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Eberhard Bethge On American and German Christianity

Here is a quote from John de Gruchy’s excellent biography of Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s closest friend. It is almost entirely due to the tireless work of Bethge that Bonhoeffer’s works are available and known throughout the world. Bethge dedicated his life to making Bonhoeffer’s work available, working with the World Council of Churches and took an important role in aiding the church in South Africa in the struggle against Apartheid. His witness is a powerful, if little known story. I highly recommend de Gruchy’s biography of him.

Here’s the quote:

Staying in Lynchburg, the headquarters of the Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, also provided an opportunity for them [the Bethges] to experience the heartbeat of American fundamentalism. The Bethges were particularly bothered by what they experienced when they visited Falwell’s church because so much that was referred to as ‘American Christianity’ reminded them of aspects of the German Christianity of the 1930s. Eberhard later wrote,

As we entered the foyer, an usher stepped forward and gave me two badges to fasten to my lapel: the on on the left said, Jesus First and on the right, one with an American flag…I could not help but think myself in Germany in 1933…Of course, ‘Jesus First’, but and American Jesus! And so to the long history of faith and its executors another chapter is being added of a mixed image of Christ, of another syncretism on the American model, undisturbed by and knowledge of that centuries-long and sad history.

Bethge added some remarks that have an uncanny contemporary ring to them:

The disturbing fact is this new element, the battle for a ‘Christian nation’ against humanism. The flag has always been in the churches, but now it has come to represent the new threat of binding the political structure to an ideology, which models a whole new educational system, and a new kind of representation in Washington, and a newly interpreted Constitution.

For Bethge, who had a great love for the United States and the democratic vision of its Founding Fathers, and who enjoyed visiting there, these signs were disturbing. He could only hope that they would not develop along the lines he feared they might.

(John W. de Gruchy, Daring, Trusting Spirit: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Friend Eberhard Bethge [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005], 200-201.)

Unfortunately, I fear that Bethge’s fears for America have begun to be realized. In an age of nationalism and uncritical patriotism in the churches in America we must all ask ourselves how close we are to becoming no different than the German Christians of Bonhoeffer’s and Bethge’s day. May God have mercy on us and forgive us and give us the strength to speak the truth to powers and embody the life of the kingdom of God though it send us to the cross or the gallows.


  1. Deadeye Dick wrote:

    Bethge via de Gruchy is right on. I have had the privilege of meeting both men and greatly respect what they have done. I have studied a lot of modern German history and I recognize some real parallels in the behavior of the “evangelical” church in America today and how their theological counterparts acted in 1933. However, when I say this, I am accused of being “shrill,” but I intend to keep on talking. No one could be accused more of being “shrill” that George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld at the American Legion Convention in Salt Lake City this week. We are living in desperate times and we must speak up.

    Friday, September 1, 2006 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  2. Discerner of The Times wrote:

    your article reminds me of and other guests that have been on SonLife Radio.

    He’s right… American churches are becoming a political change agent for One World Government and they don’t even see it.

    Saturday, March 10, 2007 at 6:48 am | Permalink

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