Bonhoeffers Search for a Political Ethic

Bethge reports that at a conference sponsored by the Church Federation Office in 1932, Bonhoeffer (even though he was the youngest speaker at the conference) vigorously attacked the idea of the "orders of creation" introduced by traditional Lutherans. That Bonhoeffer would reject the two-kingdom tradition was inevitable given the direction he had begun in Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being. Creation simply cannot be self-validating, because Christians have no knowledge of creation separate from redemption. "The creation is a picture of the power and faithfulness of God, demonstrated to us in God's revelation in Jesus Christ. We worship the creator, revealed to us as redeemer" (Bonhoeffer 1996c: 163). Whatever Christians have to say about worldly order, it will have to be said on the presumption that Christ is the reality of all that is.

Bonhoeffer soon returned to the issue of the orders of creation in an address to the Youth Peace Conference in Czechoslovakia in July 1932. Again he attacks those who believe that we must accept that certain orders are present in creation. Such a view entails the presumption that because the nations have been created differently each one is obliged to preserve and develop its own characteristics. He notes that this understanding of the nation is particularly dangerous because "just about everything can be defended by it." Not only is the fallenness of such order ignored, but those who use the orders of creation to justify their commitment to Germany fail to see that "the so-called orders of creation are no longer per se revelations of the divine commandment, they are concealed and invisible. Thus the concept of orders of creation must be rejected as a basis for the knowledge of the commandment of God" (Bonhoeffer 1990: 106).

However, if the orders of creation are rejected, then Bonhoeffer must provide some account of how Christians understand the commandment of God for their lives. In Creation and Fall Bonhoeffer notes that the Creator does not turn from the fallen world but rather deals with humankind in a distinctive way: "He made them cloaks." Accordingly, the created world becomes the preserved world by which God restrains our distorted passions. Rather than speaking of the orders of creation, Bonhoeffer now describes God's care of our lives as the orders of preservation (Bonhoeffer 1996b: 139). The orders of preservation are not self-validating, but "they all stand under the preservation of God as long as they are still open for Christ; they are orders of preservation, not orders of creation. They obtain their value wholly from outside themselves, from Christ, from the new creation" (Bonhoeffer 1965: 166-7, emphasis in original). Any order of the world can, therefore, be dissolved if it prevents our hearing the commandment of Christ.

The question, of course, is what difference changing the name from creation to preservation may make for ethical reflection. Bonhoeffer is obviously struggling to challenge the way the Lutheran "two-order" account fails to be Chris-tological as well as serving as a legitimation of the status quo. In Christ the Center, the lectures in Christology Bonhoeffer delivered at Berlin in 1933, he spelled out in more detail some of the implications of his Christological display of the orders of preservation. For example, he observed that since Christ is present in the church after the cross and Resurrection, the church must be understood as the center of history. In fact the state has existed in its proper form only so long as there has been a church, because the state has its proper origin with the cross. Yet the history of which the church is the center is a history made by the state. Accordingly, the visibility of the church does not require that the church must be acknowledged by the state by being made a state church, but rather that the church be the "hidden meaning and promise of the state" (Bonhoeffer 1966: 65).

But if the church is the "hidden meaning" of the state, how can the state know that the church is so if the church is not visible to the state? How is this "hiddenness" of the church for the state consistent with Bonhoeffer's insistence in Sanctorium Communio on the church's visibility? Bonhoeffer clearly wants the boundaries of the church to challenge or at least limit the boundaries of the state, but he finds it hard to break Lutheran habits that assume an abstract account of the role of the state is necessary. Thus he will say that the kingdom of God takes form in the state in so far as the state holds itself responsible for stopping the world from flying to pieces through the exercise of its authority; or, that the power of loneliness in the church is destroyed in the confession-occurrence, but "in the state it is restrained through the preservation of community order" (Bonhoeffer 1990: 96-7). Understandably, it does not occur to Bonhoeffer that he does not need to provide an account in principle of what the state is or should be. States exist. They do not need any further legitimization to account for their existence (see Yoder 1998: 78 n. 5).

In his Ethics he abandons the language of "orders of preservation" - the German Christians were using similar language - and instead uses the language of the "mandates" (Bonhoeffer 1963: 73-8). According to Bonhoeffer, the scriptures name four mandates: labor, marriage, government, and the church. The mandates receive their intelligibility only as they are created in and directed toward Christ. Accordingly, the authorization to speak on behalf of the church, the family, labor, and government is conferred from above, and then "only so long as they do not encroach upon each other's domains and only so long as they give effect to God's commandment in conjunction and collaboration with one another and each in its own way" (Bonhoeffer 1963: 246). Yet Bonhoeffer does not develop how we would know when one domain has encroached on the other, or what conjunction or collaboration might look like.

It is clear what Bonhoeffer is against, but it is not yet clear what he is for. For example, he is clearly against the distinction between person and office he attributes to the Reformation. He notes this distinction is crucial for justifying the Reformation position on war and on the public use of legal means to repel evil.

But this distinction between private person and bearer of an office as normative for my behavior is foreign to Jesus. He does not say a word about it. He addresses his disciples as people who have left everything behind to follow him. "Private" and "official" spheres are all completely subject to Jesus' command. The word of Jesus claimed them undividedly. (Bonhoeffer 1963: 134-5)

Yet Bonhoeffer's account of the mandates can invite the distinction between the private and public which results in Christian obedience becoming invisible.

Bonhoeffer's attempt to rethink the Lutheran two-kingdom theology in light of his Christological recovery of the significance of the visible church, I think, failed to escape from the limits of the Lutheran position. However, there is another side to Bonhoeffer's political ethics that is seldom noticed or commented upon. Bethge notes that though Bonhoeffer was shaped by the liberal theological and political tradition, by 1933 he was growing antiliberal not only in his theology but in his politics. Increasingly he thought liberalism - because of either a superciliousness or a weak, laissez-faire attitude - was leaving decisions to the tyrant (Bethge 2000: 289).

Nowhere are Bonhoeffer's judgments about political liberalism more clearly stated than in a response he wrote in 1941 to William Paton's The Church and the New World Order, a book that explored the church's responsibility for social reconstruction after the war. Bonhoeffer begins by observing that the upheavals of the war have made continental Christians acutely conscious that the future is in God's hands and that no human planning can make men the masters of their fate. Consequently, the churches on the continent have an apocalyptic stance that can lead to other-worldliness, but may also have the more salutary effect of making the church recognize that the life of the church has its own God-given laws which are different from those which govern the life of the world. Accordingly, the church cannot and should not develop detailed plans for reconstruction after the war, but rather remind the nations of the abiding commandments and realities that must be taken seriously if the new order is to be a true order (Bonhoeffer 1965: 109-10).

In particular, Bonhoeffer stresses that in a number of European countries an attempt to return to fully fledged democracy and parliamentarianism would create even more disorder than obtained prior to the era of authoritarianism. Democracy requires a soil that has been prepared by a long spiritual tradition, and most of the nations of Europe, except for some of the smaller ones, do not have the resources for sustaining democracy. This does not mean the only alternative is state absolutism; rather, what should be sought is that each state be limited by the law. This will require a different politics than the politics of liberalism.

In his Ethics Bonhoeffer starkly states (and he clearly has in mind the French Revolution) that "the demand for absolute liberty brings men to the depths of slavery" (Bonhoeffer 1963: 38).4 In his response to Paton, he observes that the Anglo-Saxon freedom is the word that names the struggle against the omnipotence of the state, and the demand for freedom is expressed in the language of "rights and liberties." But "freedom is too negative a word to be used in a situation where all order has been destroyed. And liberties are not enough when men seek first of all for some minimum security. These words remind us of the old liberalism which because of its failures is itself largely responsible for the development of State absolutism" (Bonhoeffer 1973: 113).

Bonhoeffer takes up this history again in his Ethics, suggesting that these developments cannot help but lead to godlessness and the subsequent deification of man which is the proclamation of nihilism. This godlessness is seldom identified by hostility to the church, but rather this "hopeless godlessness" too often comes in Christian clothing. Such "godlessness" he finds particularly present in the American churches, whose quest to faithfully build the world with Christian principles ends with the total capitulation of the church to the world. Such societies and churches have no confidence in truth, with the result that the place of truth is usurped by sophistic propaganda (Bonhoeffer 1963: 41-3).

The only hope, if Europe is to avoid the plunge into the void after the war, is in the miracle of a new awakening of faith and the institution of God's governance of the world that sets limits to evil. The latter alternative, what Bonhoef-

fer calls "the restrainer," is the power of the state to establish and maintain order (Bonhoeffer 1963: 44). In his reply to Paton he suggests that such an order limited by law and responsibility, which recognizes commandments that transcend the state, has more "spiritual substance and solidity than the emphasis on the rights of man" (Bonhoeffer 1973: 113). Such an order is entirely different than the order of the church, but they are in close alliance. The church, therefore, cannot fail its responsibility to sustain the restraining work of the state.

Yet the church must never forget that its primary task is to preach the risen Jesus Christ, because in so doing the church strikes a mortal blow at the spirit of destruction. The "restrainer," the force of order, sees in the church an ally, and, whatever other elements of order may remain, will seek a place at her side. Justice, truth, science, art, culture, humanity liberty, patriotism, all at last, after long straying from the path, are once more finding their way back to their fountain-head. The more central the message of the church, the greater now will be her effectiveness. (Bonhoeffer 1963: 45)

Above I suggested that Bonhoeffer's attempt to reclaim the visibility of the church at least put him in the vicinity of trying to imagine a non-Constantin-ian church. Yet in his Ethics he displays habits of mind that clearly seem committed to what we can only call a "Christian civilization." Larry Rasmussen suggests, however, that Bonhoeffer in the last stages of his Letters and Papers from Prison began to move away from any Christendom notions (Rasmussen 1972: 85-6). In particular, Rasmussen directs attention to the "Outline for a Book" Bonhoeffer wrote toward the end of his life. Rather than finishing the Ethics, which he expressed regret for not having finished, if he had lived I believe, as Rasmussen believes, Bonhoeffer would have first written the book envisaged in his "Outline." For the book hinted at in the "Outline" would have allowed him to extend his reflections about the limits of liberal politics and about the manner in which the church might provide an appropriate alternative.

In his "Outline" Bonhoeffer begins with "a stocktaking of Christianity." In particular he suggests that what it means for humankind to have "come of age" is the dream that humans can be independent of nature. As a result human creations have turned against their creators, enslaving those who sought freedom in their self-created chains. The church, trapped by its invisibility, provides no alternative, unwilling to risk itself on behalf of the world. Such a church is no more than a stop-gap for the embarrassment of our suffering and death (Bon-hoeffer 1971: 380-3). In the second chapter of his book Bonhoeffer, in terms reminiscent of Sanctorum Communio, suggests he will begin with the question "Who is God?" in order to recover the God who is found only through our "participation in the being of Jesus." Bonhoeffer proposes to end his book with an account of the church that will "have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty" (Bonhoeffer 1971: 383).

Finally, Bonhoeffer says he intends to explore the importance and power of example, "which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in the teachings of Paul," and whose importance has been underestimated (Bonhoeffer 1971: 383). I cannot say that if Bonhoeffer had had the opportunity to write the book suggested in his "Outline," he would have for ever left Constan-tinianism behind. But I remain convinced Bonhoeffer's attempt to think through what the recovery of the visible church entails - the implication of which I am convinced he was beginning to see in his last proposed book - is an invaluable resource for the challenges that those of us who must live after Bonhoeffer cannot fail to ignore. He is now part of God's exemplification given for our redemption.


1 Rasmussen (19 72) remains one of the best attempts to understand Bonhoeffer's involvement in the plot to kill Hitler. I remain unconvinced, however, that Bonhoeffer thought this aspect of his life could be justified, even if he did, as Rasmussen suggests, think in terms of just war considerations. For quite different accounts see Jones (1995), 3-33; McClendon (1986), 188-211.

2 In True Patriotism (Bonhoeffer 1973: 160) Bonhoeffer notes that the defining mark of the Constantinian age was not that Christians began to baptize their children, but "that baptism became a qualification for civic life. The false development lies not in infant baptism but in the secular qualification of baptism. The two should clearly be distinguished."

3 This passage comes from Bonhoeffer's wonderful essay "The Question of Baptism," written in 1942 in response to a controversy in the Confessing Church (Bonhoeffer 1973: 143-64). Bonhoeffer observes that it is very understandable that in a secularized church there is a desire for a pure, authentic, truthful set of believers to exist. Such a desire is understandable, but full of dangers because it is far too easy for a community ideal to take the place of the real community of God, or for such a community to be understood as a contribution made by man.

4 This aspect of Bonhoeffer's work has been attacked in Germany by Klaus-Michael Kodalle (1991). Wolfgang Huber defends Bonhoeffer against Kodalle in his "Bonhoeffer and Modernity," in Floyd and Marsch, eds. (1994), 5-19. I fear I am equally unsympathetic with Kodalle's critique and Huber's defense just to the extent they each remain determined by the categories of liberal political theory. Huber challenges Kodalle's dualism of individual and community, but fails to see that the heart of Bonhoeffer's challenge is ecclesial.


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