NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

July 29, 2013

Bonhoeffer, government and religion

To the editor:

In a column on Saturday, July 20, Pastor Hagopian of the First Congregational Church in Rowley repeated a well-known saying beginning “When they came for the Jews, I said nothing, because I wasn’t a Jew ... .” His letter wrongly named Dietrich Bonhoeffer as its author. Bonhoeffer did not say that and would not have. He spent the last years of his life speaking out against the ones who came for various people. (It was likely another German pastor, Martin Niemoeller, who said it, in the aftermath of WWII in 1946.)

When Nazism broke out, Pastor Bonhoeffer returned from the United States to Germany and spent the WWII years nurturing an underground Christian movement. The Nazis were, with help from the German institutional churches, using religion to promote themselves. They posted the Ten Commandments on their buildings. They justified themselves with Bible verses like “ ... be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13). Bonhoeffer’s movement opposed the Nazis and their misuse of religion by trying to live by the commandments to love God and love your neighbor, no matter who that neighbor happens to be.

The German authorities ruthlessly persecuted that movement with rope and gun. Bonhoeffer’s conscience compelled him personally to participate in a plot to murder Hitler. The plot was found out, and so he was hanged by the Nazi SS near the end of the war.

Bonhoeffer might be suspicious of 21st-century attempts to use religion in the service of government: He knew how dangerous that could be. To change lives, the Ten Commandments need to be written on people’s hearts. When a government tries to impose them, that government risks becoming corrupt and the Commandments themselves risk being misunderstood.

Oliver Jones

Assistant rector, St. Paul’s Church, Newburyport.

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