“While I am pope,” said Pius XI, “no one will laugh at the church.” During Pius XI’s papacy, the temptation to retract this statement would have, at times, looked rather appealing. During the rise of Nazi Germany Pius XI, unlike the vast majority of German Christians, went out of his way to stand up to the Nazi regime. Too often, in the annals of history, the Church has taken a passive role in the face of mass atrocities. This has not only resulted in innocent lives lost, but has also resulted in a general distrust and apathy towards the Church by outside observers. Conscription to the status quo has resulted in the Church being understood as an extension of whatever power structure currently reigns supreme. Thus, the possibility of an authentic, transformative and alternative community is constantly befuddled with the fears, ideologies and aspirations of the dominant culture.
The aim of this series is to elaborate on the possibility of an alternative community where the Church is taken seriously because of its exclusive allegiance to Christ, its emphasizing solidarity with the marginalized and its insistence on reconciliation between various groups despite their differences. Negatively defined, I will be attempting to deconstruct the parasitic relationship between dogged nationalism and messianic violence, which creates an oblique sense of superiority that pushes the defenseless of society to the brink of existence. I also hope to include positive examples of Christians who faithfully rejected nationalistic, violent and ultimately ethnocentric dogmas in an effort to exemplify Christ’s radical vision for his Church. Upon the conclusion of this series, it will be self-evident that the Church, when faithful to its mission, is no laughing matter.
Culture, Nationalism and Flossenbürg
H. Richard Niebuhr in his seminal text Christ and Culture comfortably defines culture as the “total process of human activity” and suggests that it “is the ‘artificial, secondary environment’ which man superimposes on the natural.” Christians, as far as Niebuhr is concerned, face the “enduring problem” of a perpetual oscillation between Christ and civilization. Niebuhr recognizes four popular ways this problem has historically been addressed by the Church before offering his own remedy upon the conclusion of his book. The position that he seems to have the least patience for is the position that most harshly rejects his thesis concerning “culture.” John Howard Yoder observes that Niebuhr’s opposition to the typology of “Christ Against Culture” finds its locus in his using Tertullian and Tolstoy as archetypes. Because Tertullian and Tolstoy disapproved of coercive statecraft, they acted not only against their culture but also against their respective governments. Thus, Tertullian and Tolstoy are negatively viewed as religious separatists.
Niebuhr’s suspicion towards nonviolent, antinationalistic Christians continues to influence those who find no peril in conflating their Christian heritage with an unfettered allegiance to the American flag. Stephen H. Webb is one example of a Christian who affirms a blissful marriage between nationalism and Christianity. More specifically, Webb finds no incongruences between the doctrine of American exceptionalism and the Christian tradition. For Webb, the USA’s unbridled success in the world is an indicator of God’s approval of the U.S. ushering in the kind of society that is akin to the Kingdom of Heaven.
In Migrations of the Holy, William T. Cavanaugh directly interacts with Webb and critiques his connecting Christian theology with American exceptionalism. While Webb suggests the primary way God’s actions can be discerned in the world is through the U.S., Cavanaugh rejects this linkage. That U.S. success is directly correlated to divine providence is problematic for Cavanaugh because “America itself becomes the criterion for locating God’s activity in the world.” In other words, the Church is decentralized and replaced by the nation-state. This is problematic, as far as Cavanaugh is concerned, because the church is forced to relinquish its unique role in the world as the barer of salvation. “What has happened in effect,” opines Cavanaugh, “is that America has become the new church. When the relationship of America and God is this direct, there is little to check the identification of God’s will with America’s.”
This problem is not an unfamiliar one to America, as the doctrine of “manifest destiny” makes clear. From the outset, divine providence provided the theological justification for displacing and massacring dark bodies. Conveniently, Webb avoids dealing “with slavery, the genocide of the Indians, or any other inconvenient facts about American power.” To read American history this way goes against the entirety of Webb’s project, as he finds no use in interpreting history from the position of the disenfranchised. For Webb then, meaningful, historical, transformation only occurs through those who vie for prominent positions and display a genuine desire to relate to society. Niebuhr would echo this sentiment, yet, like Webb, Niebuhr fails to adequately deal with the possibility of one’s society exuding practices and policies that produce Christians who pledge allegiance to their nation while failing to consider the consequences this allegiance might exact on their exclusive commitment to Christ.
A Christian who attempted to navigate this very issue was pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the shadow of Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer condemned the nations demagogic leaders and the Christians who complied based on paranoia and blind allegiance. Yet there were also those who classified themselves as Deutsche Christens or “German Christians.” This group put forward a concerted effort to create a Christianity that enmeshed parts of the Christian tradition with the whole of Nazism. Deutsche Christens eagerly affirmed Hitler’s Führer Principle and Aryan Clause all in hopes that the Volk would be restored to their former glory.
This “restoration” of the German people would of course come at the expense of innocent Jews. For Bonhoeffer, persecution of the Jews was not merely unacceptable but ultimately heretical. In 1933, Bonhoeffer articulated his opposition to the German government in an article entitled The Church and the Jewish Question. In this article, which was the first of its kind, Bonhoeffer argued that it was the job of the German church to protect “the victims of any society.” Bonhoeffer also argued that, in times of crisis, “direct political action” against the state may very well be required of Christian communities. Bonhoeffer, throughout his life, took every opportunity to resist Hitler and his Nazi forces both on a personal and an ecclesiastical level. Bonhoeffer did not interpret the dominance of Nazi Germany through the nationalistic lens of “divine providence.” Rather, Bonhoeffer openly prayed for the defeat of his nation so that the suffering of the innocent might cease.
Bonhoeffer was labeled an enemy of the state early on his career and, on April 5th, 1944, he was seized by the Gestapo for “antiwar activity.” A little over a year later, Bonhoeffer would be hanged for treason at Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9th, 1945. Bonhoeffer’s legacy is one that concretely demonstrates the cost of discipleship. When Bonhoeffer remarked, “Every call of Christ leads to death,” he was not speaking in abstractions, but was foreshadowing his own martyrdom in lieu of his exclusive allegiance to God’s Kingdom.
 Scot Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of the Saints: A Biography. (Maryknoll N.Y: Orbis Books, 2010), 12.
 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. 1 Reprint edition. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 2001), 32.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 45-82. For Yoder’s analysis, see Glen Stassen, D.M. Yeager and John H. Yoder, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 31-91, esp. 51-52.
 Stephen H. Webb, American Providence: A Nation with a Mission. 1 edition. (New York: Continuum, 2004), 7-8.
 William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 99.
 Ibid., 104-105.
 Ibid., 100.
 Stephen H. Webb, American Providence: A Nation with a Mission. 62, 64.
 Ibid., 62.
 “Volk” or the German people as a whole.
 Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Repeat edition. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 138-176.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rev Sub edition. (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2009), 132.
 Ibid., 132.
 Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 387.
 Ibid., 432-475. While it is commonly accepted that the primary reason for Bonhoeffer’s execution was because of his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler, a burgeoning amount of scholarship has recently began to question Bonhoeffer’s involvement at all. See Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, Daniel P. Umbel and Stanley Hauerwas’ Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). Also see Stanley Hauerwas’ Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004).
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 87. I have opted for the literal translation of Bonhoeffer’s infamous quote here. The most popular rendition has traditionally been, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
 Art by Fritz Eichenberg, Crucifixion, 1983.