Go and learn what this means, “I desire compassion, not sacrifice.”
–Jesus (Matthew 9:13)
In March 1943, the Gestapo arrested and imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran theologian and pastor, because documents linked him to subversive activities against the Reich. Two years later, just a few days before the end of the war in Europe, he was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
A year before his execution, as he sat alone inside cell 92 in Berlin’s Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer reflected on the state of the church to which he had devoted his adult life. In a letter to his close friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote about the seeming ineffectiveness of Christianity—and religion in general—in contemporary life.
We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…
And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?
In light of the depravity of the Nazi state and the horrific violence of the Second World War, perpetrated by religious people on all sides, the church had proven to be either incapable or unwilling to deal with the evils of the modern world. For many, the religious practices of Christianity had become personal and private, and were largely divorced from social ethics and politics. The mainstream churches in the so-called “Christian nations” proved to have no prophetic voice.
Bonhoeffer was disturbed that religious people were not speaking out and their social and political struggles were conducted without drawing on their faith—or more likely, that their faith had become so disjointed from social and political conditions that they saw no connection. If religious institutions in every nation were willingly transformed into servants and chaplains of their respective states, and if Christians were not raising a prophetic voice for peace and justice, Bonhoeffer asked if there was some other way that one could be a Christian in a world of continual injustice, suffering, and violence.
Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity—and even this garment has looked very different at different times—then what is a religionless Christianity?
Bonhoeffer was struggling with what remains when the typical traits of a religion—clergy, religious institutions, sacred rites, orthodox beliefs, and a rigid moral code—are eliminated. How would that redefine Christianity and what would become of the church as a result? Continue reading