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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth: A Tale of Three Anti-Semites — Part 2

Erasmus, the great Catholic humanist scholar said, “If it is Christian to hate Jews, then we are all good Christians”[1] Martin Luther and a host of medieval and modern Protestant scholars would agree.

Just ask Martin Niemoeller.

But wait a minute . . . wasn’t he the person who famously said:

  • First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because  I was not a Jew. Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Impressed by Bonhoeffer, Niemöller added his own rhetorical flourish to Bonhoeffer’s words:

  • The Church of Christ has never lost sight of the thought that the ‘Chosen People’ who nailed the redeemer of the world to the cross must bear the curse for its action through a long history of suffering.  The final return of the people of Israel can only take place through the conversion of Israel to Christ. . . .The gospel lesson for the day throws light upon the dark and sinister history of this people that can neither live nor die because it is under a curse which forbids it to do either.  Until the end of its days, the Jewish people must go its way under the burden which Jesus’ decree has laid upon it.

Like Karl Barth (as we will soon see), Niemöller did not shy away from making pejorative remarks about the Jewish converts he had in his church. Such baptized Christians, persecuted as Jews by the Nazis, due to their or their forefathers’ Jewish descent. In one sermon in 1935, he remarked, “What is the reason for [their] obvious punishment, which has lasted for thousands of years? Dear brethren, the reason is easily given: the Jews brought the Christ of God to the cross!”[2]

In defense of Niemöller, he wasn’t an irredeemable anti-Semite. After the war, he later expressed regret about his own anti-Semitism in an interview he had with a West German television station he said: “Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we cannot get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself . . . . Thus, whenever I chance to meet a Jew known to me before, then, as a Christian, I cannot but tell him . . .”[3] Perhaps his guilty conscience reminded him that someday he would have to answer before the Judge of the World and answer for his dastardly remarks about the Jews, God’s Chosen People, whom he so deeply scorned.

Last and certainly not least, we will now examine the words of the famous Protestant theologian Karl Barth, who has often been described as “the greatest Christian theologian since Thomas Aquinas,” an epithet I would personally and strongly take issue with.

Karl Barth was also famous for his criticism of the Nazi regime. However, he too also subscribed to the idea that the Jew is a nothing more than a “Christ killer,” worthy of temporal and eternal torment for his audacious rejection of the Savior. Barth’s invective language about the synagogue is reminiscent of Martin Luther’s position. The Protestant scholar Chris Boesel carefully annotates the following Barthian references from his Church Dogmatics, Vol. 2.,  For him, he considers “The Synagogue” represents a “sectarian self-assertion”  by which the Jews attempt to “secure, defend, and preserve its existence against God.”  Barth calls this a  “perverse choice.” The Synagogue now witnesses “over against the witness of the Church,” rather than in unity with it. It is now a “typical expression   . . .  of man’s limitation and pain, of his transiency and the death to which is subject.” Synagogue Judaism is “the personification  of a half-venerable, half-gruesome relic, of a miraculously preserved antique, of human whimsicality. It must live among the nations the pattern of a historical life which has absolutely no future.” The Synagogue is “joyless,” persisting in a “cheerless chronology.” It is a “Synagogue of death,” constituting a “wretched testimony.”[4]

In the 1930s, he too charged the Jews with the death of Jesus – something they undertook not “in foolish over-haste” or misunderstanding, but, he asserted, as a “deliberate” act. Then, in 1942, from his base in Switzerland, in his theological work “Church Dogmatics,” Barth castigated Judaism as a “synagogue of death,” a “tragic, pitiable figure with covered eyes,” a religion characterized by “conceited lying,” and the “enemy of God.” If the church needed the Jews, he felt, it was only as a negative symbol, for they are a mirror of man’s rebellion against God, against which Christians must continually struggle.

Amazingly still, Barth—even after the Holocaust—still couldn’t get over his theological animus toward Judaism and Jews. In a letter he wrote to a close friend named,  Dr. Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt in 1967, Barth made a confession that is utterly amazing—especially in light of the Holocaust that took place over twenty years earlier. He writes:

  • I am decidedly not a philosemite, in that in personal encounters with living Jews (even Jewish Christians) I have always, so long as I can remember, had to suppress a totally irrational aversion, naturally suppressing it at once on the basis of all my presuppositions, and concealing it totally in my statements, yet still having to suppress and conceal it. Pfui! is all that I can say to this in some sense allergic reaction of mine. But this is how it was and is. A good thing that this reprehensible instinct is totally alien to my sons and other better people than myself (including you). But it could have had a retrogressive effect on my doctrine of Israel.[5]

Barth’s animus toward the Jewish people is evident within the Presbyterian Church. Walter Brueggemann and a host of lesser thinkers and teachers have become decidedly anti-Zionist and consider Israel an outlaw state. Brueggemann in particular shares a Barthian characteristic that is striking. Barth and Brueggemann love speaking about Israel, “Biblical Israel” in the abstract—but never with reference to the Jew who follows the Torah that Biblical Israel embodies. One gets the impression that Brueggemann finds Judaism, Israel, and the modern Jew to be an annoyance. Jewish Israel is a concept he and other Protestants refuse to accept because of their theology of supersessionism.

What else could one expect from the house that Luther, Erasmus,  Bonhoeffer, Niemöller, Barth, and Brueggemann built?

The fruits of the Protestant churches today and their hatred of Israel are bitter and worthy of oblivion.

If you read the famous “Parable about the Last Judgment” in Matthew 25:31-46, you will see that Jesus left a message in a bottle for the future theologians of the 20-21st century to reflect whenever they think about the Jewish people—Jesus’s own flesh and blood family:

  • “. . . for when I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did so to me.”

Next time Protestant theologians think about the Jewish people and everything we have gone through because of hateful theological supersessionism, they would be wise to remember this parable from their master and teacher.  Jesus’ humanity makes him a wonderful model for people to emulate themselves after—wouldn’t it be nice if his followers took his words more seriously? “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” (Mark 10:9)

If Barthian theologians have an issue with the Divine election of Israel, I think they ought to take it up with God Himself, and stop slandering God’s people at every opportunity.



[1] Charles Patterson, Anti-Semitism (New York: Walker and Company, 1982), 16.

 

[2]  Martin Niemöller, First Commandment, (London: Lutheran Church Publishing, 1937), pp. 243–250.

 

[3] Martin Niemöller Of Guilt and Hope (NY: Philosophical Library, 1947), 18.

[4] Chris Boesel , Risking Proclamation, Respecting Difference: Christian Faith, Imperialistic Discourse, and Abraham (Eugene, OR:  Wipf & Stock Publishers 2008), 107.

[5] Karl Barth, Jürgen Fangmeier and Hinrich Stoevesandt (ed.) Geoffrey W. Bromiy (transl. and ed.)  Karl Barth, Letters 1961-1968. (Edinburgh, T.&T. Clark, 1981) No. 260, pp. 261-263.

 



Discussion

  1. Chaya  May 11, 2015

    I wasn’t aware of Bonhoeffer; as this information doesn’t normally show up in biographical material. It seems especially uncanny, given his experience of spending an eye-opening and spiritually formative year with a black church in the US that differed from his own background in every way; culturally, theologically, etc. It’s been interesting observing the various reactions when this information is shared.

    (reply)

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