Do We Need a New Barmen Declaration?
Jesus would, in actual fact, have been an enemy of the state if He had not dared to call King Herod a ‘fox’ (Luke 13:32). If the State has perverted its God-given authority, it cannot be honored better than by this criticism which is due it in all circumstances. Karl Barth
The story of the church during the time of the Third Reich has always fascinated me, not least because I have traveled a great deal in Germany and once lived just a few miles across the German border in Switzerland. I have been a guest lecturer in a German seminary, and I have had the privilege of preaching numerous times in German.
I have also followed with great interest the careers of two people whose names are synonymous with the Confessing Church at that time and whose doctrine of church-state relations is what many consider a model for the church today. The first, Karl Barth, was a professor in the University where I earned my doctorate (Basel), and the second, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is a person about whom I have written in connection with the notion of statism. I suspect that the American church would do well to consider the steps taken by the Confessing Church in Germany in calling Christians to repentance during the dark days of Hitler’s Third Reich.
The Church in Nazi Germany
George Orwell arrived at the title of his novel about totalitarianism by reversing the last two digits of the year in which it was published. Ever since then, 1984 has become a symbol describing a dreadful world of thought control. Interestingly, 1984 was also the 50th anniversary of the Confessing Church’s Barmen Declaration that was issued in 1934, well into Hitler’s second year in power. This declaration was one of only a handful of challenges to what the Nazis were doing in (and to) Germany.
By 1934 most of Germany had succumbed to the hypnotism of Nazism. Almost immediately after Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, the Nazi government pressured Protestant Christians to defrock non-Aryan (i.e. Jewish) ministers and subscribe to the Nazi “Führer principle” as the organizing policy of church government. Despite the atheistic bent of some Nazi rhetoric, the pro-Nazi “German Christian” movement became a force in the church. In this movement, Hitler was considered a German “prophet,” and racial consciousness was considered a source of revelation alongside the Bible. Though some Christians resisted this movement, including Franz Jaegerstetter, Martin Niemöller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the “German Christians” affirmed Hitler as a new Messiah and accepted Nazism’s anti-Semitism.
It was in reaction to the excesses of the German Christians that another group, calling itself the “Confessing Church,” was formed, chiefly out of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. The Confessing Church took its name because it clung to the church’s great historical confessions of faith. The Barmen Declaration was the work of this group, written at its initial synod in Barmen, Germany, in May 1934. Although the declaration focused on concern for the church and ecclesiastical renewal, it was also considered a political document with clear political implications. This is obvious even in the initial affirmation, which reads, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” This affirmation is meant to motivate Christians to greater trust and obedience, regardless of the consequences—and the signers of the declaration knew that the costs might be high.
The German people acknowledged that truth was to be found only in the Nazi Party—apart from “the one Word of God.” Moreover, Germany’s salvation was now located in Nazi ideology, that is, in “other events and powers, figures and truths,” as the declaration put it. Racial purity and anti-Semitism were now the twin “truths” of German society. For the signers of the Barmen Declaration, to accept Jesus Christ meant to reject these “truths” and especially Adolf Hitler. The same attitude was taken by Martin Niemöller in a book he published during this period entitled “Christus ist mein Führer,” or Christ Is My Leader. The use of the term “Führer” was intentional, since everybody in Germany referred to Hitler by that title. For Niemöller, “Christ is my Führer” implied its negation, “Hitler is not my Führer,” and for stating this Niemöller spent seven years in Dachau.
The Situation in America Today
The signatories of the Barmen Declaration clearly felt that they were living in a time when the true church could no longer say, “We affirm both Christ and Hitler.” They had to proclaim, in effect, “The debate about Hitler is now closed. We have rendered our verdict. The matter is no longer negotiable.” Are we in America actually facing, or are we close to facing, a similar situation?
The indications that we may be on our way to a totalitarian society concern mainly our doctrine of national security. With the United States engaged in the military occupation of Iraq, our president emphatically insists that the necessity of a war against that sovereign nation was based on a real and imminent threat against the United States of America, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. We are told that in the interest of national security we must all be willing to sacrifice our personal freedoms in the name of the Patriot Act and other measures that reduce the Bill of Rights to a worthless scrap of paper. In the name of security we are told that a government must not let its people know too much or they will be in danger of losing their influence in the world.
One of the most disturbing recent examples of this attitude has been the Bush administration’s apparent willingness to used flawed intelligence to make its case for the invasion of Iraq. In my opinion, Bush’s posture on the war—including the fact that he invaded Iraq without constitutional authority to do so—is the beginning of what appears to be a growing totalitarian mentality that says, “We are above the law. We are not accountable to a world body or even to our own government. We don’t need to tell people what we are doing, and we will accuse those who challenge us, even in Congress, of making us weak.”
The Barmen Declaration claimed that there is only “one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” For Christians, that Word is Jesus Christ. And in the name of that same God we must protest today, as the signers of the Barmen Declaration did in 1934, when the leaders of our government say, “Hear, trust and obey us in life and in death. We’ll tell you what to think. If we withhold information, it’s for your own good. And if our arguments don’t make sense, be assured that there are reasons behind them that we can’t share with you.”
When government says such things, it begins to look frighteningly like the “other events and powers, figures and truths” that try to elicit unquestioning and docile loyalty from an unthinking populace. Government becomes a god, and demands to be worshipped as such. As that begins to happen, our response must be to say no because we have already said yes to the one Word of God whom we are obligated to trust and obey in life and in death.
For both Barth and Bonhoeffer, action by the church was justified on the basis of ensuring that the state fulfilled its God-given function as state and not as god. Tragically, the Confessing Church in Germany acted too late. I hope we do not repeat their tardiness.
July 16, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.