30 March 2015

Metaxas on Bonhoeffer: A Dangerous Misreading of History and Theology

I am pleased to note a growing number of voices questioning the Evangelical revisionism regarding Dietrich Bonhoeffer and I felt compelled to revisit this issue once again. The Metaxas work which appeared in 2010 became quickly popular as many Evangelicals conflated Obama with Hitler. The Metaxas work must be understood in this context and reads the Nazi era through this specific American Evangelical lens.

Metaxas like many Evangelicals mistakenly believes the Obama era has placed American society in a situation analogous to 1930's Germany and in many ways his book is meant to provoke and inspire an Evangelical response to this perceived crisis. It's no accident this work of hagiography lionizes and champions a theologian involved in political resistance and an assassination plot. Metaxas can maintain plausible deniability regarding his intention but the implicit imperative is there.

Like most Evangelicals Metaxas also demonstrates a woeful misunderstanding of the history associated with the rise of the Third Reich and an even greater misunderstanding of the various theological forces at work during the time and which played a role in the shaping of Bonhoeffer.

Prior to the Dominionist ascendance in American Evangelicalism during the Clinton years, the name of Bonhoeffer was still frowned upon. His theology and even his actions were viewed with great doubt. Metaxas doesn't understand that Neo-Orthodoxy while supernaturalistic (as opposed to Liberalism) is still basically a form of Theological Liberalism and a denial of historic Biblical Christianity. And Bonhoeffer was right at the forefront of this movement and influenced it long after his death.

Like all Neo-Orthodox theologians he's confusing. I too read "The Cost of Discipleship" almost twenty years ago and was affected by it. Nevertheless the theological system of Bonhoeffer and his comrades while brilliant is in fact deficient, unbiblical and in the end destructive.

I appreciated the fact that the reviewers bring out the issues regarding pacifism and Bonhoeffer's complex relationship with that concept. While I understand the times drove men to desperation I cannot agree with the idea of Christian participation in an assassination plot and again I recall reading many works from the 60's, 70's and after that were critical of this aspect as well as his theological framework as a whole.

Inspired by Bonhoeffer's example, Metaxas and others wish to utilize the idea of Christian action in the face of tyranny and I don't think it was an accident this book was published at the height of the Anti-Obama hysteria.

What should we as Christians do in the face of a Nazi-like tyranny? Though some dare to use the example of the Ten Booms, the truth is the Ten Booms do not represent the kind of action they would like to see. They followed God's commands, ignored the sinful dictates of the Nazis, were willing to face the consequences and refused to participate in violent underground actions. They rightly understood the ends did not justify the means. Rather than trust in the arm of man's strength, they rested in an active and trusting faith. They rejected violent action.

In this country during the 1960's many Americans believed their nation was involved in a Nazi-like nearly genocidal action in Indochina. By the time it was over millions were dead. How did they react? Largely non-violent they protested and willingly faced arrest. I am not suggesting that's the Christian action we ought to take and obviously there were many aspects of the Anti-War movement that were less than Christian.

Yet, there was action, even if it largely failed to end in the war in a timely manner. Just when they thought they had brought a change in the abdication of Lyndon Johnson, the United States was already expanding the war into Cambodia and within two years would invade the country.

Could Biblical Christians have stopped the Nazi's? Of course not. Even the Anti-War movement failed to stop Vietnam. Always a remnant, we never can or will wield political power, nor is it our calling to do so. The apostate Lutheran Church of Germany had indeed succumbed to Liberalism but long before that it had sold its soul to Constantinian Statism and an association of German-ness with Christianity. The Unification of Germany in 1871 only furthered this attitude. The curse is Christianity wedded to Nationalism... the very thing Metaxas and his faction promote.

It's no accident nationalist Christians and especially Metaxas' mentor Colson were at the forefront of the pro-Vietnam War faction. They were deliberately blind regarding what was happening on the ground and willfully remain so to this day.

It's also no accident the Christian Right through the auspices of such groups as The Heritage Foundation has continued to promote military expansionism, religiously rooted nationalism and the idea of the Unitary Executive. And when an administration came along promoting a seemingly endless war and under the auspices of the Unitary Executive  suspended Constitutional rights and liberties he was championed by these people as the great Christian leader they had been looking for. I'm not sure we can even find irony in the fact they misinterpret Fascism. We can be thankful the Bush-Cheney agenda has largely failed even though they succeeded in creating an infrastructure the Gestapo would envy. The geopolitical destabilization they generated has set the stage for a wider circle of conflict we are only now beginning to see.

The Evangelical Bonhoeffer apologists would do well to read Niemoller and learn why he as a pastor initially supported Hitler and then turned away from him. Many Christian leaders were more than happy to turn their backs on Weimar and Hitler's opposition to Communism was also celebrated. The Nazis promoted traditional German values. This is of course at odds with the narrative of the American Right and its false and confused conflation of  Fascism with Communism.

Also they would do well to look at the course of Niemoller's life and thought after the war. They would be surprised to discover the resister of Nazism also turned against the US empire during the 1960's. The same evil was operating under a different form.

Driven by their Dominionist narrative, Colson and now Metaxas continue to champion the Constantinian vision. They have zealously promoted William Wilberforce who admirably worked to end slavery but also laboured to bring about a state-enforced moral regime in Britain and helped to lay the groundwork for the reactionary period we call The Victorian Age. While many celebrate and romanticize this period, it's one of intimidation, exploitation of the poor, great hypocrisy, Imperial religion, censorship and suppression. It was also a time of geopolitical theft and murder as the British Empire expanded beyond imagination.

The arts interestingly gave expression to the frustration and offered a poignant social critique. Even this is misunderstood by most Christian audiences of our day. Many works of subtle protest are celebrated as reflecting the glories of Christian society. The Victorian Age sowed the seeds of its own destruction and brought about the pendulum swing in the early twentieth century and ultimately the self-destruction of the British Empire. And still the lessons are not learned as British Evangelicals lament this course of events instead of celebrating them.

Colson and Metaxas wrongly interpret all of these events as they have demonstrated day after day in their radio commentaries. They have sown great confusion in the American Church over social history and how society is to be viewed. Their rather muddled Dominionism has contributed to the great shift in the past generation and the embrace of Roman Catholicism and the confusion of anything Western with Christian.

While Barack Obama is not a man to be admired, a Hitler he is not. In fact such a comparison is comical if not absurd. With this notion is attached the further convoluted grouping of ideas that the Nazis were somehow Leftist, pro-homosexual environmentalists.

One only has to listen to the average Evangelical radio show and its call in audience to understand the state of ignorance in the American Church. While this sounds pompous I mean it to be an indictment of the leadership of American Christianity. They have much to answer for as their people bask and glory in their ignorance and are therefore subject to great manipulation and consequently have embraced lies and propaganda. Knowing little about the world beyond the shopping mall or their smart phone, the average American Christian cannot discern whether they are being spoon-fed deceit and it would seem that not a few Evangelical leaders have been brainwashed into thinking the end justifies the means and they have allowed themselves to play fast and loose with the truth in order to attain political goals and power.

The fact that Metaxas and his comrades equate Obama with Hitler and then in the form of biography praise a Christian leader who participated in an assassination plot is not a little disturbing. The fact that they've misinterpreted just about everything associated with the past events and the present situation does not in any way alleviate responsibility for what they are suggesting.

Slowly we move toward violence and civil war and it is the Evangelical leadership who bears a great deal of responsibility in this.

What is happening? We live in a time when a book full of misinformation and distortion becomes a best seller because it promotes a worldview and lessons that are desired. Itching ears indeed. Not interested in honest assessment and reflection the Church seems to willingly and with great zeal embrace lies and false teachers. We live in interesting times. Those who have been asleep had better wake up.

I have provided links to the 5-part critique of Metaxas and Bonhoeffer provided by The Reformed Forum. I posted all the links because their website is miserable. Like many others they have redesigned their site and while it tries to dazzle, in fact it's become almost unusable and difficult to navigate.

I have also included links to some other reviews that deal with the broader scope of issues. The Reformed Forum reviews stick closely to the theological-philosophical milieu and decently contextualizes Bonhoeffer's thought. I'm not sure Neo-Orthodox readers would quite agree with everything Stivason has suggested but it's a starting point and regardless of the finer points concerning Kant and his influence on theology, it demonstrates clearly that Metaxas is completely off base.

Bonhoeffer's story is a sad one. The whole period is an age of trial and tears. He was an interesting man and worth looking into but he was not a Bible-Believing Evangelical, if a Christian at all, and neither he nor his actions are to be celebrated. The difficulty of the times makes it hard to judge individual actions and while we can sympathize with those who felt the need to act, it does not mean they were always right. He died as part of the resistance against Hitler but it does not follow that he is therefore to be reckoned a Christian martyr.