DISTURBING PARALLELS

In a previous post I noted my enjoyment in reading a work of Irenaeus, an eminent Church Father who lived in the second century A.D. I commented that as well as being humorous he (or his translator) had a surprisingly contemporary style of thinking and writing.

Not too long before that experience I had read the biography of another eminent Christian, who was considerably more contemporary than Irenaeus. The title of that biography is Bonhoeffer; it was written by Eric Metaxas, a very able author who is capable of getting inside a subject’s inner thoughts and sharing them with the reader.

I had heard of the book through the Glenn Beck show. (Appreciating from sad experience that not everybody likes Mr. Beck, I was tempted, upon sharing that fact with the public, to paraphrase Charles Darwin with mirth and tongue in cheek by urging those who are unsympathetic with my likes and dislikes to exit this blog at once. I really don’t wish to do so, however, because our differences of opinion contribute to the richness of our interactions with one another – we all can all learn from others. So you who dislike Mr. Beck or any number of my own leanings are cordially invited to remain on this blog.) When I dropped into Borders to request the book I encountered a rather humorous situation: a clerk there told us with real consternation that the store was sold out of that particular book. From the way he said it, it was obvious that the run on Bonhoeffer was a complete surprise to him, his boss and, I suppose, the entire Borders chain. Apparently, Mr. Beck has such a considerable following that his book reviews are beginning to rival Oprah’s in their impact on the public.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in Nazi Germany, the son of wealthy and well-connected parents who perceived the rise of Hitler as a terrible event that would end up destroying the country. Dietrich, a fully committed Christian who loved sharing his faith with others and particularly with the youth, shared this outlook with his parents, with whom he was quite close. He eventually became somewhat involved in Colonel von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Hitler. He also helped to spirit several Jews out of the country, a kindness that ended up landing him in prison. He may have beat that rap, but despite the peripheral nature of his involvement in Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt, the vindictiveness of the Nazi regime and his own outspoken denunciation of Nazi policies with regard to the Church and the treatment of the Jews led to his remaining in prison and his execution two weeks prior to the Allied takeover of the prison system. He indeed can be labeled as a martyr of the Christian faith and, to the Jews, a Righteous Gentile, an appellation for which all Christians should strive.

One very important item that author Metaxas cleared up is the issue of the undeserved Christian disenchantment with Bonhoeffer over his remark about favoring a “religionless Christianity”, which atheists quickly interpreted in favor of their own godless viewpoint. They crowed on with neither mercy nor intelligence about Bonhoeffer’s supposed evolution of thought towards the notion that God is either dead or never existed. Nothing could be further from the truth. In making that statement, Bonhoeffer really was speaking against the lukewarm German church of his time, which largely had drifted from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ into a rote, unfeeling religiosity that had placed a premium on ritual at the expense of true worship. As a matter of fact, I know a number of very committed Christians who have expressed their disenchantment with our own prevailing shallow, cheap faith in precisely the same terms as Bonhoeffer did. The essence of their remarks is that unlike any other religion wherein man attempts to storm the gates of heaven by means of his own goodness, Christianity involves a personal relationship with God through a repentant acknowledgment that mankind cannot approach God by himself, but can do so only through the only Door available to him, Jesus Christ and the reconciliatory blood He shed on our behalf on the cross.

It is not difficult to understand how Hitler was able to wrest control of the German government from the hands of more rational public figures and lead the nation down the path to perdition. Prior to the second war, Germany had suffered a bitter defeat in the first war, a desolation that was compounded by the impossible terms of the Versailles Treaty. The runaway inflation associated with the short-lived Weimar Republic was the final blow that drove a once proud and vibrant people into the depths of ignominious poverty.

Against all that, the German people still could have resisted the allure of regaining their national honor on the cheap through unquestioning obedience to the pseudosavior Hitler and his thugs. Had they but retained an iota of the kind of faith that overthrew the corruption of the Church through the Reformation, they could have toughed out the hard times and emerged yet stronger than they were at their best. But no: the dominant church community, living so long in an appalling indifference to their God, came to understand so little about Scripture and its God that they willingly replaced their true Messiah with an evil counterfeit. In the process, they became a type of the Laodicean Church to whom Jesus in Revelation 3:14-19 threatened to vomit out of His mouth.

Now, over a half century after the fall of Germany, we in America are exhibiting a distressing parallel with the errors that led to Germany’s destruction. Recent polls regarding Christianity in America are contradictory. On the one hand, if questions are phrased in a general way, the polls indicate that a majority of Americans consider themselves to be “Christian”. That was precisely the prevailing opinion in Bonhoeffer’s Germany as Hitler was rising to power.

On the other hand, if the questions are phrased to elicit opinions regarding a deeper commitment and understanding of Scripture, the proportion of true Christians in American society drops off the cliff to less than ten percent. That, too, was the way things were back then in Germany, as evidenced by the wholesale movement from its “Christians” in the “German Christian Church” away from God to Hitler.

America is in real danger of continuing down that the same self-destructive path that brought Nazi Germany to its knees a half-century back. Many of us are fully aware of that parallel, but don’t know what to do about it. The solution will not be found in a reformation of our government; it must be deeper than that, and more personal. We can extract ourselves from the mess that we are in only by individually re-establishing our commitment to our God. In the church my wife and I attend, we are doing that by committing ourselves to reading the Bible to completion within the next year, and by asking God to direct our efforts toward helping our less fortunate neighbors.

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