What 20th Century Germany Teaches Us About 21st Century America

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote “The religion of Christ is not a tidbit after one’s bread; on the contrary, it is the bread or it is nothing. People should at least understand and concede this if they call themselves Christian.” It was a timely observation for what the German church was facing in the 1930’s. It is no less timely for our day as well.
 
Germany, like the U.S.A., had a rich Christian history. Germany was the seat of the Protestant reformation, the motherland of the most influential protestant reformer in history, Martin Luther. The country was also a historically important seat of Catholicism. Germany was very much what one might call a Christian nation.
 
During the 1920’s and 30’s, German Christians were under great pressure to compromise their theology and religion in favor of the hope promised by the Nazi movement. Their country had been crippled by the reparation payments spelled out in the peace treaty that ended World War I. The country defaulted on their payments and the value of the German mark plummeted. The price of a loaf of bread soared to near 200 billion marks.
 
Well-meaning Christians would fall victim to the Nazi’s nationalistic propaganda machine. In very short order, church leaders would concede power to the Nazi party, rewrite the Bible jettisoning the Old Testament and all Jewish references in the New Testament, ban Jewish converts from the ministry, and burn thousands of books deemed anti-Arian.
 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a key figure in rescuing a remnant of the true church in Germany from Hitler’s synchronistic agenda. Bonhoeffer was deeply affected by the racism he saw in the American south on a visit to the U.S.A. in the late-1930’s. For him, nothing was more antichristian than racist hate. While others remained blind to the racism of the Nazis, Bonhoeffer bravely and defiantly called it out.
 
Most German Christians ignored Bonhoeffer’s warnings and bowed to Hitler and the Nazis not because they were ruthless anti-Semites (Jew haters). The truth is that they were fooled. Bonhoeffer observed that their lackadaisical approach to the faith had eroded their devotion to Christ. Christ was no longer their bread, but a mere dinner-mint after supper.
 
The church he served and loved was consumed by the frenzied mob mentality of the Nazi movement. While they might not have been willing to surrender the whole of their Christian heritage, they were at least willing to contort their theology at the suggestion of anyone who promised them a brighter future. That compromise by individual Christians and the church as a whole is what laid the foundation for the most atrocious event in human history.
 
It is so important for us to learn from the mistakes of others. We live in a time where hope is highly demanded and shortly supplied. There are dozens of different movements out there vying for the attention of well-meaning but weak-minded Christians. They all offer the bread of hope and justice, but we must see them for the cruel traps that they are.
 
For the Christian, Christ must be the bread… the supper… the full meal and not merely the dinner mint. We do not need a particular political party to give us hope. We do not need the promises of another politician. We do not need another movement. We need Jesus. He is our only hope and peace.
 
Any political platform that calls you to compromise your Christian values should be adamantly denounced. Any movement that questions the plain teaching of the Christian Scriptures is to be avoided like the plague. You should resist the urge to get caught up in the frenzied movements that characterize the American culture wars.
 

We are called to be the salt and the light of the world. If we learn anything from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his weak minded contemporaries in the German church it is this: you cannot be salt and light if you are following the crowds. If you want to truly make a difference, you will follow Jesus. If hope is what you are hungry for, it is found in Him. If joy is what you are thirsty for, it is abundantly available to those who serve him. Stand firm. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but Jesus comes to give you life and life abundantly (John 10:10 paraphrased).