In a sermon on May 28, 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “What is the use of the church, if [is it] only left to wait? No, our church ought to have something. We want to see something in our church…The priest is not driven out, he is told: “Do your duty!” “Preserve religion for the people, give them worship services”…[Aaron] looks to his office, to his consecration, he looks to the people. He understands their impatience, they thirst for action, and their pious raging only too well – and he yields…
“The human race is ready for any sacrifice in which it may celebrate itself and worship its own work…” Quoted by Eberhard Bethge in his book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Biography; pages 282 – 283.
I hope I have repented of trying to make things happen in the Kingdom of God. I hope I have repented of trying to take the place of God among the people of God. I hope I have repented of trying to create a certain experience. I hope I have repented of not abiding in the Vine. And I hope I have repented of making golden calves.
We condemn idol makers, and yet what idols do we make and worship? Ours can be more entertaining, more seducing, more acceptable, more pragmatic, than little figurines or towering statues. There is nothing quite like the idol of the heart, and within the temple of the heart there is nothing quite like the idol of self. Yes, we want to celebrate ourselves and worship our works – we will not wait for God, we will not wait for Christ – and so we wander – never entering the inheritance but always deceiving ourselves that our next idol will be the solution to our problems, that it will bring us to the pinnacle of success, that it represents the portal into the promised land.
Sadly, one of the idols we contend with is the politicizing of the church – we abandon our prophetic calling for the allure of the political arena; we drape the Cross of Christ with nationalism and in doing so cloak the Cross in darkness, obscuring its message. We evoke the idol of mythical national history without critique, demanding prophets who tell us what we want to hear, that which justifies our own thinking and which spares us Biblical reflection. We engage in eisegesis with the Bible and with history – we are the great manipulators. Those who call us to critique are met with aspersions and sarcasm – no matter their credentials – they are accused of having “agendas” when all they ask us to do is to examine the facts – to at least be open to the possibility that there may be more to the story.
A couple of years ago I read a popular biography of Bonhoeffer [not the one by Eberhard Bethge]. It was so poorly written that I had to force myself to read it. Last year, when I discussed it with a friend whom I respect and found that he liked the book I decided to read it again – maybe my first impressions were wrong. The second time around I found the book just as poorly written, both from a literary perspective and from an historical one. Little wonder that Bonhoeffer scholars and historians have problems with this particular biography, suggesting that the author created Bonhoeffer in an American evangelical image. This same author now has a popular book about America and God and liberty; and even though historians such as Robert Tracey McKenzie (Wheaton College) and John Fea (Messiah College) have, I think, demonstrated flaws in the book, there are people reading the book who not only do not want to consider any critique of the book, some have attacked these historians – not with reasoned historical analysis, but rather with sarcasm and belittlement.
The context of Bonhoeffer’s sermon was the alignment of the German church with Nazism – draping the Cross with the flag. Bonhoeffer was in the minority of pastors and theologians in standing against this alignment. Most of us have either worshipped, or been tempted to worship, at the Golden Calf of mythological nationalistic history – this is history that either does not recognize the sin of the nation, or minimizes national sin. I have worshipped that calf.
Whether is it religious activity, the pressure to be religiously successful, the desire for numbers at the expense of people actually knowing Jesus Christ in discipleship; or the intoxication of political power and nationalistic fever that lacks repentance, holiness, righteousness, and justice – I hope I have repented of this…for I have worshipped at these altars, and sadly have at times been vehement that others worship with me…thereby missing the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ.
Only Jesus Christ can justify us; not our religious activity and success, and certainly not our national history.