I’m almost embarrassed to put this up, because it still feels half-baked, more an outline of thoughts rather than a coherent, well-developed essay–take, for instance, that I included Metaxas’s biography in the works cited page but did not actually use it in the body, and that the color-theme is virtually invisible except for the introduction and conclusion. But, in the end, it was what I had, and as far as content, it did contain most of what I was hoping to say, even if not presented as well as it might have been.
THE COLOR OF DISCIPLESHIP: BONHOEFFER, NAZISM, AND THE THEOLOGY OF NACHFOLGE
“L’amour est bleu,” asserts the classic Vicky Leandros song of that name, which speaks of some of the emotional aspects of this virtue in a language of color and image. Modern western popular culture often affirms the supremacy of love, but radical individualism has also given us an inheritance of balking at devotion and its ultimate form, discipleship.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Nachfolge, or The Cost of Discipleship (1937), outlines a pattern for the Christian life that is rooted in the practice of following the person of Jesus Christ. His era, in Germany, was one of the search for a creed after the spiritual failure of Western civilization in the Great War. The creed that was accepted by Germany in the end was that of Nazism, and Bonhoeffer was destroyed by his unwillingness to compromise his unwavering allegiance to the Christ. In this essay I will discuss this allegiance, in particular contrasting it to the Nazi creed, and address the interpretation of discipleship and the devotion of love that I have received through my own experience.
At a glance, Bonhoeffer’s life seems a failure. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Confessing Church but did not survive the second world war to rebuild German Christianity. He was executed before he could be married or have children, and he was young enough that we have perhaps a third of what he might have written had he lived to old age. But he taught a different Gospel than that of earthly prosperity—his was the Gospel of martyrs and soldiers and apostles. His Gospel was Spartan in the sense that it was one of whole-minded devotion to its source and object. As he declared in Nachfolge, “Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.”
National Socialism, or Nazism, pressed its messianic vision of racial and cultural purity in the German government. Among a disillusioned, purposeless people, Hitler boldly demanded the devotion, almost the worship, of him and his ideal. With his charisma and vision, many leaped at the opportunity to believe. In 1932, Hitler announced, “Where is the organization which can boast, as ours can, that at need it can summon 400,000 men into the street, men who are schooled to blind obedience and are ready to execute any order?” He added, “[T]he more you bring the people back into the sphere of faith, of ideals, the more it will cease to regard material distress as the one and only thing that counts…. Then you will understand how mighty is the force of an idea, of an ideal.”
So these two paths out of apathy and meaninglessness were presented to Germany, and of course Germany eventually accepted Hitler’s vision over Bonhoeffer’s. But there was a fundamental difference, not only in object, but in the kinds of devotion that were demanded by each path. A few obvious aspects exist: Bonhoeffer’s focus was on the individual, and Nazism on the masses; Bonhoeffer exalted God above all else, and Nazism the State and the Race.
There is another aspect in which the discipleship of Bonhoeffer was distinct from the fanaticism of the Nazis. The Nazi ideal was one of power and mercilessness, the triumph of the ubermensch. It rose from the inward being outward. But Bonhoeffer taught submission to the Master, not merely blind obedience. The Christian following the path of discipleship will be like the Master. The Nazi following the path of Hitler becomes a pawn in the overarching scheme, of no good to himself or to anyone but those in the cause he exalts. Nazism was based in a hollow ideal, and one that failed by any standard. But Bonhoeffer followed his God, and met Him, and has assisted others to meet Him.
Is discipleship another kind of fanaticism? Is it as dangerous as Nazism for its ability to consume and transform? Both practically demanded that the soul be given up. But Nazism stole the soul, while the Christ transformed it, for Christian discipleship is based in the flow of love. Bonhoeffer became a part of the communion of God and did not eat at the table of Nazism, and this endured beyond death. His devotion was one of love, not of a cause alone but of a person, and that a person who transcends the world by His nature. The character of this love, which exists in God and by God’s grace indwells us also, is profound.
C. S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves distinguishes between affection, friendship, eros, and charity. When he comes to friendship, he comments that:
[W]e must notice that Friendship is very rarely the image under which Scripture represents the love between God and Man. It is not entirely neglected; but far more often, seeking a symbol for the highest love of all, Scripture ignores this seemingly almost angelic relation and plunges into the depth of what is most natural and instinctive. Affection is taken as the image when God is represented as our Father; Eros, when Christ is represented as the Bridegroom of the Church.
This is a valid point. The profound love is often represented to us as affection, eros, or charity/agape. C. S. Lewis returns to the question with this hypothesis:
[Friendship] is already, in actual fact, too spiritual to be a good symbol of Spiritual things. The highest does not stand without the lowest. God can safely represent Himself to us as Father and Husband because only a lunatic would thin that He is physically our sire or that His marriage with the Church is other than mystical. But if Friendship were used for this purpose we might mistake the symbol for the thing symbolised. The danger inherent in it would be aggravated. We might be further encouraged to mistake that nearness (by resemblance) to the heavenly life which Friendship certainly displays for a nearness of approach.
So Christ calls His disciples literally His friends, and if earthly friendships might be mistaken for the divine, so must the actual divine love be surpassing all mortal loves. The love of God encompasses all analogy-loves on earth, and it is the inheritance of the disciple.
A while back I was discussing the search for knowledge with another student, and, as often happens in philosophical discussion, I soon started saying things I didn’t know I knew, but which I believe to be true and important. The struggle of life, the struggle of discipleship, is not really after esoteric knowledge. We are not on earth for the mere purpose of refining our virtues or gaining skills. We are after the ultimate reality, the transforming wisdom, Sophia—the person of the Christ. Bonhoeffer wrote:
To be conformed to the image of Christ is not an ideal to be striven after. It is not as though we had to imitate him as well as we could. We cannot transform ourselves into his image; it is rather the form of Christ which seeks to be formed in us (Gal. 4:19), and to be manifested in us. Christ’s work in us is not finished until he has perfected his own form in us. We must be assimilated to the form of Christ in its entirety, the form of Christ incarnate, crucified and glorified.
We follow a person; we are not first trying to match up to an ideal. Everything else is merely a particle on that path, an atomy lost in the fullness of this pursuit in love. It is discipleship, which is not like academia. And it hurts.
Why must it be “tough love”? Why did Bonhoeffer have to suffer and die? Why is this so integral to discipleship? There is a curious passage in Isaiah that really struck me when I read it for probably the third or fourth time, chapter 26, verse 10. There the prophet seems to pity the wicked, for they do not “perceive the majesty of the Lord,” as they are given temporary worldly favor and do not experience His judgments or the search of a righteous soul. They are unable to see God because they refuse to look into his harsher side, whereas, in the preceding verses, the soul that seeks Him knows the “way of [His] judgments.” God’s punishment of Israel was always a mercy, for by it they were sustained throughout the ages. The so-called trinity of Hinduism includes Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva the destroyer. But our one God is also a restorer.
However, we cannot say, and Bonhoeffer never tried to say, that the judgments of God alone account for our suffering. His love is revealed in the suffering that comes outside of our evil also, in our participation in the burden of Christ. Bonhoeffer followed the Master to the grave, and it was worth following Him there for that—for His yoke is easy beside the yoke of sin, and the disciple who follows his Master to the grave will follow Him coming out of it.
Also, Bonhoeffer also considered suffering and rejection in itself a victory. “Suffering willingly endured,” he wrote, “is stronger than evil, it spells death to evil.” So Christ was victorious by his submission. So we are victorious in Him, by submitting to His will and His hard path. Nazism was based on an ideal of non-submission, and its proud obduracy collapsed in the end.
To summarize all that has been said thus far, the discipleship of Bonhoeffer partakes in a kind of divine love which sets it apart from all other creeds and is diametrically opposed to Nazism, the alternative of his day. Suffering is important because it allows us to participate in the passion and victory of the Christ and see the majesty of God in its fullness. Isaiah asks, “Who among us can live with the consuming fire? Who among us can live with the continual burning?” The answer is, “He who walks righteously and speaks with sincerity” (33:14-15). To approach the complex unity, the perfection and holiness, of our Master Christ is, in a sense, deadly. But we are not destroyed, but sanctified, by the fire of God’s love.
I have learned the assurance of this only through experience. This past year has been turbulent for me in many ways, not least because it is my last at Belhaven, which has adopted me and taught me much over the last three years. But through it all I grew quickly in my maturity and relationship with God. There was one week in which it seemed that all I had ever known about God came together, and I could almost see Him. I gained new hope in areas of my life where I had grown tired of defeat. I could not have realized at the time what a blessing it was that I was driven through it, or I could not have attained even the still-imperfect state of relationship I have with God even now. I expect, but not with dread, that more trials will buffet, for I know that they are the path of the Master, in whose image I shall be shaped.
This is why I can call my sufferings, even those caused by my own sin, “for the Christ’s sake,” because they are indeed part of my discipleship, and by them I know that I am a disciple. I am honored, for not all have been forced to turn away from the milk of the faith to heavier things. I know far too many shallow Christians who refuse to look into, as Isaiah says, the judgments of God and see Him there; I was not allowed to be among them, and now, by being broken, I see Him everywhere. I have known God all my life in the sense that I accepted His grace, but it was not until recently that I could say with confidence that I know Him and love Him. Isaiah declares chapter 45, “Truly, You are a God who hides Himself,” but adds that ultimately Israel “will not be put to shame or humiliated to all eternity.”
As a final illustration, I wish to take a fairy story-with-a-story told in George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind by Mr. Raymond called “Little Daylight.” This tells of a princess cursed with sleeping all day long, but being awake all night. As the moon waxes and wanes, so she grows older and younger. A prince met her one night in the woods, and she immediately wanted to hear him tell her what the sun looked like. He tells her, “[It is] as bright as the lightning…. It shines like the moon, rises and sets like the moon, is much the same shape as the moon, only so bright that you can’t look at it for a moment.” The fearless princess responds, “But I would look at it.” The story concludes when the prince comes across the princess when she is in the form of an old woman and, out of pity while not recognizing her, kisses the old woman’s body. Daylight changes back to her young and beautiful form, and after kissing the prince again in this form, faces the morning and murmurs, “Is that the sun coming?”
This story illustrates a kind of divine love. Daylight cannot see the sun, and her desire is so fierce that she believes she could look into the sun. Under the curse, she is worthless to the world and unable to see the primal glory. The prince kisses her ugly form so that when she wakes, she is restored body and soul. The disciple, too, follows the sun out of the darkness, though the sun cannot be looked at; Bonhoeffer was made beautiful by the extension of divine love, and at the last he saw the sun. When I approach my art, the truth I know, and which is most genuine, is that of the essentially tough love of the divine and the way it pierces the world.
Bonhoeffer’s life may have seemed like it amounted to little. But his entire life is an illustration of this divine love, a victorious counter to the harsh lesson of Nazism. There are elements in his theology about which I am hesitant, but this fundamental of discipleship, I believe, he got right in all its profundity and simplicity. We are followers after a person. The love of God is a hard love, and beautiful, and therefore poignant. It also, in its fullness, comprises discipleship. It demands devotion, and when rightly understood, it will receive it. For it is sky-vast and burning, piercing like the heart of a flame. L’amour est bleu.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Edited by Geffrey B. Kelley and F. Burton Nelson. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.
Hitler, Adolf. “Address to the Industry Club.” Edited by Raoul de Roussey de Sales. In Kaes, 138-141.
Kaes, Anton, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimenberg, eds. The Weimar Republic Sourcebook. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, Ltd., 1995.
Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960.
Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelley and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), 312.
 Adolf Hitler, “Address to the Industry Club,” ed. Raoul de Roussey de Sales, in Kaes, 140.
 Ibid., 140-141.
 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), 112-113.
 Ibid., 124.
 Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom, 321.
 Ibid., 317.