What the Church Today Can Learn from MLK and Bonhoeffer

In recent Christian history, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are two of the most significant figures on the topic of faith and politics. While their context was different from one another, these two heroes had many similarities: they faced an unruly state and a divided church; they centered their teaching on Christ and expected action from his body; they prophetically preached against the grain and took on persecution; and they lived as pacifists and died as martyrs.

In this article, we will look at some of the themes that unite these two and how they addressed the injustice of the societies in which they lived—Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany and King in a racist America.

The Relationship Between Freedom and Responsibility

Few words are more American than the word “freedom.” Unfortunately, this word has made its way into the American church’s heart in all the wrong ways. For example, many Christians live as though it is their God-given right to do whatever they want, when in fact, by becoming Christians, they have signed their rights away to live and act as Jesus would have them. The practice of this false freedom ultimately stifles Christians. Because they do not conform their minds to Christ, they are not challenged to see or address the injustice around them. This is not Christian freedom. To quote Bonhoeffer, Christian freedom “comes from the necessity of the Word of God … Otherwise, it becomes arbitrariness and ends in a great many new ties.”1

When this false freedom is coupled with the same “cheap grace”2 Bonhoeffer saw in German Christianity, the church becomes entirely apathetic. Once Christians have consumed such a cocktail, they find themselves in an utterly worldly faith where they can live however they want and allow grace to let them do so. Jesus is soon nowhere to be found in our religion, but instead, “grace itself,” which Bonhoeffer saw becoming “its own God.”3

This ignorant, free, grace-filled church is often unaware of the “absence of freedom”4 around them. King, for example, recognized that people of color were not free to choose where they might live or how they might survive because a person or system had already decided for them, reducing them “to an animal.”5 Both the church and society should address such injustices, but those who aren’t affected often grow angry when those who are affected try to talk about it.

King had a conversation like this in Montgomery when a white man came up to him and voiced his concerns about King’s boycott, saying, “it has done so much to disturb race relations, and we just don’t love the Negro like we used to love them, because you have destroyed the harmony and the peace that we once had in race relations.”6 Of course, what this man was experiencing was Jeremiah’s “peace that is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). Or as King would say, “It was a negative peace. True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force … it is the presence of some positive force.”7

King would become that positive force in the States. The church had to change if it would prophetically provoke the powers. It could no longer rest in the status quo. It could not idealize Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace, which had “ruined more Christians than any commandment about works.”8 No, King’s Christianity was going to have to take a stand. As one of King’s recent biographers writes, “he was determined to foster his own version of Christianity that served as a model for change. No longer would it stand neutral on difficult issues. There would be no dividing line between the church and the greater good of society, especially when it came to race.”9

The Role of the Church in Creating Social Justice

To bring about a peace that is peace, the church has to agitate the world, recognizing that the ways of Jesus can often sever relationships like a sword (Matt. 10:34) and act as a wedge between the Christian and the non-Christian. Though the world often will not want to hear us out, we are Christ’s body on the earth, so we must speak on Jesus’ behalf when we see injustice. As Bonhoeffer says, “What is proclaimed as the gospel to the church, the congregation, and, thereby, the individual Christian, is spoken to the world as a judgment. When a people refuses to hear this command, then Christians are called forth from that people to give witness to peace.”10

Since worldly people do not have the Holy Spirit to empower and convict them, the people of Heaven cannot expect them to get on the same level in heart, soul, and mind. However, this does not mean Christians stand idly by and allow societal injustice to continue. King reminds us that “in order to control the external effects of prejudiced internal feelings, we must continue to struggle through legislation.”11 He goes on elsewhere to point out that “The habits, if not the hearts, of people have been and are being altered everyday by legislative acts, judicial decisions and executive orders.”12

Therefore, when the church sees injustice, it must become “maladjusted” (a favorite word of King’s).13 When we follow Jesus, we will not fit into our societies perfectly. Maladjustment is not only necessary, but required. But how we go about our maladjustment is crucial since there are both holy and unholy ways of doing so. As Christians, we must be maladjusted to the techniques of Christ, which are best captured in the Sermon on the Mount. This particular message was life-changing for Bonhoeffer. While traditional German Lutheranism thought the Sermon on the Mount was meant to show us how far we’ve fallen from the golden standard, Bonhoeffer had “quite a fresh thought: that Jesus actually intended us to live like this.”14 After giving himself over to the practice of this sermon, “Pacifism was a secondary, later result.”15

Pacifism is at the heart of Bonhoeffer and King’s maladjusted ways of gospel engagement with the world. King saw it as a spiritually aggressive,16 anger-reducing method17 that attacked the system instead of the individuals in it18 and attempted to win over its opponents.19 Contrary to what some think, King’s “nonviolent direct action is neither passive nor for cowards, but requires courage.”20 This kind of Jesus-pacifism shaped the hearts and teaching of Bonhoeffer and King, leading both to martyrdom, which Bonhoeffer knew could happen when we witness to Christ and his kingdom. He writes, “What does faithfulness of the community of Christ mean here other than calling out into this furious raging again and again—unto exhaustion, unto humiliation, unto martyrdom—the words of Christ that there should be peace, that there should be love, that there should be blessing, and that he is our peace.”21

Of course, Bonhoeffer is known by most to have lived a double life on this front, given his role in a well-known plot to assassinate Hitler. But some scholars have pushed back on this belief as of late, including Mark Thiessen Nation, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight. To summarize their research, they believe that Bonhoeffer became a part of the Abwehr so he couldn’t be drafted for military service, as suggested by his brother-in-law. He was later arrested, not for the attempted assassination of Hitler (since the authorities never found out who was responsible for the act), but because he tried to save fourteen Jews. The court records of Bonhoeffer’s case show that he was then imprisoned for attempting to get himself and others out of military service. Bonhoeffer was also a conscientious objector, which was considered a capital offense at the time.22 While Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s biographer, put Bonhoeffer into the realm of conspiracy and Niebuhrian realism, Bonhoeffer’s best friend Franz Hildebrandt was sure he wasn’t a part of the plot.23 The fine details of Nation’s well-researched case make this view more convincing than many might think.

Boundaries Between Church and State

While the Christian Nationalist view of politics is likely the most popular within the church today, this has not always been the case. Indeed, Martin Luther taught on a two-kingdom view of faith and politics in 1523.24 Under this “duality,” Bonhoeffer reminds us that church and state are “necessarily related to the other; neither exists for itself.”25 The church’s job is to bear witness to God in all his varied themes, while the state’s job is to maintain and preserve order with authority and responsibility.26 Yet, at the same time, Bonhoeffer recognizes that each kingdom limits the other in a “tension of coexistence.”27 For example, since the state’s job is to maintain order, the church will limit the state by not being “indifferent to what political action is taken. Instead, it can and must . . . keep asking the government whether its actions can be justified as legitimate state actions.”28 Modern Christian Nationalism is an excellent example of the church violating the state. In Bonhoeffer’s time, the state violated the church by creating a nationalist perversion of the true church known as the Reich Church. Bonhoeffer and others had to fight back against this cult as the Confessing Church.

King would continue to provoke the kingdom of this world with his messages, each expertly crafted to fit his unique audience.29 He convicted his hearers for the way they labeled things, like mass unemployment in the black community as a “social problem” and the same thing in the white community as a “depression.”30 He called the government out for committing “more war crimes almost than any nation in the world”31 and for being “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”32 He also devised intentional strategies to get America to heed his words, like doing marches long enough to get the attention of the press33 and using boycotts as “a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority.”34 While King recognized the separation between church and state, he did not try to find a quiet way to advocate the practices of Jesus.

Application for the Modern Church

With the rise of Christian Nationalism in the form of Trumpism alongside the continuation of racism in our society, Bonhoeffer and King remain incredibly relevant to the American church today. Unfortunately, the modern church does not seem to have listened well to any teachings they’ve left behind. Some famous Christians like Eric Metaxas35 have used sloppy research36 to reframe Bonhoeffer to fit the Christian Nationalist agenda. Charismatic Christians have prophesied second terms for Trump inside the White House. Christian insurrectionists joined the mob on January 6th with crosses, the kind of event King once defined as a “planned, organized, violent rebellion.”37 Many white Christians think of King as the man who fixed racism forever when he was assassinated. Many black Christians look at how people of color are killed in broad daylight on the street for all to see and wonder if King’s efforts did anything. The church is a mess.

While these problems are not new in the church, the pressure of the covid-19 pandemic brought all of these justice problems and more to America’s attention like never before. Over the last few decades, to keep our “peace that is no peace,” the church has remained silent on political issues (unless they sound somewhat Republican) and social issues (unless they sound somewhat white), causing a not-so-subliminal, power-hungry, Americanized gospel to grow in the hearts of many. In his day, Bonhoeffer “found American theology woefully thin,”38 and not much has changed today. Once the pandemic blew our churches apart, a monster emerged from the rubble. She was willing to follow any political leader that espoused what she cared about, regardless of their character. She was willing not just to overlook the horrendous evils of modern racism, but to justify them. While the world has calmed down a bit since the pandemic, these problems have not gone away. They lie dormant until enough pressure is applied for them to resurface.

Christian Nationalists need to come to terms with the suffering of Jesus, a theme the New Testament is riddled with. As Bonhoeffer points out, “all human suffering and weakness is a sharing in God’s own suffering and weakness in the world.”39 Nationalism, on the other hand, is all about power, which rejects the very cross that Christians are called to. Christian suffering is not a sickness—it’s a cure. As King says, “unearned suffering is redemptive.”40

It’s more critical than ever to preach like Bonhoeffer and King, who kept the radical teachings of Jesus at the forefront of their movements. As Bonhoeffer says, to be a disciple “is nothing other than being bound to Jesus Christ alone … No further content is possible because Jesus is the only content.”41 The American gospel we’ve preached over the years has been a cheap grace gospel, watered down in attempts to increase our numbers. It has not rightly challenged or discipled the church. Now is the time to share Jesus in all of his offensiveness so that he might build our churches with congregants who will take him seriously.

The pacifistic teaching of Jesus revolutionized my faith years ago and is still doing so today. This is a teaching I wish all Christians studied more, for it forces us to ask how far we are willing to follow Christ. Is he truly worth it all? Pacifism forces us to ask the question because there’s always a possibility that we could get hurt or martyred while practicing it. Furthermore, pacifism makes us realize how different God’s kingdom and tactics are and helps us discern worldly thinking more quickly. Fully realized, Jesus-shaped pacifism forces us to take Christianity seriously and reorders our fears around God rather than ourselves. As King says, “We must blot out the hate and injustice of the old age with the love and justice of the new,”42 recognizing that “ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”43 Pacifism does these very things.

Bonhoeffer and King are not minor blips in Christian history—they are reenactments of Jesus on the cross. But unfortunately, many either see them as irrelevant to our own time or remember them very differently than they were, just as many remember Jesus very differently. Now is the time to learn from these heroes. Now is the time to allow our faith to transform us. And if we don’t let it do so, the church’s witness will falter when the pressure returns.


Footnotes

1 G. B Kelly and F. B. Nelson, eds., A Testament to Freedom (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), 76.

2 G. B. Kelly and F. B. Nelson, eds., A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: HarperOne, 1995), 307-310. (Unless noted otherwise, this is the version the following footnotes will use.)

3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4: Discipleship, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) 53.

4 James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: HarperOne, 1986), 120

5 Ibid.

6 Washington, A Testament of Hope, 50-51.

7 Ibid., 137.

8 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 55.

9 Patrick Parr, The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age, Read by Brad Sanders, (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2018), Ch 8, 27:11.

10 Kelly, A Testament to Freedom, 95.

11 Washington, A Testament of Hope, 142.

12 Ibid., 124.

13 Ibid., 14, 89.

14 Bonhoeffer, directed by Martin Doblmeier, interviewee John W. De Gruchy (Journey Films, 2003), 21:00.

15 Willis Jenkins and Jennifer M. Mcbride, eds., Glenn H. Stassen, “Peacemaking,” Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), Kindle Location 3831.

16 Washington, A Testament of Hope, 12

17 Ibid., 125

18 Ibid., 12

19 Ibid.

20 Jenkins, ed., Gary M. Simpson, “Overhearing Resonances: Jesus and Ethics in King and Bonhoeffer,” Bonhoeffer and King, Kindle Location 4373.

21 Isabel Best, ed., The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 20.

22 Mark Thiessen Nation, Discipleship in a World Full of Nazis: Recovering the True Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022), 286-287.

23 Ibid., 47.

24 See John Dillenberger, “Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed,” Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New York: Anchor Books, 1962).

25 Kelly, A Testament to Freedom, 90-91.

26 Ibid., 91.

27 Ibid., 92.

28 Victoria J. Barnett, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 12: Berlin, 1932–1933 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 363-364.

29 Jenkins, ed., Simpson, “Overhearing Resonances,” Bonhoeffer and King, Kindle Locations 4348-4349.

30 Washington, A Testament of Hope, 67.

31 Ibid., 265.

32 Ibid., 232.

33 Ibid., 60.

34 Ibid., 140.

35 See Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2020).

36 See Stephen R. Haynes, The Battle for Bonhoeffer, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

37 Washington, A Testament of Hope, 70.

38 Jenkins ed., Stassen, “Peacemaking,” Bonhoeffer and King, Kindle Location 3789.

39 Kelly, A Testament to Freedom (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), 182.

40 Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 82.

41 Nation, Discipleship in a World Full of Nazis, 17.

42 Washington, A Testament of Hope, 139.

43 Ibid., 255.

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