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The "Bonhoeffer Moment" Is Here: Now What?

07/08/2015 03:38 pm ET | Updated Jul 05, 2016

Back in March, conservative Christian activists began to worry aloud that the U.S. Supreme Court might vote to legalize gay marriage. On a conference call with like-minded leaders, Rick Scarborough announced that such a decision would constitute a "Bonhoeffer moment in America." Immediately the phrase began to echo through cyberspace as it was picked up by news outlets and repeated by bloggers. In mid-June, as the nation anxiously awaited the Supreme Court's pronouncement, Southern Baptist Convention president Ronnie Floyd warned several thousand SBC "messengers" that "this is a Bonhoeffer moment for every pastor in the United States."

The references are to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)--the German pastor/scholar who resisted the Nazis in myriad ways before they executed him for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Since Scarborough, Floyd and others have not provided much guidance for interpreting the phrase "Bonhoeffer moment," it is natural that those who know something about Bonhoeffer have followed Rachel Maddow in assuming that they "are going to have an assassinate-Hitler moment if the Supreme Court says that gay people can be married." For a more precise view of what Bonhoeffer-inspired resistance might look like, we need to briefly review his twelve-year-long struggle against Nazism.

This struggle commenced a few days after Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor in January 1933, when Bonhoeffer made a radio address critical of the Nazi "leadership principle." Carefully avoiding any direct reference to Hitler or National Socialism, Bonhoeffer warned his audience that when a leader is made into an idol, he can easily become a "misleader." Of course, for American Christians this particular "Bonhoeffer moment" arrived long ago. One can tune in American Family Radio any hour of the day and hear more explicit anti-government speech than Bonhoeffer ever dared to utter in public.

A few months later Bonhoeffer published an essay titled "The Church and the Jewish Question" to combat the notion that the Protestant Church should exclude pastors of Jewish descent. The essay is remarkable for envisioning the possibility of anti-state resistance on the part of the church--not to protect its own members, but to defend the victims of state violence: "The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any ordering of society," Bonhoeffer wrote, "even if they do not belong to the Christian community." Part of Bonhoeffer's legacy for American Christians, surely, is his unpopular solidarity with marginalized and vulnerable persons.

In 1935, Bonhoeffer became head of an "illegal" seminary established to train ministerial candidates outside the Nazified theology departments in German universities. Even after the Gestapo closed the seminary in 1937, Bonhoeffer continued to train pastors and to speak, write and travel in violation of government restrictions. Is this sort of resistance a model for American Christians? Not unless the government begins to instruct churches how they can train their ministry candidates, or unless opponents of government policy become subject to restrictions on their peaceful speech, writing or travel.

In 1939 Bonhoeffer left for America because staying in Germany would have required him to resist the draft, which he realized would be dangerous for himself, his family and his church. After just a few weeks in New York, however, Bonhoeffer returned home to face his nation's fate. He sought out contacts in the German Resistance who spared him from military service by hiring him as an intelligence agent. Bonhoeffer undertook international missions on behalf of the Resistance, secretly passing information to enemy governments through his church contacts. It's hard to see how any of this applies in present-day America, although conservative Christians could certainly learn from Bonhoeffer's opposition to militarism and war.

After Kristallnacht--a government-inspired pogrom in November 1938 that resulted in the destruction of thousands of synagogues, homes, hospitals and schools--Bonhoeffer began to more fully appreciate the danger faced by Jews under Nazi domination. Among the treasonous activities he undertook in response was a plot to smuggle out of the country a group of men and women whom the Nazis regarded as racially suspect. He also made a detailed written report on the deportation of Jews from Berlin in 1941, which was received by governments and Jewish groups outside Germany. Again, American Christians would do well to emulate this man who risked his own safety to protect people whom most of his fellow Germans considered beyond their realm of moral obligation.

When the German Resistance began to hatch assassination plots against Hitler in 1943, Bonhoeffer was involved, and would eventually be implicated. Already imprisoned on suspicion of treason, Bonhoeffer's fate was effectively sealed when his name was linked with the conspirators behind the unsuccessful attempt of July 20, 1944. While Bonhoeffer did not believe his decisions in this regard were exemplary, he concluded that, given what and who he knew, he was obligated to do what he could to stop Hitler. As he put it, "If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can't, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver." When you are convinced, as Bonhoeffer was, that the madman is Antichrist, the decision to resort to violence is that much easier.

Those who claim that American Christians are facing a "Bonhoeffer moment" would have us believe we are facing threats to freedom analogous to those Bonhoeffer faced and that we should react in analogous ways. But they need to be clearer on both counts. The sorts of resistance Bonhoeffer engaged in before the outbreak of World War II--primarily standing up for the powerless and fashioning a brand of Christian discipleship that bucked political trends in his country--have been routine among American conservatives since at least 2008. Thus the claim that with the Supreme Court's recent decision regarding marriage America faces a new "Bonhoeffer moment" suggests that we are dealing with the sort of threats that drove Bonhoeffer into the Resistance in 1939. That is when he concluded that teaching, speaking and writing were not enough and that full-blown opposition to his government had become the only moral option. War was imminent; thousands had been placed in extra-legal "protective custody" or murdered outright; free speech and open debate had become impossible; hundreds of thousands of Jews had been forced to emigrate and the rest were in mortal danger. Subterfuge, conspiracy and violence, Bonhoeffer concluded, were now the only ways to exercise Christian responsibility.

Advocates of traditional marriage need to develop a plan for responding to a court decision that challenges their fundamental values. But using hyperbolic slogans premised on the assumption that we live under the sort of regime that pushed Dietrich Bonhoeffer to betray his country and join the German Resistance are not helpful.