Reading Bonhoeffer: Politics and the Aryan Paragraph

Finally, the moment I’ve been waiting for: Bonhoeffer’s political theology! This can be hard to define, because almost all of Bonhoeffer’s writings are rich with political implications and veiled references to Nazi ideology and policy, but the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer collects his political ideas and attitudes in chapter 10, “Church, state and the ‘Jewish question'” by Ruth Zerner.

The Givens: Bonhoeffer’s Inherited Views

Bonhoeffer was raised in a nation that had a very strong sense of tradition and heritage, not least of which was the legacy of Martin Luther. In fairness to Luther, the views of Bonhoeffer’s day were mostly twisted versions of Luther’s ideas, but nevertheless they found their roots in Luther. Two views in particular are relevant here: antisemitism, and the “two kingdoms” theology.

It’s a bit shocking for Bonhoeffer fans of today (like me) to see him write about the “Jewish problem” or refer to and seemingly affirm notions such as Jewish guilt for deicide (the killing of Christ) and God’s punishment for it. Though he also wrote that there is no justification for a state who takes the task of this punishment on itself, the idea that he even used those terms is shocking, especially when he was usually so careful and clever to avoid using Nazi-esque language in other settings. Bonhoeffer himself was involved in rescuing 14 Jews, and it was evidence of this act that later caused his arrest, which eventually led to his execution, so clearly he wasn’t antisemitic. But even so, it makes me wonder if his vehement arguments against the Aryan paragraph, which excluded all non-Aryans from holding any public service positions including pastorates, was not a sticking up for the Jews as much as it was sticking up for the independence of the Church. At least initially, it seems like his arguments are based on the principle of the matter – not that he was indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews, but that they were of secondary importance after the freedom of the Church. Bonhoeffer’s later statements, including “only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant!” shows that he felt strongly about the treatment of the Jews. In the worst case, I suppose this shows that his theology made him a better person and overcame his inherited prejudices; may we also be so affected by our theology!

The other view that Bonhoeffer inherited that had a profound impact on his political theology and activism was Luther’s theology of Two Kingdoms. Luther’s view was (very basically) that God had ordained two different kingdoms to order reality, the Church and the State. Each of these two separate realms were given authority over different aspects of human life, reflecting their different purposes. By Bonhoeffer’s time, this notion of their separation and different purposes had morphed into the notion that they were mutually independent, and could not even criticise each other. As such, Bonhoeffer felt that it was not the place of the Church to criticise the State, much less demand certain policies or elements of justice. Bonhoeffer also used this doctrine to argue that the State had no right to apply the Aryan paragraph to the Church, as pastors were not servants of the State (even though they received government salaries in Germany) but of the Church. To Bonhoeffer, this meant that the Nazi regime had overstepped a sacred boundary, which it did increasingly (eventually requiring all pastors to pledge allegiance to Hitler!), prompting Bonhoeffer to suggest that salvation was of the Confessing Church (as opposed to the Reich Church), implying that those who gave in to Hitler’s demands were cutting themselves off from the true church.

A New Political Theology

I wonder what Bonhoeffer would have (or could have) done if he had not assumed and supported Luther’s theology of Two Kingdoms. (Jurgen Moltmann picks the Two Kingdoms view apart quite nicely in On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, though in Bonhoeffer’s time Moltmann was reading the Bible for the first time in a British POW camp). As it was, he got around the apparent prohibition against the Church criticising the State by saying that individual Christians could still do so (though he generally avoided emphasis on individualism in all other respects).

In Ethics he subverted this doctrine further still when he replaced the doctrine of the orders of creation (the notion that things such as “blood and soil” – or race and nation – were the givens of creation, orders created by God) with the notion of divine mandates: church, work, family, and government (sometimes there was a fifth mandate, “culture”, but it is not always mentioned). Note that he says “government” instead of “State”. He draws a distinction between government and State, with State remaining a God-ordained institution, while government describes a particular instance of it, which is fully capable of falling and is open to critique. In fact, the purpose of the divine mandate of Church is to critique the other mandates, drawing them back to their purpose under God. This gave the Confessing Church not only the license to critique the Nazis, but the responsibility to do so!

There are times when obedience to the State requires resistance to the government.

New Directions

Where would Bonhoeffer’s political theology have gone, if he hadn’t been executed? His ethic and notions of discipleship and Church were highly political, and the implications of them are still being worked out in political theology today. A few notable directions his thoughts lead include:

Human rights: his notion of theological anthropology, his inclusive and active-for-others notions of Church, and his speaking out for the Jews were all forerunners for the notion of universal human rights. Zerner points out that it was some of Bonhoeffer’s friends and students who had a hand in building our notion of human rights, so it’s not hard to imagine that he would have been part of it himself had he lived.

A theology of the Powers and Principalities: his notion of divine mandates sounds incredibly similar to later scholars’ definition of the Powers and Principalities, and his ethic of fighting or restoring the mandates as a duty of the Church is very similar to today’s ethics of the Powers (which I’ve been writing about for a while now; see most of my posts from the past six months for more info!). I’d love to find a way to work Bonhoeffer into my thesis on this subject, but alas, his theology is just different enough that I can’t justify it.

Christian anarchism. Bonhoeffer himself would NOT have supported this movement – he was still too committed to the Two kingdoms theology – but his incredibly robust ecclesiology combined with his powerful criticism of his government certainly lend themselves well to the concept. His “religionless Christianity” would do rather well as the foundation for a new world order, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it has been used as such to some extent.

I can’t wait to study this some more in class tomorrow!


3 thoughts on “Reading Bonhoeffer: Politics and the Aryan Paragraph

  1. I too was intrigued by Bonhoeffer’s treatment of questions surrounding the Jews. I think your question about his actual objection to the Aryian paragraph is valid. What I noticed was that in class and in the readings (well, the readings that I actually read, I didn’t get through all of them… ah, the advantages of auditing!) there was never any mention of the Jews being “God’s chosen people” or any notion of responsibility towards action simply because of who they are. This is often the argument I hear now when the treatment of the Jewish people or Israel comes up. Rather, my understanding of Bonhoeffer was that Christians should act because they were in need of help and protection – they have inherent dignity because they are human, not “extra special” dignity because they’re Jewish.

    A few years ago I read a book by Erwin Lutzer about the German church and Hitler, and exploring the supernatural dimension of what happened – what role did satan play?, did God allow certain things to happen? I’ll have to read it again in light of what I now know about Bonhoeffer’s ideas, but from what I remember of the book, some of the ideas were a bit far fetched, and as a historian, I was unimpressed with many of his conclusions. But, the idea that the struggle is not just in the realm of “flesh and blood” seems to me to be valid, and yet I wonder if focusing on the spiritual dimension allows us an excuse to not take action in defense of others.

    • Thanks for your comment Heidi!

      Yes, even as I was typing that, I was struggling with the balance between the antisemitism of Bonhoeffer’s context and the zionism that’s so common today. I certainly don’t think that Bonhoeffer should have had a privileged position toward the Jews, but given the entrenched antisemitism of his context it almost made his concern for the Jews based on their humanity almost too generic, seemingly almost grudging. I don’t think it was, but the sheer depth of the prejudice they faced makes a pendulum swing to the other extreme seem almost called for. Perhaps the fact that he didn’t follow such a pendulum swing toward zionism is not an indictment of some secret antisemitism of his own, but is rather a testament to his groundedness in Christ and his universal notion of human dignity that would not allow a stronger affirmation of the Jews over against any other race.

      In regard to the spiritual aspects of social issues, you might be interested in some of my posts from the past six months or so, to do with my thesis. I’m writing on spiritual warfare, from both a spiritualist and a social-scientific perspective, and examining the ethics that arise from these theologies. I hope to finish this month.

  2. Pingback: Reading Bonhoeffer with Jeff Wheeldon « I Heart Barth

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