Preaching Politically in Turbulent Times

Was Rudolf Bultmann a Nazi sympathizer? Short answer—no. And yet…the accusation is commonplace within some […]

Todd Brewer / 9.30.19

Was Rudolf Bultmann a Nazi sympathizer? Short answer—no. And yet…the accusation is commonplace within some sectors of scholarship. In his recent Gifford lectures, the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright said as much, accusing Bultmann of Lutheran “quietism” in the face of the Third Reich because he was a “friend and philosophical disciple” of the infamous Nazi, Martin Heidegger.

In reality, Bultmann was anything but quiet, whether in his correspondence, actions, sermons, or writings. So often, the question of Christianity and politics is viewed as a stark either/or between activism and naïve pacifism/quietism, but the reality is far more nuanced and complex.

Bultmann was a member and ardent supporter of the Confessing Church. From 1933 on, the Bultmann house was the last stop before many of his Jewish students, friends, and colleagues immigrating to America. When his friend, Paul Friedländer, was arrested in the November 1938 pogrom and sent to a concentration camp, Bultmann worked back-channels to have him released.

All the while, Bultmann was directly in the literal cross-hairs of the Gestapo for his “disastrous influence on the theology students.” Bultmann, though, was far too popular and the Confessing Church was too large to be systematically removed. It’s also important to note just how terrified everyone was at this time. Even the Bonhoeffer family regularly checked around their house for spies listening in.

Nevertheless, Bultmann’s actions are not the subject of Wright’s ire, but his words. Here, Bultmann opposed the ideology of the Nazis, while refraining from explicit political commentary. If the Third Reich claimed to rule by divine right, Bultmann thought otherwise. In his sermon after Kristallnacht, he lamented that “In the process of setting up any secular order…people are sacrificed and crushed.” Adding, “the way of secular government always leads through blood and tears…the dominion of men is never the dominion of God.”

If the Nazis preached genetic purity, Bultmann repeatedly stressed the common humanity of all and our answerability to God. While Jews were being fired from their posts, he called on his fellow Germans to love of their neighbors. In a time of uniform patriotism, Bultmann believed that Christian faith was a “protest against the world [read: the state] and the world’s claim to provide ultimate commitment and obligation, ultimate fulfillment.”

While Bultmann sought to undermine by implication the state’s ideology, Wright’s rejection of Bultmann’s position as complicit quietism gestures toward an alternative answer to the question of the church’s political voice. It seems that, for Wright, the only way for the church to engage with politics is to fight fire with fire, to enter into the political realm and speak its language. Anything short of this is mere “quietism.” One must “name names,” point fingers, and leave no room for ambiguity or inference. As seen in his writings on Paul, the subtext must become text or else one has abandoned the church’s prophetic call. Paul was so explicitly subversive of Caesar that he exhorted obedience to Caesar in Romans 13 to prevent his readers from outright revolt.

The issue between Wright and Bultmann is not whether the Church should be political but how it should do so. For Bultmann, the freedom of the Church from the state is a necessary distinction that carries immense political weight. As it was with Karl Barth in 1933, the task of doing theology (read: proclamation) as if nothing has changed is itself a political statement, robbing the political realm of its totalizing claims for self-justification (enoughness!). We are citizens of another foreign land and owe allegiance to another King.

Even so, there is an unresolved question over whether the political witness of the church must, out of necessity, speak in the language of the political realm. The language of scripture, the liturgy, and the declaration of God’s saving act in Christ is not straightforwardly the language of politics, which speaks of equality, rights, oaths of office, the law of the land and constitutional obligations/freedoms. This difference of language should not be construed as a zero-sum game as the meaning and practice of grace is a challenge to the political ideologies of our day.

Bultmann opted to challenge the worldview of Nazism without ever naming the Führer and his henchmen. Wright, by contrast, would prefer to challenge Caesar directly. The difference between politics and religion is artificial and should be eliminated altogether.

Whether one follows Bultmann or Wright on this question, our protest against the world remains the same. I do not believe, however, there is a single answer for how this all works in practice. The variations of political responses correspond to the varieties of life and history we encounter. The political decisions we make are our own in faith. All who depend upon the same font of grace may use its water for many purposes. To be sure, there are many black-and-white issues which Christians should oppose, but charity and certainty of political beliefs are inversely proportional. We are all Christ’s, and it is to his gracious judgment that we must answer.

As Richard Niebuhr wrote, “we shall try to recognize our faithlessness, and in faith rely on the grace that will change our minds while, at the cost of innocent suffering, it heals the wounds we have inflicted and cannot heal.”

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3 responses to “Preaching Politically in Turbulent Times”

  1. Adam Morton says:

    Thanks much, Todd. This is altogether helpful.

  2. david says:

    “You really don’t believe in political solutions, do you?
    ” I believe in political solutions to political problems.
    But man’s primary problems aren’t political; they are
    philosophical. Until humans can solve their philosophical
    problems, they are condemned to solve their political
    problems over and over again. It’s a cruel, repetitious bore”

    Tom Robbins

  3. […] 7. A bit of a quick hitter …. The Wall Street Journal’s “Why Most Pastors Avoid Politics” was an interesting read, but is precisely the kind of explanation you’d find from a political scientist (Preachers don’t talk about politics because they want job security?). But perhaps preachers don’t talk about politics explicitly because the gospel they preach aims higher. […]

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