“Loving your neighbor is more important than religion.” (Mark 12:33)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who opposed the state-controlled German Evangelical Church under Adolf Hitler. He and others founded the Confessing Church which became the center of German Protestant resistance to the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer was a leading spokesman of the new church.
After the start of World War II, Bonhoeffer joined in the underground resistance movement in opposition to Hitler. He believed that true discipleship demanded political resistance against a criminal state. He was increasingly involved in the work of groups committed to the overthrow of the government, and eventually to the assassination of Hitler.
In March 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned. In July 1944 an attempt was made to assassinate Hitler. It failed disastrously, and hundreds of political prisoners were executed afterwards. Bonhoeffer was eventually hanged at the Nazi concentration camp at Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945 only a few days before the end of the war. He was 39 years old.
letters and papers from prison
In a letter written from a Nazi prison on April 30, 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described his thoughts about the state of Christianity.
“You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to… What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, for us today.”
Bonhoeffer questioned the long-held assumption that human beings are religious or spiritual by nature—that in every time and every place people have felt the need to express their religious urges in some way. Christians often assumed that their particular expression of religion was the truest and highest form. But in light of the horrors of the Second World War, perpetrated by people on all sides who claimed to be religious, could this proposition still be true? If so, Bonhoeffer speculated, what does it really mean to be religious?
a religionless Christianity?
Bonhoeffer saw a time coming in which religion would prove to be fundamentally irrelevant.
“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’?”
Bonhoeffer had watched the German Evangelical Church fall under Nazi control, headed by a bishop appointed by Hitler. He watched as Christians in Europe and America turned their heads and looked the other way while horrible evils were committed. Traditional Christianity—the church of Constantine—had proven to be morally bankrupt and incapable of dealing with the evils of the modern world. The mainstream churches in the so-called “Christian nations” proved to have no prophetic voice. They had instead become chaplains for their nations’ political policies and war machines.
The religious practice of Christianity had become personal and private and was divorced from social ethics and politics. If religious institutions had willingly transformed themselves into servants of the state, was there another possibility for Christianity in the world?
“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?”
What would Christianity look like when it is stripped bare? Bonhoeffer began to struggle with what remains when the typical traits of a religion—clergy, rites, holy things, beliefs, and morality—are eliminated. How would that redefine Christianity?
What bothered Bonhoeffer was that a person could confess doctrinally correct beliefs, observe its moral codes, and follow the accepted behaviors and practices of the Church, while simultaneously committing unspeakable horrors. We have witnessed the same thing in the American South—the “Bible Belt”—where harassment, persecution and lynchings of African-Americans was a norm for “white Christians.”
How is it possible that the practice of Christianity can become divorced from loving our neighbors in any real sense? How is it that religious practice—including word and sacrament—can leave a person ultimately unchanged at the core of his or her being? Typical Christian religious practice does not guarantee a transformation of the heart nor does it necessarily provide a personal experience with God. For many Christians, religion is a “secondhand” experience, simply passed on by family, culture and tradition.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that a religionless Christianity would be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among humanity.
In regards to prayer he said,
“The Christian needs to be alone during a definite period of each day for meditation on scripture…and for prayer…even during times of spiritual dryness and apathy. It matters little what form of prayer we adopt…or how many words we use.”
For Bonhoeffer, intercessory prayer (praying on behalf of others) was important because in praying he experienced a powerful sense of empathy and solidarity with the people he brought before God. In prayer, Bonhoeffer said, “I move into the other man’s place. I enter his life…his guilt and distress. I am afflicted by his sins and his infirmity.” Bonhoeffer believed that this sense of identity with the other is the necessary motivating force that would lead us to “act upon and affect the lives of men and women throughout the world.”
Now, many Christians daily pray for God to change conditions in the world. Their prayers sound as if they are reminding God what God’s job is (bring peace among warring nations, bring healing to the sick, be with those who suffer, etc.). They want to put everything in God’s hands.
This kind of prayer often allows the petitioner to sit passively aside, waiting for God to act, ignoring the reality that we are God’s hands, feet, and voice in the world. God works through us and as us in the world. It not appropriate to ask God to do things in the world independent of us.
Our prayers should instead ask for empowerment to do these things ourselves. We should pray that we will have the courage to take actions against war, that we will take the time to comfort the sick with our own presence, that we will work to create systems of justice that will alleviate poverty and hunger, and that we will dedicate our lives to transforming our communities, nation, and the world to reflect God’s essence of life, love, compassion and justice.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer prayed so that he, acting as one of God’s agents, would be motivated to change things in the world himself. He realized that instead of us waiting for God to act, God waits for us to act. And prayer on behalf of others is the means by which we stir up the compassionate response that drives us to take action.
This leads us to Bonhoeffer’s second dimension of religionless Christianity—righteous action among humanity. The word ‘righteous’ may need some clarification because the common understanding of righteousness is (1) being morally right, or (2) being right with God. These moralistic and relational understandings can sometimes lead the Christian to a sense of superior self-righteousness which is certainly not what God desires. Bonhoeffer was not talking about the moralistic quality of the doer, he was talking about the nature of the deed. Bonhoeffer was referring to a more holistic biblical understanding of righteousness which is ‘standing up for what is right.’ Doing what is right and just. Righteousness means seeking justice in human society.
The terms ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ are often linked in biblical texts. That is because they are synonymous, redundant terms. In the Bible, the word for justice also means righteousness. The Greek word dikaios and the Hebrew word tzedaka both have this dual meaning. Righteousness implies a personal individual dimension, while justice implies a social dimension, but they both have the same objectives—acting on behalf of those suffering from injustice and violence.
Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity therefore has these two elements: (1) identifying with those who suffer (through intercessory prayer) and (2) acting in solidarity with them, or on their behalf, to achieve justice in an unjust world. In Bonhoeffer’s words: “All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.”
a new language
Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that someday, a time will come when Christians will once again be called to proclaim the word of God so that the world will be transformed and renewed by it.
“It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming—as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom… Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time.”
I think that Bonhoeffer was saying that the language of the church had become so intricately connected with its Constantinian captivity that it had lost its power and authority in the modern world. In its complicity with evil, in its blessing of the status quo, it had lost its prophetic voice. In his time, the language of the church had become aligned with the political and religious right. In our day, we experience the same phenomenon. How can one claim the name ‘Christian’ in America today without bringing along all of the negative baggage of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches?
The ancient message of Jesus has become muted and distorted both in our sanctuaries and in the public arena. His words and actions no longer shock us and overcome us. Jesus has become domesticated by the church into a harmless and irrelevant figure. But, says Bonhoeffer, there is hope that one day that may change. A new language will some day emerge to proclaim the reign of God, and says Bonhoeffer, it may be “quite non-religious.”
the religion of Jesus
In the life of Jesus, we can clearly see the two dimensions of religionless Christianity—prayer and righteous action. The gospels describe Jesus continually moving between these two polarities. He often withdraws to the wilderness or to a quiet, lonely place to meditate and pray alone. And then he jumps back into the life of the world with healing actions and a bold prophetic voice. Prayer and righteous action were the key features of the religious life of Jesus.
It will perhaps surprise many to say that the model for a religionless Christianity is Jesus himself. Jesus did not intend to found a new religion. Christianity as we know it was not his objective. His life, teachings and actions were focused on creating a new kind of personal and community life in the midst of the old. He set out to transform human life in the midst of a great empire and to challenge those forces that oppress and divide people in every society. This is the journey he invites us to join. This is where Jesus is leading us.
starting at the beginning
To begin the journey with Jesus we must start over again. We need a whole new perspective—about the identity of Jesus, about his mission, and about his message. We must let go of all our preconceived ideas about Christianity, let go of our religious dogma, and let go of the church’s conventional wisdom. We must reclaim the Jesus of history—the human Jesus in the context of the first century and in the context of empire. We must begin at the very beginning. God calls us to open our minds like a newborn child. Look, listen, and learn with new eyes, new ears, and a radically transformed paradigm of life, religion, and reality.
“Follow me,” says Jesus. Walk with me toward the vision I am proclaiming—the revolutionary reign of God.
Give up your good Christian life and follow Jesus