Dietrich Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas on Thursday evening regaled a dinner audience at Acton University in Grand Rapids with the life story of the martyred anti-Nazi theologian. From a prestigious and brilliant German family, young Bonhoeffer excelled at the start in his theological studies and became very quickly an insightful writer. In the 1930′s he studied at Union Seminary in New York city, where he was unimpressed with Social Gospel liberalism. But he was very impressed with worship at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he taught Sunday school.
Superbly prescient about the threat posed by Nazi rule from the onset, Bonhoeffer had helped create the Confessing Church alternative to Nazi controlled official German Lutheranism. In 1939 he quit the safety of the United States to return to his homeland to resist the dictatorship. Bonhoeffer served in German military intelligence as part of a growing German army conspiracy against Hitler, which culminated disastrously in the failed assassination attempt of July 20, 1944. By this time, Bonhoeffer was already imprisoned for assisting Jews trying to escape Germany. He was executed in a concentration camp shortly before its liberation by the Allies, strong in his faith until the end, not quite 40 years old.
Bonhoeffer’s role in the anti-Hitler assassination plot was a rebuke to the widespread Protestant pacifism of the pre-war era. As recounted in my new book METHODISM & POLITICS IN THE 20TH CENTURY, only weeks before the anti-Hitler attempt, the Methodist Church, not dissimilar to other U.S. denominations, had only narrowly disavowed its own official pacifism in favor of U.S. participation in World War II.
But Metaxas in his Acton talk emphasized Bonhoeffer’s adament resistance from the start to any government usurpation of the church. Careful not to compare current struggles in the U.S. to the evils of the Third Reich, Metaxas hailed Bonhoeffer’s discernment and courage as examples for Christians in America and everywhere. Metaxas particularly urged endorsing the ecumenical 2009 Manhattan Declaration, of which I was one of the early participants, and which pledges resistance to violations of religious liberty. Manhattan organizers, such as the late Chuck Colson, had in mind the suffocating threat of coercive political correctness, especially over same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Since then, the Obamacare contraceptive/abortifacient mandate on religious groups has ignited a firestorm of protest, which Metaxas highlighted as a cause not just for Catholics but all persons who esteem liberty of conscience. Metaxas spoke about Bonhoeffer, with President Obama listening, at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year.
Strongly echoing Metaxas at the Acton dinner Friday evening was Catholic priest, dinner host and Acton Institute President Robert Sirico. “If the state strips away economic freedom it will strip away every other freedom,” Sirico warned, heralding Acton’s chief mission of touting economic liberty as the preamble to other essential freedoms. “I believe in universal health care just as I believe in universal food and universal clothing,” he opined. “I just don’t think the government is the entity to provide it.”
Sirico also sounded the alarm against religious groups receiving government funding. “He who drinks the king’s wine has to sing the king’s song,” he lamented. “Stand aginst the state’s dominating impulse,” Sirico implored, in solidarity with all persons vulnerable to tyranny and injustice.