us” category of familial intimacy within Israel rather than seeing the Jews as “the other?”  Herein lies the rub: a more biblical, new covenant, messianic approach, in contrast to traditional Christian teaching, does see faith in the long-awaited Jewish Messiah as necessitating one’s being a legitimate, prophetic, divinely-ordained part of Israel – not an entity unto itself – thus positioning the Jewish people ipso facto, theologically speaking, in the “us” category alongside Christianity. This should make all the difference in the world between the Church’s behavior in the Holocaust era and our behavior now. This shift in self-apprehension is a major shift of our “universe of obilgation,” stretching the bounds of responsible action across the massive theological gulf created by supersessionistic Replacement Theology.

The Nazis needed help?

Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto, Michael Marrus, in an interview on December 12, 1997 at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, shares this key insight on the topic of resistance:

The idea that the whole of Europe could be transformed according to a particular Nazi blueprint was a nationalist, socialist project that had its own history, mainspring, and dynamic. What was so extraordinary about the Holocaust was that this Nazi program operated with the assistance and collaboration of all kinds of elements in Europe. Seeing the coordination of these instruments of government and leadership is essentially the history of the Holocaust itself, and explains how the Nazis were able to do it. Looking back, as historians must, I guess one is “impressed” with the limited means that Nazi Germany had at its disposal. By using those means alone, the destruction could never have reached the degree or level that it did. The Nazis needed help everywhere ― albeit sometimes more, and sometimes less. The history of the Holocaust is that of the process by which the Nazis secured this aid: sometimes by trickery; sometimes by enticement; or the brutalization of local populations; or, the encouragement afforded to specific, collaborationist elements.”

This is an obscure insight, a brow-furrowing notion that should present itself like a blinking neon billboard on a dark night to those who care about the memory of the victims of the Final Solution and the ongoing effort to repeat that catastrophe today: “The Nazis needed help everywhere ― albeit sometimes more, and sometimes less.” Here is a key to striking the Achilles heel of the propaganda war being waged against Israel today, condensed into four little words: the Nazis needed help. The proper “biblical,” hence, “moral” reaction to this blinking neon billboard? We must ask ourselves the question: Who are we helping by our passivity, by the eloquence of our silence in the face of the ongoing assault on human memory, which translates into a direct assault on the Jewish people, which, to a believing individual, presents itself as tantamount to an assault upon God Himself? Who, by our inaction, are we helping? Our failure to assemble forces of resistance, to procure provisions of food and weapons and tools, to sabotage bridges and set charges to railway lines distributing anti-Semitic hate around the world should be seen as action in direct support of the enemies of Israel.

A Symphony of Salt & Light

Certainly, we must pray for the Jewish people, for all of Israel, for the peace of Jerusalem.  But, if we also listen very closely, listen actively, with tuned ears, to the past, even to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we can hear strains of music that speak to us in our time about necessary godly action to be taken in association with prayer as the world again aligns itself against Israel. As it is written of those who re-built the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah: “Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other…” (Nehemiah 4:17).

Whether or not a harmony is pleasing is a matter of personal taste, as there are consonant and dissonant harmonies, both of which are pleasing to the ears of some and not others.  What we “hear” in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer may be dissonant in relation to what we’d like to hear, and yet, through purposeful exposure to that dissonance we may discover an unfinished symphony of salt and light that may not only be heard around the world, but received with hearts wide open.

Part IV:  Two-handed resistance…


4 comments on “Listening to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life – Part Three

  1. Many books in One Book.

    Many words, but One Word of God.

    One Olive Tree.

    One Covenant.

    Many lambs, but One Lamb of God.

    John saw 24 elders around the Throne of God.

    24 = 12 x 2

    2 => 1


  2. I have trouble with your question, “What if both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church…?” as if they are together on the question of the Church’s attitude toward Israel. Bonhoeffer was very much alone. Notice the difference between the Bethel Confession, which he co-authored, and the Barmen Declaration. From Jesus’ “Salvation is from the Jews” through Paul’s Letter to the Romans, esp. chapters 9-11, to all of Bonhoeffer’s writings clear up to his prison letters, the Church recognizes Israel’s priority, Marcion was wrong, Gentile Christians are grafted into the One Olive Tree, the One Covenant, and today’s semi-Marcionism (supersessionism, replacement theology) is a vile heresy, expressing itself (mostly on the political and theological Left) as anti-Israel, when it is just plain Jew-hatred. Haman, down through the centuries. Only more clever today.


  3. Dan Hennessy says:

    Hello Dwight… Thanks for “plugging in” again…”

    Let me try to clarify. I agree that Bonhoeffer was very much alone. Actually, I make mention of this in Part One: “His impassioned anti-Nazi zeal was a burst of fervent light that extended well beyond the more moderate course of action the rest of the Confessing Church was willing to take in protest of the growing criminality of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer’s radical theological critique of the Nazi state is duly noted as being one of the main reasons for his not having had more impact on the direction taken by his Christian peers within the Confessing Church at the time.”

    My point in Part Three, then, is to juxtapose Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in an imaginary shared positive light, in a “what if” scenario wherein we ponder the good that might have come if the two Nazi-resistant forces had shared a biblically-sanctioned view of the Jewish people as being “US” rather than “THEM” … as Christians who were in right-relationship with Israel – as a grafted-in citizen of the commonwealth – rather than, like all of mainstream institutional Christianity, to include DB and the CC, as seeing the Jews as the “other,” hence, not as the intimate siblings that both Jesus and Paul see us as being.

    As a non-Jewish Messianic believer and a Holocaust educator, it is my conviction that if the Christian Church had taught the Jewishness of Jesus and the grafted-in commonwealth status of the Church within Israel all along – as opposed to the plague of supercessionistic Replacement Theology – the collective Christian heart would likely have seen G-d’s beloved Jewish people during the darkness of the Nazi menace more as “us” and less as “them,” as Frost might have put it, that different, grafted-in view, perhaps, making all the difference…

    Blessings and shalom… Dan Hennessy


  4. Thank you, Dan. My fault. I came in at Part 3. You were kind to respond, filling me in on what I had missed. You also helped me understand what you meant by viewing Jews as either “us” or “them” and the ramifications for each. It’s akin to why I bristle at the words and phrases used all during the ’30s in Nazi Germany: the “Jewish question,” the “Jewish problem.” Yes, Bonhoeffer and others in the resistance used that language, too. But in retrospect we know it wasn’t the Jews who were the problem, the “question” that needed an answer, a solution, a Final Solution. It was the silence of the non-Jewish world that was the problem. Thanks again for deepening my understanding of US, The Twenty-four Elders Around the Throne of God.


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