So That No One Would Laugh at the Church Pt. 1

eichenberg crucifixion 1983


“While I am pope,” said Pius XI, “no one will laugh at the church.”[1] 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.”[2] Christians, as far as Niebuhr is concerned, face the “enduring problem” of a perpetual oscillation between Christ and civilization.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.”[6] 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.”[7]

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.”[8] 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.[9] For Webb then, meaningful, historical, transformation only occurs through those who vie for prominent positions and display a genuine desire to relate to society.[10] 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[11] would be restored to their former glory.[12]

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.”[13] Bonhoeffer also argued that, in times of crisis, “direct political action” against the state may very well be required of Christian communities.[14] 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.[15]

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.”[16] 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.[17]

Josiah R. Daniels


[1] Scot Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of the Saints: A Biography. (Maryknoll N.Y: Orbis Books, 2010), 12.

[2] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. 1 Reprint edition. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 2001), 32.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] 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.

[5] Stephen H. Webb, American Providence: A Nation with a Mission. 1 edition. (New York: Continuum, 2004), 7-8.

[6] 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.

[7] Ibid., 104-105.

[8] Ibid., 100.

[9] Stephen H. Webb, American Providence: A Nation with a Mission. 62, 64.

[10] Ibid., 62.

[11] “Volk” or the German people as a whole.

[12] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Repeat edition. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 138-176.

[13] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rev Sub edition. (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2009), 132.

[14] Ibid., 132.

[15] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 387.

[16] 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).

[17] 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.”

[18] Art by Fritz Eichenberg, Crucifixion, 1983.


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  • Steve Webb

    I find it hard to believe that you actually read my book, American Providence. You write: “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.” All of these statements go beyond caricature and into the realm of slander of me and my book. I go out of my way to show how Manifest Destiny was a distortion of providence (p. 40), reject the idea up front that America is uniquely providential (p. 6), and analyze the ways in which “providential understandings of national histories can be stretched out of any specifically Christian shape, to the point of becoming explicitly anti-Christian” (p. 24). I acknowledge that “the consequences of [American providentialism] for Native Americans and Mexicans were tragic” (p. 39) and that providence in America often took “racist forms” (p. 39). And so on. Criticize my book, yes, but try to be a little bit fair, for the sake of charity and your own intellectual dignity.

    • Josiah Daniels

      Mr. Webb,
      It’s encouraging to know people read these long posts.

      You acknowledge early on in your book that you want to avoid baptizing America (pg. 6, 8). But I think you end up being unsuccessful. While you rightly distance your work from sacralizing America, you paradoxical suggest that the U.S. is doing work to “establish the final kingdom” (pg. 8).

      I was (am) a bit confused how on the one hand you suggest that “capitalism is not the goal and purpose of history… the kingdom of God might be ushered in by bankers and business people, but it will end up as something greater than they can manage” (p. 126) but then on the other hand you argue that “God moves nations by working through history, not against it. By definition, the poor are not effective agents of significant historical change” (pg. 62). Or again, in regards to global capitalism, you seemingly defend it as an achievement of “Protestant freedom” (Anxious about Empire: Theological Essays on the New Global Realities, ed. Wes Avram p. 121).

      I find it equally bewildering that you criticize American providentialisms negative effects on Native Americans, but you show no trepidation in suggesting that a similar tactic should be embraced concerning the U.S.’s dealings with Muslims. “Forcing Muslim nations into democratic political orders can accomplish much good in the world, but it needs to be recognized that this goal is theological as well as political” (p. 139).

      This leads into another problem I find in your work–your overall position on foreign policy. You suggest that Christians need to cease and desist in suggesting that the U.S. take a more conciliatory position when dealing with its enemies. (p. 156, 159, 161). Earlier, you chilling suggest that, “[W]ithout some kind of world religion, global management will have to work through the imposition of power rather than the quest for consensus” (p. 114).

      You suggest that I should be more “fair” for the sake of “charity” and my “intellectual dignity.” I could offer you the same warning in regards to your seemingly contradictory, if not schizophrenic, comments above.

      Mr. Webb, this post was not a review of your book. Nor was it an attempt to”slander” or “caricaturize” your work. Rather, it was a critique. I have no interest in disparaging your person. Yet you did not grant me the same privilege. I would personally like to take this opportunity to dialogue with you. Perhaps you have changed your thoughts concerning some of what you wrote in American Providence. It would seem so, seeing as your comments above are slightly more reasonable than some what you have previously written.

      Nonetheless, I appreciate the interaction.

      • Steve Webb

        How is it paradoxical to say that America is doing work to “establish the final kingdom.” I also say that other nations also do such work, and I compare America to Rome, i.e., just as Rome provided the roads across which Paul and others spread the Gospel, America is laying down the global political and economic connections that allow Christianity to spread throughout the world. I might be wrong about that, but I don’t see how that analysis is at odds with my denial that America is a uniquely Christian (or even fully Christian) country. As for Islam, everything I wrote in that book is prophetic. Islamic countries are increasingly trying to destroy the last remnants of the earlier era of global Christianity, and America has to decide whether to use our poltiical, economic and military power to promote democracy and defend religious freedom in Islamic countries. And yes, power must be used to support and defend democracy. Persuasion (and economic penalties, as with the Obama administration, are obviously inadequate). And of courfs global capitalism is an achievement of Christianity, primarily Protestantism. That’s an old thesis that has been rejected and defended; I happen to develop a new defense of it, but my position is not out of the boundaries of decent theological thought. Your article has brought back to me just how reasonable my book is and how bizarre the criticisms of it, beginning with Cavanaugh, whose superficial and heavy handed reading of it continues to be promulgated by those who have not read it.

        • Josiah Daniels

          Mr. Webb,
          I think one of the major areas where you and I differ is your suggesting that the U.S. is providing the means for the gospel to spread throughout the globe. If you mean the gospel of technological, consumer militarism then I concur. However, if you mean the gospel of Christ crucified I would have to strongly disagree. Nonetheless, I respect that you are cautious in suggesting this.

          You have a fairly positive attitude towards Mormonism. This is not something we share, but in theory, your position towards Mormonism is parallel to my position towards Islam. I think there is a lot that Christians can learn from their Muslim brothers and sisters. Perhaps you will agree. Thoughts?

          Another area where we disagree seems to be on democracy (just in general) and on using military force to create spaces where “freedom” can flourish. When I earlier stated that you contradict yourself, I was specifically referring to your position on the U.S.’s “nation building” tactics. Do you see how it causes me to question just how concerned you truly are about imperialism/colonialism (specifically during the early stages of the American project) but then you promote “military power” being used to “control” and convert (?) Islamic countries? This is imperialism a la carte.

          As for capitalism, it is not that I disagree that Protestants have much to do with its success (Calvin, usury etc), rather, it is that I feel that you find capitalism to be a viable economic system. I have made my disdain for capitalism clear in various posts on this site so I won’t spend much time deconstructing it here.

          You’re right Mr. Webb, your book is very reasonable. But I, similar to people like Hauerwas and Yoder, wish to avoid promoting a “reasonable” or intelligible form of Christianity. So again, you are right in accusing me of being “bizarre” if by bizarre you mean unusual. It is indeed an unusual thing in our day and age for a Christian to be among the voices of decent when it comes to the drums of war. These drums are sounding again, as we here in the U.S. have circled back around to rhetoric that demonizes Middle Eastern and Muslim people.

          Again, I appreciate you taking the time to interact with me.

          • Steve Webb

            It’s been good talking to you too. THat book has been so beaten up in reviews, really ridiculed, that I am a bit sensitive about it. Cavanaugh kind of opened the door to portraying that book as a crazy reactionary rant, and I really resent that. Of course I don’t think the US promotes the cross, but I do think that the US promotes a global order that Christianity can use, and that Christianity will eventually replace that global order with itself. I’m an odd kind of postmillennialist. I had to kind of code that part of my book a bit. But really, Islam tries to diminish the glory of Jesus Christ, while Mormons exaggerate it. I’ll take exuberance over reduction any time! I mean, speak of denying the cross: that is exactly what Islam does. Mormons are full on with cross atonement. I’ve spent some time in Africa, and they want and need several things: stable economies, less corruption (and thus greater rule of law), better incentives for working hard and being rewarded for their labor, better laws protecting citizens from violence, more freedom for churches to continue to assume much of the responsibility for civil society, stricter sexual ethics, and better ways to enter into the global economy. They look to AMericans and to America itself for guidance and inspiration for most or all of that, just as their parents and grandparents mistakenly looked to the Soviet Union for guidance in socializing their economies. And yes, as Islam continues to lose out in the global economy, Muslims will continue to make life harder for my brothers and sisters in Africa, and we will have to intervene to protect them. What they don’t need, then, is our pacifism. But that’s another story. Best of wishes for your continuing work and discipleship.

            • Josiah Daniels

              Mr. Webb,
              Not to prolong this conversation (as I feel both of us have appropriately described our positions) but part of the problem, in my view, is that U.S. citizens tend to position their nation as the vanguard of freedom, justice and morality–shades of imperialism and exceptionalism abound.

              While you assert that Africa doesn’t need our “pacifism” (and by this word I think you mean something very different than what I have in mind) I would retort that they don’t need us to rescue them either. But, as demonstrated above, we will continue to disagree on this point.

              All that to say, I would like to thank you for commenting on this post. I would hope you would return for a visit as I think we could both benefit from having our positions challenged.

              Grace and Peace of Christ to you.


              • Saw your response. Well articulated and appropriate. He’s off his rocker if he thinks he can double talk (write) like that. Good on you mate.


  • Steve Webb

    Another quote from my book: American Providence: “Christianity might ride on the back of capitalism as it penetrates the far corners of the globe, but capitalism is not the goal and purpose of history. The kingdom of God might be ushered in by bankers and buisness people, but it will end up as something greater than they can manage” (p. 126). “The destinty of Christian is much greater than the destiny of America” (p. 145). and this: “Christians need an ironic imagination when it comes to intepreting providence, because God’s ways are not our own. American Christians need to be clear that , while they support America’s investment in democracy and freedom, their loyalties extend beyond American economic expansion and toward a global Christianity that is America’s true significance for world history–even if that global Christianity were to result, in the long run, in the decline of American strength and power” (p. 145). Your references to my book do not even come close to doing justice to my position.