Bonhoeffer and Democracy

Back to Ethics readings, after a very full weekend: Saturday I was reading Bonhoeffer between lectures at a Pop Culture symposium: for more details on that.  I wanted to blog about so many things yesterday that I sort of burned out, choosing nothing.  But tonight, I know I need to get back to Bonhoeffer in prep for class tomorrow, so here it is.

The chapter this week is called Heritage and Decay, in which Bonhoeffer critiques and analyzes the European political journey (among other things).  I’ll start us off with a quote I found significant:

“The desire for absolute freedom leads people into deepest servitude.  The master of the machine becomes its slave; the machine becomes an enemy of the human being.  What is created turns against its creator – a strange repetition of the biblical fall!  The liberation of the masses ends in the horrible reign of the guillotine.  Nationalism leads directly to war.  Human liberation as an absolute ideal leads to the self-destruction of human beings.  At the end of the road traveled by the French Revolution lies nihilism.”Prise_de_la_Bastille

Human freedom is the impetus, and the rallying point, for democracy.  Ironically, it has the potential to backfire epically (though perhaps not in a way that people will notice or be willing to admit).  The references here, the possible comparisons, are numerous: the language of machines turning against their creator points back to the industrial revolution, which was the driving force of democracy in France (as well as nationalism in Germany), and points ahead to the warnings of science fiction, which comment on our loose grip on the influence of increasing technology; the biblical references point to the ironic creative attempts by humanity, resulting in the rebellion of our creation that we so deserve.  The key phrase here is “as an absolute ideal”.  Human liberation is a wonderful thing, and something that God works tirelessly for and gave himself up for, but it is not the ultimate end in itself.  Jesus said “when the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!” – but he was going somewhere with it.

Through the rest of this chapter, Bonhoeffer talks intermittently about politics and secularism.  Intriguingly, both democracy and secularism blew up at the same time (is this because of modernism – i.e. the combination of the primacy of science, the advancement of technology, and the rise of biblical/historical criticism, among other things? perhaps…).  The interplay between church and state, oft-cited these days as either negative or non-existant (as we like it!) are seen by Bonhoeffer quite differently: he saw the struggles between Emperors and Popes to be a balance and tension between two kingdoms, “which, as long as the earth remains, must never be mixed together, yet never torn apart.” (I find this interesting, considering my first Bonhoeffer reading was about the unity of reality and getting rid of the paradigm of the “two kingdoms”.)  The basic idea is that “The sword (government, authority) can never bring about the unity of the church and of faith; preaching can never rule the peoples.  But the lord of both kingdoms is God revealed in Jesus Christ.”  Perhaps Bonhoeffer is using this Two Kingdoms imagery here because he’s talking about Luther’s views, but I think the point remains: government as an instutitution is ordained by God, and serves God.  It serves to maintain order and justice in a fallen world, where preaching often falls on deaf (or dead) ears.  The state preserves a decaying world; but the Church brings new life!  Both must work in tandem, separate but complementary, distinct but synergistic.

On European democracy, Bonhoeffer was critical: “Luther’s great discovery of the freedom of the Christian and the Catholic heresy of the essential goodness of human beings resulted together in deifying humanity.  But deifying humanity is, properly understood, the proclamation of nihilism.”  That’s twice now he’s wrapped up the backfiring of humanism in the term “nihilism” – I must look that up.  “The new unity that the French Revolution brought about in Europe, and whose crisis we experience today, is Western godlessness.”  He contrasts it with American democracy:

“The American Revolution, although it was nearly contemporary with the French and was politically related to it, was profoundly different.  The foundation of American democracy was provided not by the liberated human being but, quite to the contrary, by the kingdom of God that limits all earthly powers by God’s sovereignty.  In contrast to the declaration des droits de l’homme (the French “Declarations of the Rights of Man”), it is genuinely significant that American historians can say that the federal Constitution was written by men who knew about original sin and about evil int he human heart.  Limits are placed on those who exercise earthly power, and also on the people, because of the native human lust for power and also because power belongs to God alone.  This idea, rooted in Calvinism, was combined with another one that was essentially opposite and came from the spiritualism of dissenters who had fled to America, the idea that the kingdom of God on earth cannot be built by state power, but only by the church-community of believers.  The church proclaims the principles of the social and political order.  The state provides the technical means to carry them out.  Both arguments, completely at odds with each other, lead to a demand for democracy, and it is enthusiastic spiritualism that becomes determinative for American thought.”image

While on the surface this looks like a much nicer comment than those about European democracy, the last clause shows that there is still some criticism here: since the time of Luther, “enthusiasm” has been a term describing the dangers of fanaticism.  They’re on the right track though: “If, today, the Anglo-Saxon countries nevertheless suffer from severe manifestations of secularization, the origins of these are not a misunderstood distinction between the two offices (church and state), but the reverse, an insufficient distinction, rooted in enthusiasm, between the offices and kingdoms of the state and the church.”  The premise above, that the kingdom of God can only be built by the Church rather than the state, is true: American democracy, and the American church, fail when that distinction fails.  “The claim of the church-community of believers that it is building up the world with Christian principles ends, as a look at New York church bulletins amply shows, in the complete collapse of the church into the world.  The reason this doesn’t lead to a radical enmity toward the church is because the distinction between the offices was never accomplished.  The godlessness remains concealed.”  I would say that this fact has changed since Bonhoeffer died: the distinction (between church and state) has been made, and made quite clearly – and the radical enmity toward the church has begun, polarizing America between those who still fail to see the distinction and those who see it as the answer to so many political issues.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Church and State for the past several months, and I’d like to re-draw the distinction.  I think that most people see the distinction of these two institutions as being complete, or non-existent: either they have absolutely nothing to do with each other, or they have everything to do with each other.  As with too many things, we must seek a synthesis here.  The separation of Church and State was designed so that the government could not interfere in the religious convictions of the people, could not write doctrine, could not interfere in worship.  Similarly, it served to put an end to religiously-motivated wars, or wars perpetuated using religious terms, such as the so-called “religious wars” of Europe between the Reformation and the Revolution.  Unfortunately, what it also served to do is compartmentalize our lives, drawing boundaries between what we believe and what we do: this is a false distinction, and must be torn down.

Jesus Christ is the centre, the very foundation of my worldview: I believe him to be the centre and foundation of reality itself, and therefore he has an important role in my every thought – how could it be otherwise?  If my every thought is influence by him, should not also my every action?  How can I separate my actions from the thoughts that control them?  My actions are the realm of ethics, which modernity has sought to divorce from theology, but this is an impossiblity.  In the same vein, politics govern our society, how we act as we live together.  If my ethics, which govern my personal actions, cannot be separate from my thoughts and convictions, how can my politics, which govern my actions in society, be similarly separate?  But of course, they can be separated, and such an asinine distinction is demanded by our society today.  All it requires is for one to develop two personas: the public and the private.  In order to prevent our politics and religion from mixing, we’ve managed to fragment ourselves into two people: one who feels and believes, and one who acts in society.  How we’ve managed to keep going with such fragmented thoughts and castrated worldviews is beyond me: what do we really base our actions (ethics and politics) on, if not what we really think and believe?

I propose that instead of believing one thing and making ourselves think another, we serve up the intestinal fortitude and introspection required to live out what we really think and believe – which means, of course, thinking about what we believe, and acting upon it both personally and socially.  The separation between Church and State does not mean that I am not a Christian while I vote: it means that I don’t vote for who my God is.  Conversely, having an integrated worldview and allowing my religious beliefs to influence my political beliefs does not mean that I will seek to build a Christian kingdom on earth, pressing my views and values on others.  My concept of the reality of Jesus Christ reinforces my endorsement of public healthcare, ethical treatment of prisoners, rejection of a military state, social programs, etc. etc., and I gain nothing by pretending that it doesn’t.  We must understand that to be a Christian does not mean to be politically silent, and to be politically active does not mean to be secular.  The Church builds the Kingdom of God, bringing new life to the world: the State preserves and brings order to that world.

We’ve created a government that is subject to the will of the people: we must remember that, whatever we do, it is ultimately subject to God.  Throughout History, God has given us a collaborative role in His works in the world: he gave us dominion in Eden, the participation in creation through childbearing and care of the earth, and an active role in the redemption of humanity and the earth through the impartation of the Holy Spirit, to be the Body of Christ.  The State serves us (and God) toward all of those goals; the ability to be involved in the state is just another example of God giving us a role to play in His work on the earth!

It’s late, and this probably isn’t clear – so challenge me on it.


3 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer and Democracy

  1. The French Revolution was pretty much predicated on a rejection of God and it degraded morally fairly quickly. The American democratic society was built on a pretty clever tight-rope walk between Christian faith and a strong humanistic vibe (ie: “one nation under God” mixed with “All men are born equal.”) But as with all things it is “attacked from without and decayed from within.” Without eternal diligence all human models break down and slip into a moral decay. It can be fast like in France in 1789 or slow like in the West now. But, man, the American model of not-quite-theocracy-not-quite-total-separation still makes me smile when I read the old founding documents or the personal letters of soldiers in the civil war. But I fear those days are gone forever. Even the days of Atticus Finch are gone forever….

    Eventually in the eschaton the universe will be a monarchy again. I guess in a “already/not yet” kinda way it is a monarchy already. I mean, it IS called the Kingdom. 🙂

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