Please, No More Bonhoeffer Moments

Dexter Van Zile
Sep 23 · 6 min read

Spend any time around Christian intellectuals, Protestants especially, and you’ll hear a lot of people speak in reverential terms about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great Christian martyrs of the 20th century. There’s a statue of him at Westminster Abbey in London.

Publications like Christian Century, Christianity Today and World Magazine regularly publish articles about the man, his writings, and his work at Finkenwalde, a short-lived underground seminary that he led for rebel, anti-Nazi Protestants who comprised the Confessing Church. People argue about his involvement in a failed plot to kill Adolf Hitler, for which Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenburg Concentration Camp during the final days of World War II.

Bonhoeffer was a hero who sacrificed his life in opposition to Nazism, so it’s entirely reasonable that we have dozens of books about the man including Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

There’s a problem however. In these and other books, various segments of American Christianity, mainline and Evangelical Protestantism especially, are given leave to hold up Bonhoeffer as a candle or a mirror that highlights all the things they admire the best about themselves. In the process they recast his life to serve their own agenda.

For example, Marsh obliquely suggests that Bonhoeffer had a same-sex attraction for one of his disciples and close friend Eberhard Bethge, allowing progressives to beat up on Evangelicals for not supporting gay rights. And “Eric Metaxas,” Andy Rowell writes, “gives us a Bonhoeffer who looks a lot like an American evangelical — an extraordinarily courageous American evangelical.”

In all the self-serving encomiums about the man, we are distracted from a very troubling aspect of his life and times: Adolf Hitler got to Bonhoeffer’s mission field first. Hitler was better at demagoguery than Bonhoeffer and his fellow pastors were at spreading the Gospel in Germany.

Before joining the Abwehr and engaging in anti-Nazi diplomacy and espionage, Bonhoeffer spent a lot of time and ink writing about the costs and demands of discipleship. But when it came to gathering disciples and followers to their respective causes, Hitler did a better job than Bonhoeffer. What Germany needed was not a Bonhoeffer who pointed to the way of Christ, but a Billy Graham figure who could walk with them in the way.

Every member of the Freikorps, every Brown Shirt that Hitler recruited to his cause in the 1930s was a follower that Christian elites in Germany — both Protestant and Catholic — had failed to bring into the fold of Christ. Many of these men came back from World War I with emotional and spiritual wounds that the church was simply unable to balm. Men were brought back from the war, but not brought into the fold. Nominally, they may have been Christians, but there was nothing about their lived experience as Christians that protected them from Hitler’s appeal.

There was no Finkenwalde for these men.

Hitler understood the suffering endured by the men who fought in the trenches. He connected with the humiliation of the young German men who did not fight, but grew up in the shadow of the defeat. He harvested these feelings of rage and humiliation for his own purposes and brought Europe to destruction.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. A whole generation of extremists is being recruited today in putatively Christian countries throughout the world, the United States included. The problem is detailed in part in a recent report by the ADL, Hate Beyond Borders: The Internationalization of White Supremacy. The report warns that

We are witnessing the internationalization of the white supremacist movement. European and American adherents are learning from each other, supporting each other and reaching new audiences. They feel empowered and emboldened because they perceive that they are influencing the political climate and reaching disaffected whites.

It’s not the ADL’s fault, but there are a few glaring questions that the report doesn’t address: Why are young men embracing this ideology? Why do they find white supremacism so attractive? Could it be that these young men are joining hateful movements in the U.S. and Europe out of the same feelings of humiliation and despair that drove young men in Germany to join the Brown Shirts and Muslim men in the Middle East and Africa to join the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and Boko Haram?

Sadly, we can hardly expect the current crop of progressive Christian elites to wade in and dirty their hands in the effort to minister to them. Today’s Brown Shirts are young white men in the United States who have been written off by Bonhoeffer-reading Christian intellectuals as deplorables, as people who deserve to be miserable and unhappy because of the sins of their ancestors, because of the white privilege they enjoy. One message that the modern world has given them is that they are guilty.

Another message that the modern world has given them is one that it has given everyone else — that they are superfluous. Thousands of young white men (and their relatives) in the U.S. are dying from drug overdoses. Millions have lost their jobs to automation and yet progressive Christian elites can’t stand to even look at them, much less reach out to them because the people in question perpetrated the sins of voting for Donald Trump, having concerns about illegal immigration, and not sharing their worries over climate change.

A cursory examination of the messages coming out of so-called progressive seminaries in the U.S. is instructive. They preach about white privilege, white fragility and global warming. They encourage students to beg forgiveness from plants for the injustices they endure. But as far as taking a good long and merciful look at the people to whom their graduates are supposed to be ministering?

Fat chance.

For progressive Christian elites, skin color trumps the power of baptism, just as it did for white southerners during the time of slavery. Like blaming the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus, or all Muslims for the violence of jihadists, white people in the U.S. — young men especially — are excoriated for the sins perpetrated by their ancestors. The anti-Trump rhetoric is merely a cover for the pre-existing contempt and indifference people have for those who voted for him.

Instead of ministering to the humiliated and suffering men, these would-be Bonhoeffers view them as a negative backdrop against which they highlight their own intellectual and moral superiority, not as individuals to be evangelized and spiritually formed. They view the angry young white men who are drawn to white supremacism as supporting characters in their own ideological melodrama, not as people in their own right.

In the progressive Christian story told about these young men, the best thing they can do is to abandon their desire for a good life, yield their lane in the race of life to others, and find some place to disappear. It’s an anti-Christian message that disempowers the people who internalize it while enshrining the privilege of people who espouse it. Such a message will not discourage young white men from embracing white supremacism — it will drive them into it.

After performing miracles Christ told his followers that if they remain faithful and prayerful, they “will do greater things than these.” But the message progressive Christian elites offer is that the best thing young men can do is stifle, not exercise, their agency. This isn’t the message Bonhoeffer would give to congregants and confirmands he taught in Harlem or Germany.

Why are church leaders teaching it now?

All this helps explain why Jordan Peterson who, in his own way, has ministered to troubled young men became a target of hostility and contempt from many so-called progressives, many of whom have taken great glee in the recent revelations regarding his addiction to Klonopin. Instead of viewing and dealing with young white men as monsters to be slain, Peterson deals with them as damaged human beings who need the message of Christ and gives it to them, even in an attenuated, non-theistic form.

The ugly and frightening truth is that when it comes to providing angry young men with lived experiences that change how people live their lives, the white racists are winning and the Bonhoeffer-worshippers who deplore them are losing, bigtime.

The way out of Weimar is not through Flossenburg, but Calvary.