Barth and Bonhoeffer…why them? why now?

A couple of nights ago I was having trouble getting to sleep. I kept thinking about Karl Barth and  Dietrich Bonhoeffer…why?

I remembered my preaching instructor (and others!) in seminary liked to quote a statement often attributed to Karl Barth: “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” In other words, we cannot divorce what is going on in life around us from what the Bible calls us to do and be. We must be informed both of the news and events surround us but we must also be biblically literate. (Please note–I did not say “literalist.” There is a significant difference.)

With my spiritual advisor, I’ve spent a lot of time reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor in the 1930s. Barth, a Swiss theologian, was forced to leave Germany and return to Switzerland, as Hitler rose to power. Bonhoeffer took a different path. He came to the United States for post-graduate education at Union Theological Seminary, but returned to Germany in 1931. He watched as Hitler came to power–and was a staunch foe from the beginning. He saw in Hitler a danger to the church, a danger he watched as more and more church leaders either actively supported the Nazi movement or passively stood aside.

In 1933 Bonhoeffer accepted a post in London, but he returned to Germany in response to Barth’s question of him: “And what of the German church?” They needed strong pastors.

Bonhoeffer–and Barth–felt that something had to be done…something had to be said to call Christians to repentance. They were responsible for the formation of the Confessing Church, which basically was a resistance movement. They wanted to preserve traditional Christian beliefs and practices. And in 1934, they drafted a statement known as the Barmen Declaration. In this document, they laid out their position that Christ–not the Fuhrer–was the head of the church. It was a pointed rebuke towards Hitler and his movement.

As I lay in bed, the thought kept coming to mind that perhaps it was time for a Barmen Declaration for our day and time.

I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised when I received a link to a statement by Princeton Seminary faculty members related to the Trump presidency and the current political situation in the United States. As I read it, I thought “Yes, this is our Barmen Declaration.” I was pleased that each member who signed it did not feel that they had to agree to every word–that they worked together as colleagues to draft a statement that they were each comfortable signing.

I have seen statements questioning why religious leaders and ministers should be speaking against Trump–sometimes with the specific question of why are we not praying for him? I believe many are praying for him…but also believe that in good faith, they must speak against those policies, statements, and actions that are not representative of who Christ calls us to be.

I am grateful for this statement…and I agree with it.

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