The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strongman’s will.
The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions of Weimar Germany, the United States has fewer footholds for fascism. But the reaction to fascist darkness in the 1930s produced a figure, a bright light, who should guide us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who resisted the Nazis and the influence of Nazism in his own church. He spoke out on behalf of German Jews, was implicated in a plot against Adolf Hitler’s life, was imprisoned, wrote and ministered for years from confinement, then was led naked to the execution ground and hanged with a noose of piano wire, just weeks before the end of World War II.
As a theologian, Bonhoeffer was farsighted. Modern Western societies, he argued, were becoming “radically religionless.” It is not possible to re-impose this consensus, and mere nostalgia is pointless. But religion — in Bonhoeffer’s view, a changeable form of “human self-expression” — is not the same as faith. “If religion is only the garment of Christianity — and even the garment has looked very different at different times — then what is religionless Christianity?”
It is a question that could occupy a theologian’s entire career. Bonhoeffer’s was cut short at age 39. But it is worth noting one thing he did not find outdated. He believed that Advent and the story of Christmas speak directly to the modern world.
The appeal of Christmas to a prisoner, from one perspective, is natural. Christmas upends the normal calculations of power and influence. “He takes what is little and lowly,” Bonhoeffer said, “and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. . . . He loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”
This is not merely a sentimental insight. In Bonhoeffer’s view, this revelation about the character of God involves a kind of judgment. “No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.”
This means, of course, that nearly all of us are judged — convicted by our indifference to the needs of others and sentenced to our own sour, self-flagellating company. “And then,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love.”
Modern people, surrounded by violence and oppression, presented with morally conflicted choices, do not need an ethical system. They need hope. And that sets a limit on our own effort. “A prison cell like this,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that — ultimately negligible things — the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”
In the Christian view, the door was swung open by the incarnation, by a God who somehow became a defenseless child, a refugee, a teacher of good, a victim of injustice, left alone, tired, in doubt, to face a humiliating death. A God who — strangely, paradoxically, mysteriously — at the end felt abandoned by God. A God on our side. “God wants to always be with us,” Bonhoeffer said, “wherever we may be — in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone: God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us.”
This, despite all our fears and doubts, is Christmas: a God secretly revealed as love.
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