Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death are powerful witness to what it means to "put first things first." Although it was never his overriding theological concern to work out the connections between the City of Man and the Kingdom of God, he never confused the two, as became clear when the issue was forced upon him during the dark night of National Socialism in Germany and Marxism–Leninism in the Soviet Union. The menace Bonhoeffer confronted directly was, of course, Nazism. As the vast majority of his countrymen and, shamefully, his coreligionists either made their peace with Nazism or actively promoted its advance, Bonhoeffer first demurred, then resisted, and finally moved into the active opposition that cost him his life.
Were Bonhoeffer among us today, he would insist that his opposition was much easier to understand than was the German obedience and enthrallment with Nazism or the active courting of the Nazi regime by the so–called "German Christians." Many have seen the behavior of the state–worshiping "German Christians" as the ultimate outcome of Luther’s doctrine of the "two kingdoms." Luther saw the need for rules and rulers as God’s punishment for human wickedness, and insisted as a consequence that believers ought to obey the rules unless ordered to explicitly deny the faith. Some alleged that this view gave nearly unchecked earthly or "profane" power to rulers. Their domain grew as the Church’s domain shrank. Unsurprising, then, that when the crunch came it was all too easy to capitulate and to see in Hitlerism an avatar of a specifically German brand of Christian particularism.
Bonhoeffer resisted this reading of Luther with all his strength in his unfinished Ethics. He argued that in condemning the state idolatry represented by Nazism, he was acting out of faithfulness to his tradition rather than in opposition to it. He rejected the sort of vulgarization of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms that holds that there are two spheres, "the one divine, holy, supernatural, and Christian, and the other worldly, profane, natural, and un–Christian." This reading of Luther’s doctrine, shaped (or deformed) by the Enlightenment’s apotheosis of reason in opposition to faith, finalized the severing of that which was "Christian" from that which was "profane." The upshot over time was that human beings came to see the worldly domain as one in which they reigned as masters. The roots of totalitarianism lay in uninhibited human striving and willing, in which man begins to adore himself, denies the Cross, denies the Mediator and Reconciler, and has fallen out with the created world.
Bonhoeffer insists that deifying man’s sovereignty promotes Western godlessness. Faithfulness to Luther, rightly understood, requires that we accept our status as creatures whose actions are always partial and limited. We must distinguish the legitimate order of government from perversions which lead that order to overstep its appropriate boundaries. Legitimate government involves responsibility for limited tasks; within its limits and under normal circumstances, we do owe it obedience. But we do not owe government our very selves. The individual’s "duty of obedience is binding . . . until government directly compels him to offend against divine commandment, that is to say, until government openly denies its divine commission and thereby forfeits its claims. . . . If government violates or exceeds its commission at any point . . . then at this point, indeed, obedience is to be refused, for conscience’s sake, for the Lord’s sake."
Government, then, is neither to be "diabolized" nor idolized. Religious belief always relativizes the claims of public life even as it calls us into stewardship and communal life. To sustain and support this balance, a strong and robust theology is necessary. Such a theology is conservative in the sense of claiming and clinging to what Bonhoeffer, in his prison letters, called the "full content" of the New Testament, for "the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection, etc.) is the thing itself."
Because Bonhoeffer never penned a full–fledged justification of his refusal to obey the Nazi state and his determination to resist even unto death, he has been turned by too many into a kind of all–purpose resister or radical. This he was not. He was a courageous man and serious theologian who saw such resistance as a tragic exception—a dire necessity—but only when it was clear that this state at this time had, indeed, become diabolical. But each state at any time must be viewed with a skepticism burnished by faith, a skepticism that helps to sustain a certain distance from any center of human power but especially that power lodged in an entity that is, as Max Weber had it, the legitimate repository of the means of violence. The state always bears watching.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.