The Role of Christianity in Politics and Ethics
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran arrested and imprisoned by the Third Reich and eventually executed for being found guilty of having taken part in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s writings have since become influential in the modern world for their focus on the role that Christians can play in politics. Since the separation of church and state that America set the stage for with its own secular foundations, many have been conflicted or confused about the role that Christians should have in modern politics. For hundreds of years, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church influenced the politics of Christendom and vice versa. With the Protestant Reformation there was a push towards secularism, and the Peace of Westphalia in the 17th century, which was forged without participation from the Pope, showed that states could handle their own affairs. However, as the centuries wore on, with the Enlightenment Era significantly affecting modern philosophy with its rejection of Old World values and a Christological worldview, people got used to the idea of government minding its own affairs and the church tending to its.
What Bonhoeffer attempted to do was show that the two spheres could be bridged, and he developed these ideas after visiting the US and seeing firsthand the lives of the underprivileged and marginalized and gaining a sense of the need for social justice. Bonhoeffer sought to address the gap between Christianity and social justice by showing that Christians could and should take part in politics for the purpose of providing Christian social justice in a world where Christ okay to talk about in private but not okay to be talked about on the political stage. In a way, Bonhoeffer sought to restore the rights of God in a world that was focused solely and exclusively on the Rights of Man, as developed by the American Enlightenment thinker and revolutionary Thomas Paine. This paper will address the theological problem in the modern era that Bonhoeffer sought to tackle, show why it remains a significant issue, and detail how a biblical response to the handling of the problem would be possible based on the points put forward by Bonhoeffer. The thesis of this paper is this: Bonhoeffer’s unsystematic theological approach to ethics based on the Christological worldview led to new ways of understanding responsible Christian action in politics and ethics.
This thesis statement is valuable to scholars of modern and contemporary Christian thought today as it provides insights on what would constitute responsible Christian action in politics. Given the separation of church and state in many societies across the globe, many people believe that Christians should not engage in politics. Some Christians believe that politics is a strife of interest that does not represent foundational biblical principles. The role and extent to which the Christian voice should be heard in the political space has remained a major issue for modern and contemporary scholars. Controversies surrounding this issue have been exacerbated by the rise of Christian politicians who believe that believers should assume positions of political power for the greater good of all. Scholars of modern and contemporary Christian thought have faced challenges in determining whether Christians should engage in politics at all. This thesis will establish the theological grounding for responsible Christian action in politics based on Bonhoeffer’s beliefs, thoughts, and actions.
Theological Problem in the Modern Era
Social justice is not just a modern political problem. It is also a theological problem and has been for centuries. Even Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum in an attempt to guide the Catholic Church on social justice issues from a Christian standpoint. Liberation theology sprang up in the middle of the 20th century to address social justice issues from a revamped Christian orientation that provided more focus on secular issues than on spiritual issues. Bonhoeffer wanted the focus to be on Christ and on faith. He wanted social justice to be interpreted through the lens of faith and he condemned deviations from the lens of faith. For instance, in Ethics, Bonhoeffer writes:
Those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand—from the very outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: “How can I be good?” and “How can I do something good?” Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: what is the will of God? This demand is radical precisely because it presupposes a decision about ultimate reality, that is, a decision of faith.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 47.]
Faith was central to the notion of Bonhoeffer’s view of the question of ethics. Ethical systems, such as virtue ethics or Kantian ethics or utilitarian ethics, tended to be rooted in non-Christian paradigms. Bonhoeffer did not see why Christian theology and ethics should be kept to such separate spheres. Just as he did not see why theology and social justice should be separated, he did not believe that a Christological worldview was at all irreconcilable with ethics.
To Bonhoeffer, faith was the ultimate reality because God was the ultimate reality.[footnoteRef:3] God was the ultimate reality quite simply because He was the source of all things and Christ was the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). That is why Bonhoeffer went on to explain that “the source of a Christian ethic is not the reality of one’s own self, not the reality of the world, nor is it the reality of norms and values. It is the reality of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the demand, before all others, that must honestly be made of anyone who wishes to be concerned with the problem of a Christian ethic.”[footnoteRef:4] Because Christ is reality, Bonhoeffer argued that Christ should be the moral yardstick by which all actions are judged. People failed to realize this because they too often failed to make Christ a reality in their own lives. They too often failed to become like Christ, or to bring Christ among them. To address this absence, Bonhoeffer argued that a Christian ethic must be comprised of “God’s reality revealed in Christ becoming real among God’s creatures.”[footnoteRef:5] In other ethical systems, such as utilitarianism, the question of the good which would be used to measure an action’s morality remained to some extent undefined. In Christian ethics, the good must be defined by one’s participation in the reality of Christ. Christ altered the real world by His Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. Just as the Fall by mankind’s first parents skewed reality away from God, Christ restored reality in grace through submission to the will of God. [3: Pearson, T.D. “Bonhoeffer and the End of Christian Ethics.” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 4, no. 8 (2004).] [4: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 49.] [5: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 49.]
That Christians should often ask themselves what is the will of God when attempting to define the right course of action is thus not surprising, for Christ Himself taught that to do the will of God is to be saved. However, what Bonhoeffer argues is that there cannot be disconnect between doing the will of God for one’s own salvation and doing good in the world in a moral manner. To think ethically, one ought to think from the standpoint of Christian ethics,…the Bible suggests there is a more appropriate way for loving Christians to behave—and that is to use spiritual combat: 1 Timothy 2:1-2 states, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” What should a Christian do? Instead of attempt to undermine the authorities of the day, he should pray for them.
If it is a matter of doing evil, as ordered by one’s earthly authorities, then it is quite another matter. For in that case Acts 5:29 is quite clear: “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’” If one’s rulers are not ordering one to violate a commandment of God, then what should one do? How should one behave according to the Bible? 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 provides the answer: “And to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” Why is it important for Christians to mind their own affairs as the Bible warns, and for them to be unconcerned with the matters of politics? For one, they will do all they can and should do by setting a good example for others by their own upright living. This is what inspires others to see Christ and to follow Him. Second, they are to remember that they should not seek to build earthly kingdoms here because Christ’s kingdom is heavenly: “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world’” (John 18:36). From a Biblical perspective, therefore, it can be concluded that the best way for a Christian to behave is to think of politics and ethics as areas in which he might demonstrate the kind of Christian virtue that the Bible commands him to demonstrate.
Bonhoeffer’s significant contribution to modern theology is that he circled the wagons of Christian thinking and brought them back to Christ. At a time when theologians were losing sight of the unchanging God, he was demanding that Christians recognize that Christ is the Ultimate Reality. There is nothing else that can save them, nothing else that matters but Christ Crucified.
Bonhoeffer further argued that this Ultimate Reality should be the bedrock of all action and living and thinking. One should live in accordance and in union with this Ultimate Reality. All things should be evaluated from the standpoint of Christ. Bonhoeffer disagreed that there was no room for Christian thinking in politics or in ethics. To him, politics and ethics were to be dismissed to the extent that they failed to recognize Christ as the Ultimate Reality. Bonhoeffer recognized the sacrament of God’s command and believed all should do the same.
There is room, as Bonhoeffer shows, for Christians to seek social justice from a Christian perspective. Indeed, the concept has never been foreign to Christians throughout history. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy have always been hallmarks of the church. Where Bonhoeffer went to extremes was in his attacks on his own government, and whether they were justified or not is beside the point. What he showed was that Christians do have the authority to engage in politics because all authority comes from God and they belong to God. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for Christians to sit out political issues and to stay on the sidelines. For they represent the children of God, and…
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