On April 30, 1944, less than a year before he was summarily executed by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter from his cell in the Tegel military prison to his friend, Eberhard Bethge. This was not unusual. Bonhoeffer wrote many letters to Bethge (see Letters and Papers from Prison, translated by Lisa E. Dahill, Reinhard Krauss, Nancy Lukens, and Martin Rumscheidt. Fortress Press, 2005). He opens the letter by telling his friend that he has a sense that momentous things are about to happen. A part of him looks forward to whatever resolution new events might provide: “In view of what is coming, I’m almost inclined to quote the biblical deî [what must happen] . . . , and I feel something of the ‘longing’ [Neugierde] of the angels in 1 Pet. 1:12, to see how God will go about solving what seems beyond any solution” (351).
In the midst of these uncertain times, Bonhoeffer notes, he has developed a reputation as someone who radiates peace, who spreads cheer in the prison. But he adds, for all that, you would be surprised at the thoughts I’ve been thinking—theological thoughts.
“What keeps gnawing at me,” he writes, “is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?” (Letters and Papers from Prison, Kindle edition, page 353). Compared to what Bonhoeffer was going through in April of 1944, for those of living in the US or Canada these are easy times. True, there are storm clouds on the horizon. In a way I could not have anticipated only a few years ago, our democracy seems to be in peril, but I write this from my study in the Pacific Northwest, overlooking the waters of the Salish Sea and the San Juan islands. I have the luxury of time for reflection. No one is knocking at my door, waiting to throw me in jail. Still, the same questions gnaw at me. Perhaps, at you, too. How do we grasp the gospel in our time? How do we rescue it from the forces—many of them resident in our own churches—that would substitute for the gospel of love and grace an anti-gospel of hatred and judgment?
It’s those questions that are the impetus for this series of posts. I began by asking whether this—the present time—is a confessional moment (see “A Confessional Moment”). From time to time, the church finds it necessary to restate the faith in new ways for a new age. The middle of the 16th century in Northern Europe was such a time. Out of it came several confessions, including the Belgic Confession, which for Reformed people like me was and remains a primary expression of the gospel. But if all we do is repeat the words of Belgic confession, we will lose both the faith and the confession, which was written to a moment in time.
Long before it was put into the service of enforcing a new orthodoxy—this sort of thing happens far too quickly—the Belgic Confession was a plea to the world and especially those who possessed worldly power to listen. This is how we understand the faith, the writers of the confession were saying. This way of understanding, and not that. It was an attempt to find clarity in the welter of controversy sweeping across that part of Christendom.
Of course, it’s not just in confessional moments that we should be asking those sorts of questions. The church should always be asking itself: what is the gospel? It is the question that every congregation must answer in some way every Sunday morning. And when we stop asking it, we will have fallen into something which is no longer the good news. Church will no longer be about good news for the human race but about itself—it’s own privilege and preservation.
In April of 1944, Bonhoeffer was asking just those sorts of questions: what is the gospel? What truly belongs to the faith, and what doesn’t? Who is Jesus for us today? In the letters that follow his April 30, 1944 letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer turns these questions over and over again in his mind, never quite reaching resolution. One of the frustrations of reading Bonhoeffer is that we do not know how he might have developed the thoughts he introduces in the letters had he lived. We are left with hints about how he might have answered our many questions, not with worked out answers. Much of what he writes is both evocative and puzzling.
In my own reading of Bonhoeffer, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s important to read the letters both for what they say and for what they don’t. What Bonhoeffer raises in the letters is the topic of religion, and raises in a way that is rather abstract and theological. What he does not bring up for the most part is what has become of the church of his day under the power and ideology of the Nazis, perhaps because he knew his letters would be read by others. But these two, the future of religion and the Nazification of the church, are related. Say something about the one, and you are also saying something about the other.
It’s religion that for Bonhoeffer is in the front of his mind in the letters. The question he asks is how to distinguish between religion—he seems to mean the whole gamut of beliefs and practices and church policies—and Jesus, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We might compare the sacrificial system in ancient Israel. The people of Israel didn’t invent animal sacrifice. The practice was widespread among most, if not all, of peoples of the day. Religious people, and everyone was religious, offered sacrifices. It’s what you did. It was a way of honoring your god. But this is no longer true among people of biblical faith, whether Jew or Christian. Except for a few literalists who expect the temple to be rebuilt and the practice of animal sacrifice to be restored, people of faith have moved on. They have abandoned animal sacrifice as belonging to another era. The sacrificial system was religion, not gospel.
The example that Bonhoeffer uses is the controversy over circumcision that plays out in the letters of Paul. Paul, writing against some others—this whole matter is poorly understood—believes that to impose the requirement of circumcision on male gentile converts is to lose the gospel. It’s time to move on, Paul says. Circumcision, the peritomē, is religion, not gospel.
Bonhoeffer believed that religion would eventually fade away. Much of what the church claimed and defended belonged, he thought, not to the gospel but to religion. He looked for the coming of a “religionless Christianity” without ever giving that idea enough definition so that we can be sure we know what he had in mind. But this much is clear. Bonhoeffer believed that the church had gotten itself on the wrong side of history. He speaks of “the movement toward human autonomy,” and says, “. . . both Catholics and Protestants agree that this development [toward human autonomy] must be seen as the great falling-away from God, from Christ, and the more they lay claim to God and Christ in opposing this, and play them off against it, the more this development considers itself anti-Christian” (416). He adds in a resonant paragraph: “I consider the attack by Christian apologetics on the world’s coming of age as, first of all, pointless, second, ignoble, and, third, unchristian” (417) What Bonhoeffer is saying here is that the church has allied itself with the wrong folks. It has allied itself with ignorance against knowledge, with old prejudices against new insights, with superstition against science, with the childhood of the race against its coming of age.
This remains true. In my neighborhood it is not uncommon to see signs posted that say, “In this house, we believe black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal, science is real, love is love, kindness is everything.” These signs are directed toward people who deny that racism is a systemic evil in our culture, who claim that women are different from men and should not occupy positions of leadership, at least not in the church; that our country should keep out most if not all immigrants, that science is only one opinion among others; that sex is legitimate only between a man and a women, and that too much kindness encourages sin. Fairly or not, this constellation of beliefs is identified in my neighborhood and many other places with Christianity. The church has opened a wedge between itself and those who are arguably the best in our society, people who long for justice and peace and hope, who embrace those who are different, who care about the earth, and who believe that church does little to foster any of these.
What Bonhoeffer does not say—perhaps because he doesn’t need to say it—is that in distinguishing itself from those who affirm reaching across old differences to create a new society, the church has allied itself with the worst among us. In Bonhoeffer’s day, it was those shaped by the blood and soil ideology of Nazism.
In our time, churches—particularly evangelical churches—have allied themselves with our own version of blood and soil ideology, white Christian nationalism. Bonhoeffer was almost entirely wrong about religion. It has not faded away, and it has not faded away in part because it has effected an unholy alliance between faith and a cultural identity. In the minds of many people, especially those who don’t go to church, Christianity has come to stand for this ideology.
The identification of religion with an ethnic cultural identity is true not only for Christians in the United States, but for adherents of other religions in other places. Religion has retained its power by selling the belief that we—whoever the “we” includes—are engaged in a power struggle that pits one ethnic group against another, one race against another, one culture against another. Christianity no longer, for many people both in and outside of the church, stands for the faith of Jesus but for this struggle to maintain power and privilege—our white Protestant power and privilege in a culture that is rapidly diversifying.
Many people have told this story better than I can tell it—the story of how evangelical churches have been co-opted by the white nationalist creed. I would add only that perhaps in the telling of the story too little attention has been given to the role of the COVID pandemic in accelerating the movement of evangelicals in the direction of white nationalism. What’s fundamental to white Christian nationalist creed is that Christians of a certain sort are imperiled—“persecuted” is the word that resonates in such churches. Paranoia is at the heart of the movement, a paranoia fed by conspiracy theories. The time of COVID constituted a virtual laboratory for the creation of conspiracy theories. People came back to the churches, when the churches reopened, hardened in their view that we are engaged in a holy war against those who would destroy what we, we white Protestants, once had.
I need not say more about this, except to trace one more time the line by which the faith of Jesus has become the religion of Donald Trump. In two previous posts (“The Bible and the Failure of Protestantism” and “The Gospel and the Failure of Protestantism”) I have pointed to underlying failures of the Reformation faith, allowing churches who are broadly in that tradition to be co-opted by white Christian nationalism. The first of these is the severing of the church from richness of Christian tradition. The second is the consequent failure of the church to discern the Jesus shape of our faith, so that many churches preach what Jesus denied and deny what Jesus preached.
What has become more and more evident to me as I have thought about it is the way that, paradoxically, the Reformation move to elevate the Bible has served in the end to sever the relationship between Reformation churches and the richness of Christian tradition, including the Bible itself. Sola scriptura, the slogan meaning roughly, “all we need is the Bible,” required that the Bible rule on matters of theology, morality, and much else. But the Bible is not really that kind of book—a book of rules. It is a book more of story than of dictates, of conversation than official rulings, and so to make the Bible the sort of book it needed to be in the Reformation faith, it has had to be reduced to a set of this-rather-than-that teachings. Thus, the famous 1618-19 Synod of Dort, meeting early in the second Reformation century, met to decide whether in the end it’s God who chooses who goes to heaven and who doesn’t or whether in some meaningful sense we choose our fate. You know how that came out.
With regard to the question who chooses whom, the Bible is remarkably various. There are passages and stories that emphasize God choosing us, and passages and stories that emphasize our choosing God. But if you are trying to put together a set of this-rather-than-that beliefs, once you choose which side of the argument to support, you will have find a way to ignore the passages and stories in the Bible that go contrary to your settled opinion. You will have to say that these passages and stories (ones that go contrary to your belief system) have to be interpreted in the light of these others (those you consider to be foundational).
And so it goes, until you are no longer free to read the Bible for what it in fact is. You will have to read the Bible in the light of whatever you have decided in the light of your theology must be the case. You will read the Bible in the light of the confessions, rather than the other way around. All of which is the opposite of what the Reformers intended.
And in that case, not only will you be cut off from much of the Bible says but from much of pre-Reformation Christian tradition. The church has had a long history of creative readings of the Bible—spiritual readings (theoria), not only literal ones (historia). But in evangelical churches, none of that is thought to be important anymore. Instead, a preacher stands up in a congregation and says on the basis of his (it will be “his”) reading of the Bible, “Thus says the Lord.” And if what comes from his lips is less Jesus than Trump, then the only choice left to the listener (who may have been in the church much longer than the preacher) is to move to another congregation. And so, the church sorts itself into political camps.
That first: the evangelical church has separated itself from the richness of Christian tradition, starting with the Bible. And second—a consequence of the first—is that the church has lost its connection with Jesus, in particular, with Jesus as teacher and guide for life. The way of Jesus is clearly laid out in the gospels. In a pivotal passage found in both Matthew and Mark (Matthew 16 and Mark 8), Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and there suffer and die (and rise). When Peter objects—perhaps hoping that Jesus would start a revolution—Jesus calls him a satan, an opponent of the gospel. And then, calling the crowd to himself, Jesus tells them that if anyone would be his disciple, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him.” He adds to punctuate what he is saying, “Whoever wishes to save their life will lose it” (Mark 8:34-5).
Jesus not only teaches this way of life but enacts it for us. The Jesus way is cross-shaped. White Christian nationalism, a holy war for one’s own identity, is the polar opposite. Instead of giving one’s life, it’s an attempt to retain it.
The evangelical church has largely cut itself off from the Jesus way, and in doing so, from the Jesus truth and the Jesus life. Having lost its roots in the soil of the Bible and in the teachings of Jesus, the church has become prey to those who would preach an alien gospel—all in the name of Christianity.
Which brings us back to the question: is this a confessional moment? I believe it is. It’s a moment to rally Christians once again around the Jesus gospel. But to do so, we have to be clear about what we believe and teach—about the gospel. And it’s to that, to clarity about the Bible and faith and Jesus and much else that I turn next. With, perhaps a brief pause, to consider tradition.
You can start humming “Fiddler on the Roof” now.