The ghosts of the 20th century, the ones that haunt us today, wear swastikas. Our modern world is one misstep away from nuclear war. And it is a world born of violent conflict with German National Socialism. Our moral imaginations remain haunted by the specter of Nazi tyranny. Putin’s move to frame Russian aggression took advantage of this condition, and betrayed a tyrannical awareness of just how powerful the Nazi legacy is. What word does the Church bring to this moment? How do we live in a world at war?
We are caught up in the waves of analysis over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a way, this discourse is tragic, but also necessary and understandable. What it shows in part is our tragic and profound displacement from the real struggle and suffering of the Ukrainian people. The endless news cycle disembodies us to mediate the struggle on our screens. This is tragic. But the discourse of politicians, professors, and military experts is also a struggle to make sense of the rapidly shifting order. This discourse is necessary because of all the ways a war in Europe disrupts the established economic and political order, and creates a humanitarian crisis on a global scale. The discourse is also understandable because, at least in part, constant analysis maintains the illusion of control for human beings confronted with our profound lack of it.
By retrieving the faithfulness of German Christians at the dawn of World War II, the Church today can gain insight into its responsibility today. We must not detach the legacy of Nazi tyranny from the historical context that gave birth to it. As Hitler rose to power, the church in Germany stood at a crossroads. The Reich exerted formative pressure on the ecclesiastical structure, and caused a profound internal crisis over the nature of the church. It is a crisis the Church must once again resolve within ourselves.
The Church exists in the tension between its presence in the world and its witness to the world.
At the heart of the pre-War crisis in 1930’s Germany was Swiss theologian Karl Barth and German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Barth and Bonhoeffer would end up taking different approaches to Nazi Germany. But in the early years of 1933 and 1934, the question of how the German church would respond to Hitler was a question over the nature of the Church itself: is it political or theological? This is the question for a church today facing war in Europe.
We need to reckon with how both men argued fiercely and persuasively for the German Evangelical Church to understand itself theologically, not politically. To that end, Barth was involved in drafting a document that would become known as the Barmen Declaration, which was a response to the “Reichification” of the German Church. One notable excerpt reads: “We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords.” The church must remember our responsibility: the word we speak confronts the war path and comforts those who stand in its way. The lives shaped by this word do not see themselves as Statesman but servants.
Bonhoeffer noted, “the Church cannot take direct political action since it does not know the necessary course of history.” Bonhoeffer’s involvement in a plot against Hitler might seem to refute this earlier statement. But his associations with the plot was incidental, not consequential. He remained true to his pre-war insight, to the point of death. Since Christians cannot predict the particular path history will take, the Church must not betray this nature by confusing the authority of its proclamation with an ability to offer geo-political insight or analysis into “what must happen next”.
The church must remember our responsibility: the word we speak confronts the war path and comforts those who stand in its way.
Barth and Bonhoeffer provide crucial insight to our contemporary moment. The Church cannot provide the world with geo-political analysis, or exist as a means by which the State promotes nationalism and defense. When it does, it can perpetuate the same evils and systems which give rise to suffering and conflict. The Church must see within itself the possibility for peace. Only then can it can offer such a peace to the world, a peace that alleviates suffering and confronts the supposed necessity or inevitability of war.It is a theological community with consequences that affect political, economic, and socio-ethnic realities. The Church bears in itself a theological witness to the reality of the Kingdom of God in Christ.
The Church must see within itself the possibility for peace.
The Church today must face yet another war in Europe with a Word, not a geo-political word, but a theological Word in the world. The Word of Christ gives the church its identity. In this Word, we are dispossessed of our nationalisms, our systems, our ways of doing things. And so it is a consequential Word, a confrontational Word, and yes, a comforting Word. For us, this Word robs us of our illusions that we can control global outcomes, and instead directs us to align our lives by the shape of the Cross which in the end is far more costly.
The legacy of Barth and Bonhoeffer in this respect does not draw the Church away into reflection but pushes it towards responsibility from the right foundation. It is up to us to imagine in Spiritual prayer and faithful action the fresh implications of this Word for our world.
The legacy of Barth and Bonhoeffer in this respect does not draw the Church away into reflection but pushes it towards responsibility from the right foundation.
This Word is not mere words, but a life lived and demonstrated in alignment with the character and quality of the life of Jesus Christ. This demands from the Church a renewed imagination, and with it the courage to embody the Word of Christ in subversive and surprising ways. It means we must learn to tell the world the truth about itself, even while we tell it to ourselves, people born from this world of violence, and born again into the Kingdom from above. Now we must move to comfort Ukrainians who are in the path of War, to defy the tyranny that sees War as an inevitability in ways that echo the pattern of Christ, and to live in the world as people not of the world. We live as people of peace but not passivity.