Christian Anarchy 6

Chapter Six

DIETRICH BONHOEFFER

In our first chapter I named both Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as more-or-less followers of the Blumhardts who, consequently, were themselves more-or-less anarchist. With Karl Barth, of course, I was dead wrong--there was no "more or less" about his anarchism. However, with Bonhoeffer, I was right. Nevertheless, he does have some things to say on the subject that merit attention.

My trouble with Bonhoeffer on Christian Anarchy is the same I have felt with him on radical discipleship: he is almost persuaded but can't get himself fully consistent. The first three parts of his Nachfolge (The Cost of Discipleship, Macmillan) is undoubtedly the classic work out of the entire tradition of radical discipleship. Yet when he comes to Part IV, on the church, he slides back into a formal, structured, established concept which I (for one at least) simply cannot reconcile with the disciple community of the forepart of his book. And it is the same thing again with "anarchy."

I find two major treatments of arky (or "the Sword") in Bonhoeffer. One is in Nachfolge (originally published in 1937) and one in his Ethics (Macmillan), written between 1940 and '43. As we have found regularly to be the case with our anarchists, he goes directly to Mark 12 and Romans 13. His Nachfolge treatment is a case of Christian Anarchy, clearly of a piece with what we already have seen. He is discussing the passage (1 Cor. 7:20-24) in which Paul counsels Christians to stay in that station of life in which they were called, specifically instructing the slave not to undertake all-out efforts get himself freed (counseling against revolt, if you will): "As a slave he is already torn from the world's clutches, and become a freedman of Christ. That is why the slave is told to stay as he is. As a member of the Body of Christ he has acquired a freedom which no rebellion or revolution could have brought him" (pp. 290-91). Christian Anarchy, as we have seen, is dedicated to the cause of human freedom. But, as a good anarchist, Bonhoeffer sees that true freedom, true liberation is not served by fighting the arkys, by rebelling against or trying to revolutionize them.

It is not as though St. Paul were trying to condone or gloss over a black spot in the social order. He does not mean the class-structure of secular society is so good and godly an institution that it would be wrong to upset it by revolution. The truth of the matter is that the whole world has already been turned upside down by the work of Jesus Christ, which has wrought a liberation for freeman and slave alike. A revolution would only obscure that divine New Order which Jesus Christ has established. It would also hinder and delay the disruption of the existing world order in the coming of the kingdom of God.... To renounce rebellion and revolution is the most appropriate way of expressing our conviction that the Christian hope is not set on this world, but on Christ and his kingdom. And so--let the slave remain a slave! It is not reform the world needs, for it is already ripe for destruction.... Therefore let not the slave suffer [even] in silent rebellion, but as a member of the Church and the Body of Christ. He will thereby hasten the end of the world. (pp. 291-92)

Bonhoeffer is powerful in showing that Christian Anarchy derives from the eschatological orientation of the gospel. Just as far as he is from blessing rebellion and revolution, so far is he from legitimizing the established arkys--and that combination is precisely what we mean by Christian Anarchy. When he says that revolution would "obscure the divine New Order," I take him to mean that revolution's strident assertion, condemnation, threat, challenge, and rage simply cannot be transparent to the kingdom of God. Such represents too contrary a spirit. For Christians simply to answer worldly politics with more politics, adding worldliness to worldliness--this can but hinder God's program of having worldliness wither away as it is overcome by good.

"'Become not the bondservants of men.' This [enslavement] can happen in two different ways. First, it may happen by a revolution and the overthrow of the established order, and secondly by investing the established order with a halo of spirituality" (p. 292). Either joining the arkys or fighting them spells enslavement to them; the only freedom is to ignore them and go with the Arky of God.

"The world exercises dominion by force and Christ and Christians conquer by service" (p. 293).

Regarding Romans 13, then, Bonhoeffer says:

[St. Paul's] concern is that the Christians should persevere in repentance and obedience wherever they may be and whatever conflict should threaten them. He is not concerned to excuse or to condemn any secular power. No State is entitled to read into St. Paul's words a justification of its own existence.... St. Paul certainty does not speak to the Christians in this way because the governments of this world are so good, but because the Church must obey the will of God, whether the State be bad or good. (p. 294)

Bonhoeffer makes it clear that the contextualist question about how well the state may or may not be behaving at the moment has nothing to do with Paul's counsel regarding it.

The whole of Paul's doctrine of the State in Romans 13 is controlled by the introductory admonition: "Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:21). It is immaterial whether the power be good or bad, what matters is that the Christian should overcome evil by good. The question of the payment of taxes to the Emperor was a point of temptation with the Jews. They pinned their hopes on the destruction of the Roman Empire, which would enable them to set up an independent dominion of their own. But for Jesus and his followers there was no need to be agitated over this question. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Matt. 22:21--or what we have been identifying as Mark 12), says Jesus. "For this cause pay ye tribute also" (Rom. 13:6), says St. Paul at the end of his exposition. So, far from contradicting the precept of our Lord, the Pauline charge is identical in meaning--the Christians are to give Caesar what belongs to him in any case.... To oppose or resist at this point would be to show a fatal inability to distinguish between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. (pp. 295-96)

I understand that last to mean: if a person thinks that withholding taxes--namely, a political power-play challenging the world's evil--bears any sort of relationship to the coming of God's kingdom, he is confused as to which kingdom-spirit he is representing. But for Bonhoeffer to join his fellow anarchists in centering on precisely those tax passages, and for him to agree completely that the issue is the disallowing of revolution as a Christian option--well, this gives Bonhoeffer as good credentials as any of the Christian anarchists we've seen.

If Bonhoeffer had had the sense to stop writing at that point, Christian Anarchy would still be where he stands. However, when we turn to his counterpart section in Ethics, things have changed. Bonhoeffer has lost his fine sense of balance between legitimization and revolution and slid to one side. And--would you believe it?--although in point of time he is approaching the moment when he voluntarily will choose actually to join a violent rebellion against the state (the plot to assassinate Hitler), his theological slide is the other way, namely, an interpretation that is strongly legitimizing both of church and state.

In that long treatment, he is still very strongly opposed to any sort of disobedience to either church or state--but I find virtually nothing to balance that up, no recognition that these arkys may themselves be as illegitimate and ungodly as all get out. I quote just one passage (the Ethics discussion of taxes) and assume you will be able to sense Bonhoeffer's change of attitude.

Disobedience can never be anything but a concrete decision in a single particular case [which case, he will tell us, is when the state in question can with certainty be identified as the apocalyptic Antichrist of the end-time]. Generalizations lead to an apocalyptic diabolization of government. It would, therefore, not be permissible to refuse to pay taxes to a government which persecuted the Church. Conversely, the fact of obedience to government in its political functions, payment of taxes, acceptance of loyalty oaths and military service, is always proof that this government is not yet understood in the sense of the apocalypse. An apocalyptic view of a particular concrete government would necessarily have total disobedience as its consequence. (p. 343)

Notice that Bonhoeffer here has moved entirely beyond Jesus' argument that taxes are a special case of what the Christian owes to the state--this, for the fact that the coins bear the image of Caesar, proving that they do indeed belong to him. On the contrary, Bonhoeffer's argument would seem to say that anything Caesar demands is legitimately owed to him: military service and, presumably, the pinch of incense, the silencing of the gospel, you name it. He comes close to saying that, because the state is God's instrument, Jesus' "Give to God the things that are God's" intends that you are to give to God by way of his intermediary Caesar--a rather clear case of legitimizing.

I read Bonhoeffer to say that any disobedience is allowable only if a person is fully convinced that we stand at the eschaton and that this state is actually the particularized embodiment of Antichrist, which is to say totally of evil, the very incarnation of the demonic (which, by the way, is a judgment I would think sinful human beings are hardly qualified to make). And, Bonhoeffer continues, if that state is Antichrist, then Christians dare not render it obedience in anything. If the state is not Antichrist, total obedience; if it is Antichrist, total disobedience--these are the only options Bonhoeffer considers. Thus he leaves himself no room for the other biblical command about our obeying God rather than man.

That makes for problems. Both Jesus and Paul tell their followers to pay taxes to the Roman Empire. For Bonhoeffer, this would have to mean that that state was not yet the apocalyptic Antichrist--in spite of its idolatrous worship, its crucifying of Jesus, its persecution of the church, its exorbitant taxation and actual enslavement of entire populations, its gross immorality, and its military cruelty culminating in the devastation of the Holy Land. Presumably, then, even that state legitimately claimed the total obedience of Christians. But how, then, would Bonhoeffer handle Paul's selective disobedience in refusing to stop preaching the gospel when that legitimate state ordered him to?

Bonhoeffer, of course, wrote this passage at the very time Nazism was at the height of its evil and at the very time Bonhoeffer was himself involved in a plot of ultimate rebellious disobedience against the state. (In 1941, two years before his arrest for complicity in the attempted assassination of Hitler, Bonhoeffer "traveled to Switzerland on a secret mission for the counter-espionage department. 'At that time Bonhoeffer spoke to me [namely, Karl Barth] of the plan to form a military government which would first of all halt the German troops'" [Busch, pp. 314-15].) So what did he mean to be telling his readers? Was he (1) exhorting them to be totally obedient to Nazi Germany? Or was he (2) setting that state up as the apocalyptic Antichrist and exhorting them to be totally disobedient to it? Bonhoeffer himself, of course, is not consistent with either of those options--and neither of them makes very good sense.

I am not surprised to find a conservative, legitimizing tendency surfacing in Bonhoeffer's thought. Whether or not his churchly Lutheranism had anything to do with it, he never showed any of the hilaritas of needling arky balloons that is so conspicuous in Kierkegaard and Barth and evident in other of our anarchists as well. Bonhoeffer often recognizes a certain "resident holiness" in the structures of church, state, and society that our other anarchists never see at all. For instance, taking simply Barth as representative of the entire anarchist group, he is entirely committed to the holiness of God. Consequently, when it is a matter of this holy God being present with his gathered people, obviously something holy is transpiring there as well. In this sense (but only in this sense) Barth fully accepts the holiness of the church. But that this somehow carries over into a resident holiness within the human, arky power structures into which the church has organized itself--this Barth (and all true Christian anarchists) would fundamentally deny. Yet I am not as certain Bonhoeffer would.

So I am not surprised at Bonhoeffer's conservative legitimizing; it is the sequence of his positions of which I can make neither head nor tail. If, under the growing evil of Nazism, he had gone from conservative legitimizing to Christian Anarchy to violent revolution, that would be quite understandable. But, under the growth of Nazism, to go from Christian Anarchy then to conservative legitimism and from that to violent revolution ... well, I don't know.

During the summer of 1943, from the prison where he was under detention, Bonhoeffer wrote a paper addressed to the judge advocate of his case. In it he defended his actions and his relationship to the government. He cited his Christian-Anarchy treatment of Romans 13 from Nachfolge but not his legitimizing treatment from Ethics--which, of course, would have been the piece showing him the more strongly committed to total obedience to the state. Strange! (Letters and Papers from Prison [Macmillan], p. 60).

Bonhoeffer's participation in the plot plainly is at odds with his stated positions regarding government--but I don't know that this inevitably creates a theological dilemma. We have spotted a similar contradiction in Barth (and probably could in almost any thinker). However, regarding Bonhoeffer, Barth, and any similar instances, perhaps our rule ought to be: Inconsistencies are not to be read as signaling theological change unless accompanied by explicit rationalizations and explanations indicating the same. Under the pressure of events, any of us can wind up acting below the level of our best understanding. I contend that Barth and Bonhoeffer show up as true proponents of Christian Anarchy in spite of all.


This book set out to be a study of Christian Anarchy. It was no part of its design, nor did I foresee, that it would also address the issue of tax-withholding. I take no responsibility for the fact that that has happened. The fault lies squarely with Jesus--and with Paul for having followed his lead. It was they who chose tax-withholding as the symbol of the revolutionist arky faith their Christian Anarchy was intent to reject. That is why later anarchists can't develop the biblical bases of their position without running into the issue. However, now that we are well into it, we might as well finish the job.

To this point, we have encountered the exegeses and expositions of Jacques Ellul, Martin Hengel, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These people show remarkable agreement upon a quite original line of interpretation. But, lo and behold, it may have been that ancient anarchist Søren Kierkegaard who founded the school thought. His word comes in Training in Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1944), pp. 169-70:

What could [Jesus] do with kingly power who was the most indifferent of all men with respect to everything worldly? The small nation to which he belonged was under foreign domination, and naturally all were intent upon the thought of shaking off the hated yoke. Hence they would acclaim him king. But, lo, when they show him a coin and would constrain him against his will to take sides with one party or the other--what then? Oh, worldly passion of partisanship, even when thou callest thyself holy and national [patriotic]--nay, so far thou canst not stretch as to ensnare [shake] his indifference. He asks, "Whose image is this that is stamped upon the coin?" They answer, "The Emperor's." [Says he,] "Then give to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and to God what is God's." Infinite indifference! Whether the Emperor be called Herod or Shalmanezer, whether he be Roman or Japanese, is to him the most indifferent of all things. But, on the other hand--the infinite yawning difference which he posits between God and the Emperor: "Give unto God what is God's!" For they with worldly wisdom would make it a question of religion, of duty to God, whether [or not] it was lawful to pay tribute to the Emperor. Worldliness is so eager to embellish itself as godliness, and in this case God and the Emperor are blended together in the question, as if these two had obviously and directly something to do with each other, as if perhaps they were rivals one of the other, and as if God were a sort of emperor--that is to say, the question takes God in vain and secularizes him [by implying that whether God does or does not get what belongs to him is a question of the kind as to whether or not the Emperor gets the tax coin belonging to him]. But Christ draws the distinction, the infinite distinction, and he does this by treating the question about paying tribute to the Emperor as the most indifferent thing in the world, regarding it as something which one should do without wasting a word or an instant in talking about it--so as to get more time for giving unto God what is God's.

"Thus Kierkegaard doth make cowards of us all." He not only said it first; he said it best. Why, for instance, should he get the honor of seeing that the Mark 12 passage belongs in the revolutionary setting of first-century Palestine and deals with the issue of revolution--when, in his day, the science of biblical studies wasn't even far enough advanced to tell us that finding the historical setting is the way one is supposed to go about understanding a text? Why should a rank amateur get to make that discovery, when it was something that should have been left for the likes of Martin Hengel?

"Oh, worldly passion of partisanship [which leaves my phrase "human arky faith" looking pretty weak], even when thou callest thyself holy or patriotic--nay, so far thou canst not stretch as to shake his indifference." Surely, "infinite indifference" beats even Barth's as the very term for describing Jesus' unarkyness. Kierkegaard also beat Barth to the punch in his refusal to bridge between God and the emperor, theology and politics, divine activity and human activity, God's arky and human arky. He saw that the tax-withholders' sanctifying of their political revolution as being of God is just as much "worldliness embellishing itself as godliness" as is the legitimizers' sanctifying of the political establishment as being of God. Well put, that! He also sees that it is "to take God in vain and secularize him" whenever we suggest that he must stand on one side or the other of our political quarrels. No, on this one, ours is a God of infinite indifference. So let Caesar have his coin without even taking time to talk about it. Rather, from you, the word should be: Takes all a' my time to praise my Jesus--all a' my time to praise my Lord. If I don' praise him, the rocks goin' a cry out, Glory and honor! Glory and honor! Ain't got time to die.

I am not offering to research the matter, but my guess is that, under the total and long-time impress of arky dominance, the as-much-as-unanimous interpretation of Mark 12 and Romans 13 has been a legitimizing one. Jesus' and Paul's counsels to pay one's taxes, therefore, undoubtedly have been seen as entirely obvious and unexceptional--to the point of actually being superfluous. The state and church being holy arkys of God, nonpayment and revolution would, of course, be unthinkable. What else could Jesus or Paul conceivably have told us, except to pay our taxes?

Our anarchist tradition, then, has come along to break that earlier interpretation wide open and stand it on its head. Jesus and Paul are not out to legitimize the arkys but to argue God's illegitimizing of them. Suddenly, this has the effect of making their commands to pay taxes surprising, unexpected, and hard to understand--this, instead of reasonable and obvious. "If the established arkys are illegitimate before God, then surely we good Christians should be out resisting them, challenging them, fighting them, replacing them, transforming them." But, "NO!" come back Jesus and Paul, "if God has illegitimized the establishment arkys, he has illegitimized the revolutionary arkys in the same move. He is not about to take political sides. Rather, he is calling his people to stay completely out of that power contest--that contest of which tax-withholding is just as much a part as tax-legitimizing is."

It strikes me that, on every count--whether technical exegesis of the texts, historical probability, congruence with the total gospel, or theological consistency--the anarchistic interpretation is completely superior to and more accurate than the classic, legitimizing one. But a third exegesis--which I have frequently heard claimed but never seen produced--is one that would meet all the above tests and come out showing that Jesus and Paul would want to be understood as actually recommending that we withhold taxes from the current U.S. Government.


Although I do not find them offering any particularly original exegesis of our texts, we might take a moment to put the Anabaptists into the picture. A number of years ago, as part of an official Church of the Brethren position paper on the subject, I researched the entire Brethren history (from 1708 on) regarding its views on tax-withholding. The results then won the approbation of Donald Durnbaugh, the acknowledged expert on Brethren history. Some Brethren scholars have said they thought they could document that some Brethren individuals withheld taxes during the Revolutionary War, though I have not seen where any did so document. Yet, that matter quite aside, what is plain is that, up until very recent times, every official Brethren statement and every statement by a Brethren official has understood the Scriptures as opposing tax-withholding rather than encouraging it.

I cannot speak with the same authority regarding the various Mennonite and Hutterite bodies. Yet my impression is that the case would be the same there as with the Brethren. However, regarding Anabaptist origins, I do know that--in Anabaptism in Outline (Herald Press), the most comprehensive survey of early Anabaptist writings yet done--Editor Walter Klaassen, without hesitation, Says: "Because the government was instituted by God and acted in God's stead, it had to be obeyed. Taxes and dues should be paid without resistance. (Only the Hutterites refused to pay taxes for war or the executioner)" (p. 244). My guess is that, by the time we get into official institutional positions, these groups would show up as consistently opposing withholding as have the Brethren.

I do not mean to imply that the Anabaptists already possessed the same interpretation of Mark 12 and Romans 13 that we have found in our scholars. My guess is that it rather has been the case that the Anabaptists (a persecuted people, remember) existentially sensed the illegitimacy of the arkys and so intuitively resisted any legitimizing interpretations of the texts. For the rest, the sheer desire to be biblically obedient would have them paying their taxes--without even trying to think through all the whys and wherefores. They were Christian anarchists, not by thinking out a theological position, but simply in the process of being as biblically obedient as they knew how to be.

It is indisputable, then, that among the Anabaptists of both Brethren and Mennonite background, the greatest pressure, promotion, and argument for tax-withholding has come just exactly now. There is no evidence that it is a result of new biblical insight. That third, pro-withholding exegesis of the texts has not been forth-coming. What, then, does this about-face in the Anabaptist position signify? The only way I can understand it is that we are trading our Christian-anarchist tradition for a contemporary liberal Christian-revolutionist one. I would be happy to hear another explanation.