Common Grounds

Theology in the Shadow of the Holocaust: Revisiting Bonhoeffer and the Jews

June 21, 2022

Source: Theology Today


By Mark Braverman

Research Fellow at the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology, Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University

Theology in the Shadow of the Holocaust: Revisiting Bonhoeffer and the Jews


The scholarship on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jews has focused on two questions: (1) To what extent did the persecution of the Jews drive Bonhoeffer's actions with respect to the Third Reich, and (2) Did Bonhoeffer's theology of Judaism and the Jewish people undergo a change as a result of the Nazi program of persecution and extermination? The work ranges from writers who reject the hagiography of a Bonhoeffer who for the sake of the Jews joined the resistance and paid the ultimate price, to those who argue that the persecution of the Jews was key in the development of Bonhoeffer's theology and his resistance to National Socialism. Bonhoeffer biographer Eberhard Bethge figured large in this second group; Bethge's work in this area coincided with his involvement in Christian post-Holocaust theology, an expression of the intensely philojudaic theology that emerged in the West following World War II. Driven by the desire to atone for millennia of anti-Jewish doctrine and action, post-Holocaust theology has exerted a strong influence on Bonhoeffer scholarship. The argument of this article is that the postwar focus on Christian anti-Judaism has led the church away from confronting the exceptionalism that persists in Christian identity and teaching. In its penitential zeal, the postwar project to renounce church anti-Judaism has instead replaced it with a Judeo-Christian triumphalism and a theological embrace of political Zionism that betray fundamental gospel principles. These run counter to the passionate opposition to the merger of hyper-nationalism and religion that informs Bonhoeffer's radical, humanistic Christology. Fashioning Bonhoeffer as a martyr for the Jews and as a forerunner of post-Holocaust theology does damage to the legacy of his theology and distorts the lessons of his life and witness. This carries implications for the role of the church in confronting the urgent issues of our time.




Bethge, Bonhoeffer, post-holocaust theology, Holocaust studies, Shoah, Christian Jewish relations, interfaith relations


Who is going to take this guilt away from us and our theological fathers—because there it started. How can the German people that has initiated the fruitless rebellion against Israel and his God become pure?

Hans Joachim Iwand

Christianity must refer to Judaism in order to make sense of itself. This is in the service of the church's reversal of its position on Judaism from that of anti-Judaism to that of an acknowledgement of the eternal covenant between God and Israel.

Paul van Buren

Jews were compelled by events to accept themselves as singled out by the most elemental moral necessity…a new reason for reaffirming the age-old doctrine of the divine covenant with Israel.

Emil Fackenheim

My biography carries the burden of the Shoah.

Eberhard Bethge

          Three-quarters of a century ago, Christian Europe stood before the ovens and stacked bodies of the death camps and said, “What have we done?” What followed was a mission to purge Christianity of its anti-Jewish teaching and to build bridges of dialogue and reconciliation with the Jewish people. This penitential project spread West, particularly to the United States, exerting a profound influence on Christian theology that continues to this day. For Protestant theologian Paul van Buren, quoted above, correcting for millennia of church sins against the Jews became a litmus test for the legitimacy of Christian theology and for Christianity itself. Catholic theologian Gregory Baum declared in 1995 that “if the Church wants to clear itself of the anti-Jewish trends built into its teaching…[i]t must examine the very center of its proclamation and reinterpret the meaning of the gospel for our times.”1 It is upon this stage that the debate about Bonhoeffer and the Jews has unfolded. The position of this article is that the focus on anti-Judaism by Christian theologians in the post-World War II era has led the church away from confronting difficult truths about the nature of Christian identity and teaching. With respect to the question of Israel and the Palestinians, it has brought the church, to its peril, to the embrace of apartheid in our time. Fashioning Bonhoeffer as a martyr for the Jews and as a forerunner of post-Holocaust theology does damage to the legacy of his theology and distorts the lessons of his life and witness. 


          I come to the writing of this article as a Jew born in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, steeped in the consciousness of the Holocaust and raised in the potent combination of Rabbinic Judaism and political Zionism that has become the norm for Jews across the denominational spectrum.2 I was taught that I was blessed to have been born at a time when my people had been redeemed from 2,000 years of marginalization, humiliation, and slaughter. But over time I chafed at the identity of victimhood and the brittle exceptionalism that seemed intended to define me. Among the goyim—the Yiddish word for gentiles—who threatened my existence there were two peoples who stood out for my generation: the Germans, because of what they had done to us, and the Arabs, because of what they would do to us if we didn’t have the State of Israel. It was grace that in midlife brought me to Palestine to meet this purported enemy. In a miraculous irony, it was the Palestinian Christians who showed me the way to the core of my Jewishness by introducing me to a Palestinian Jew of 2,000 years ago. The gospel narrative of Jesus, speaking truth to the Jewish establishment that had betrayed the justice tradition of Torah by throwing in with the Empire, spoke strongly to me as a Jew horrified and heartbroken by what was being done by the State of Israel in my name. Having been thus changed and tested by this crisis, it was only a matter of time until I encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The position I take in this article will undoubtedly challenge the beliefs and assumptions of readers both Christian and Jewish. I honor the conversation about Zionism that is taking place within the Jewish community as well as the struggle unfolding within the many-chambered house of the church in response to growing awareness of Israel's human rights crimes.3 It is crucial that this debate take place, not only for the sake of the Palestinians and the Jews, but because its implications extend beyond one contested territory and the liberation of one particular people.

A Contested Legacy

Stephen Haynes’s The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives takes up the two questions that have driven the scholarship on Bonhoeffer and the Jews:


1. To what extent did the persecution of the Jews drive Bonhoeffer's actions with respect to the Third Reich?

2. Did Bonhoeffer's theology of Judaism and the Jewish people change as a result of the Nazi program of persecution and extermination?4

Before discussing Haynes’s analysis and conclusions, I turn to the issue flagged in the book's subtitle, “Post-Holocaust Perspectives.” With these words Haynes has properly framed the discussion. He observes that Bonhoeffer's “post-Holocaust legacy” reveals the paradoxes that continue to vex Christians today in the persistence of Christian exceptionalism despite the broad repudiation of antisemitism achieved since World War II. I agree. Where I depart from Haynes is in asking the question that he does not, nor do any of the writers he covers in the book, regardless of the place they occupy in the debate: Why does the question of Bonhoeffer and the Jews matter? Haynes documents the centrality of post-Holocaust theology in the scholarship on Bonhoeffer and the Jews—but he does not step back to reflect on the very fact of that centrality. It is simply taken for granted—pulling mainstream Protestant Christian theology, and with it Bonhoeffer studies, into its gravitational pull. It is my purpose to consider the consequences of this phenomenon for Bonhoeffer scholarship, the role of the church in the growing debate about Zionism, Israel and the Palestinians, and the future of public theology. 

Post-Holocaust Theology

Post-Holocaust theology (sometimes “Holocaust theology”) is a body of theological and philosophical discourse that arose in the aftermath of World War II. It is an expression of the seismic shift in Christian thinking and attitudes toward the Jews and Judaism that began as a response to the genocide of 80% of the Jews of Europe by the National Socialist regime.


          Post-Holocaust theology can roughly be divided between the work done by Jews and that done by Christians.


Jews: Where was God?

For Jews the question driving post-Holocaust theology has been: Where was God, or Who is God? The conclusion of Jewish post-Holocaust theologians is that the catastrophe fundamentally altered Jews’ relationship with God and the nature of Jewish identity itself. After the destruction of the Second Temple and the end of Jewish nationhood in Palestine, a central concern in Jewish life, indeed a core feature of Jewish identity, was self-preservation in the face of persecution and marginalization. This was characterized by the acceptance of suffering and a marked insularity—a standing apart from the world of power and privilege from which the Jews, with a few notable exceptions throughout history, had been excluded. For many Jewish writers, the Holocaust brought about a shift from passive adaptation to active self-defense. Orthodox American rabbi and theologian Irving Greenberg maintains that the covenant itself underwent a transformation:


If God did not stop the murder and the torture, then what was the statement made by the infinitely suffering Divine Presence in Auschwitz? It was a cry for action…a call to the people Israel to rise to a new, unprecedented level of covenantal responsibility.5

For Greenberg, Jewish history itself had undergone a profound change. Jerusalem, which had become a place of devotional pilgrimage but no longer the locus of worship and national identity, took on new, urgent significance. “It was as if God said, ‘Enough, stop it, never again, bring redemption!’ Even as God was in Treblinka, so God went up with Israel to Jerusalem.”6 Effectively, a new commandment had been added: “Thou shalt go up to the land”—not on religious pilgrimage, but, in a revival of the biblical narrative of conquest and possession, in order to establish political hegemony.7


          Death camp survivor Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, widely considered to be the originator of post-Holocaust theology, made the theological argument for Zionism in the strongest terms. Spurred by what many considered the “miracle” of Israel's 1967 conquest of the remainder of Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, Fackenheim placed the Holocaust and the State of Israel alongside one another as the two pillars of contemporary Jewish identity. He too proposed a new commandment, “Thou shalt survive,” to be added to the code of Jewish law:


Since the victims cannot make an end to the wickedness they must make an end to the helplessness. In May 1943 the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto took to arms when their enemies came to cart them off for murder. To do so was…a mitzvah [divine commandment]. And it was equally a mitzvah for those nine in Tel Aviv to decide, whatever the risks, to declare the State of Israel [in May 1948]. Still more is this true of the new mitzvah, this one begun in earnest on June 7, 1967. This is the rebuilding of Jewish Jerusalem.8

This shift in Jewish self-perception incorporates a powerful exceptionalism. After the Shoah, wrote Fackenheim, “Jews were compelled by events to accept themselves as singled out [emphasis in original] by the most elemental moral necessity…a new reason for reaffirming the age-old doctrine of the divine covenant with Israel.”9 The brush with extermination thus not only legitimized, but granted theological significance to the establishment of the State of Israel as a redemptive event and an affirmation of the Jews’ standing as the Chosen People. The reinforcement of Jewish exceptionalism and the granting of theological legitimacy to the Zionist project also served to confer on the Jews freedom from accountability. Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis has discussed how in both the Jewish and non-Jewish minds, the suffering of the Jews through the ages has rendered them innocent of crimes committed in the pursuit of the security and continuation of the Jewish State.10 This view, seldom if ever expressed explicitly, has in effect become normative. The issue of granting primary right to the territory of Palestine to the Jewish people is taken up in greater depth further on in this article.

Christians: Where Were We?

Whereas Jewish post-Holocaust theology was driven by the question how could God do this to us? Christian theologians asked how could we have done this to God's people? This question has dominated mainstream Protestant theology since the mid-twentieth century. According to Paul van Buren, forging a positive relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people requires nothing less than the reimagining of what it means to be Christian. “If the church stops thinking of the Jews as the rejected remnant of the people Israel,” wrote van Buren, “if it starts speaking of the continuing covenantal relationship between this people and God, then it will have to rethink its own identity.”11 Longstanding anti-Jewish doctrine was replaced by a theology and hermeneutic that restored the Jewish people's standing as God's chosen and conferred theological status on the modern State of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical promises.12 What is revealed in an exploration of Bonhoeffer scholarship in this area is that in restoring the Jewish people's status as God's most beloved, Christians have indirectly maintained and even reinforced Christian exceptionalism, the roots of which were implanted in the early church when, entering into an uneasy alliance with Rome, it allowed itself to be used as a tool of temporal power.

The Affront

In The Bonhoeffer Legacy Steven Haynes provides a comprehensive review of the literature on Bonhoeffer and the Jews. The work ranges from those writers—mostly Jewish—who reject the hagiography of a Bonhoeffer who for the sake of the Jews joined the resistance and paid the ultimate price, to those—mostly Christian—who present a Bonhoeffer who took up the cause of the Jews despite the anti-Judaism of his Lutheran upbringing. Crediting Bonhoeffer as, in one writer's terms, serving as “a transitional figure,” the writers in this second group see him as at least partially redeemed by actions and words that reveal a heart for Jewish suffering and for helping the Christian world set the stage for the work of theological correction and reconciliation that was to come after the war.13 Bonhoeffer biographer and interpreter Eberhard Bethge figures large in this group.


          Haynes critiques writers such as Robert Smith, William Peck, Geffrey Kelly, and even Bethge for overreaching in their attempts to excuse Bonhoeffer's anti-Jewish views. He cautions against catering to Jewish sensibilities in the effort to clear Bonhoeffer of this stain, citing as an example Bonhoeffer scholar Victoria Barnett's comment that “we should not overlook the offense and pain these words give to Jewish readers.”14 The difficulty, argues Haynes, is not the “affront to post-Holocaust sensibilities conveyed by Bonhoeffer's words but their mirroring of a mythological tradition that Christians have neither sufficiently understood nor fully repudiated.”15 Haynes is referring to what he has termed the “witness people myth,” clearly in evidence in Bonhoeffer's writings, in which “God's providential action in history is transparent in the existence, wandering, and suffering of the Jewish people.”16 In his 1995 Reluctant Witnesses: Jews and the Christian Imagination, Haynes described how key elements of the witness people myth have persisted in contemporary Christian thinking, including that of Christian post-Holocaust theologians. Haynes devotes a chapter in the book to examining the presence of witness people theology in post-Holocaust theology. He critiques Paul van Buren, Franklin Littell and others for perpetuating this anti-Jewish strain in Christian theology, ironically in the course of their work to mend Christian-Jewish relations.17


          But he leaves it there. Like those of the authors he discusses, Haynes’s analysis is limited to the question of how Christians see Jews. What is missing is how investigating this “mythological tradition” can shed light on how Christians see themselves. What remains unexamined in the Bonhoeffer scholarship on this issue, and in Christian post-Holocaust studies as a whole, is the affront, not to one particular group, but to the vision of universal compassion that is the core of the gospel. Historic church anti-Judaism is inextricably tied to the idea of Christians as the true and only heirs to God's gift of love. It is a narrative in which the suffering of Jesus was not about wounded and suffering humanity and the divine imperative to show compassion regardless of ethnicity, nationality or merit, but rather a ransom to cleanse of their original sin those—and only those—who profess belief in the divinity of Jesus. In this story, the Jews can redeem themselves by accepting Jesus as the prophesied Messiah. Until then, the Jews indeed carry their own specialness—that of being cursed. But the shadow cast by this image of the Jews is not of Christian responsibility for promulgating this narrative, but of the triumphalism that underlies that story.


In its zeal to purge Christianity of its anti-Judaism, Christian post-Holocaust theology jettisoned a fundamental component of the gospels: the rejection of territorial, nationalistic and ethnic categories. The civil code of the Old Testament set out the principles for a society based on compassion for the poor, the marginalized and the disadvantaged. The prophets spoke truth to the corruption of monarchy and Temple. But it was Jesus who lifted this vision out of the particular and into the universal, sending his followers out in the world to bring the good news that all separations of class, gender, and—pointedly—tribe and nationality, were now dissolved. In a profound way, the “old law” had not been replaced, but transformed into a vision of the equality of all humankind. But in the post-Holocaust era, any language that might be perceived as partaking of replacement theology has become taboo. The baby of the gospel's radical vision of social equality and universal love has been thrown out with the bathwater of the church's pernicious anti-Jewish doctrine.18

A Guest in the House of Israel

The work of American theologian Franklin Littell exemplifies the combination of deference to Jewish sensitivities and Christian presumption that characterizes Christian post-Holocaust theology. Reflecting on the “wretched” relationship of Christendom to the Jewish people in his 1975 The Crucifixion of the Jews, Littell informed Christians that “we must earn our way back to the right to build a bridge, and that requires a flood of loving and fraternal actions of which we have proven so far quite incapable.” It is the Jews, maintained Littell, who hold the key to Christian redemption from the sin of antisemitism, and indeed to what it means to be Christian: “Finally, we need each other to be sure, but we Christians need Jewry first. The Jewish people can define itself in history without Christianity but Christians cannot establish a self-identity except in relationship to the Jewish people.”19


          Littell's idealization of the Jews has little to do with Jewish values, beliefs, culture and history. His focus is not the Jewish people, or even antisemitism itself, but the rehabilitation of Christianity. “The Christians need the Jewish people as a ‘model’ of peoplehood in God's work in history,” he writes, quoting Pope Pius XI's statement, “We are spiritual Semites,” and Protestant theologian Krister Stendahl's claim that “Christians are special kind of Jews.”20 Littell's work demonstrates how post-Holocaust theology has succeeded in projecting onto the Jews a particularly Christian brand of exceptionalism. According to Littell, the Jewish people, chosen by God to gather “the peoples and tribes of the farthest corners of the earth…to hear his voice and to do His will” represents “true particularity,” as opposed to the “false particularity” of the Nazis, of “Christian America,” or of [something he calls] “Islam,” who have regressed into “an ethnicity infused with piety.” “In this stage of history,” Littell asserts, “the particularity of the Jews is a testimony to universalism.”21


          Littell's theological sleight of hand is fully in line with the goal of Christian post-Holocaust theologians to restore the Jews to the status of most beloved of God and heirs to the Abrahamic covenant. In a betrayal of the principles of universality and the breaking down of barriers articulated in the gospels and prescribed in the Pauline letters, they have legitimized particularity, regranted it to the Jewish people, and then hitched a ride on it. In this new Judeo-Christian reality, the Christian is, in the words of American theologian Clark M. Williamson, “a guest in the house of Israel.”22 The intention of theologians working in this area has been to correct Christian anti-Jewish doctrine and to repair Christian-Jewish relations—but it has had profound implications for one of the most serious and longstanding issues of human rights of our time. In restoring the particularity of the original covenant, Christian post-Holocaust theologians have granted the Jewish people permission to possess the land, regardless of the consequences for its Palestinian inhabitants.


           The theological foundations for the postwar embrace of political Zionism were laid in Germany. Friedrich Wilhelm Marquardt, a student of Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth, is credited with developing the most fully articulated theology of Judaism in postwar Germany. Influenced by Barth's and Bultmann's concept of the theology of crisis, Marquardt claimed that “[t]he murder of the Jews in this century…are the signs of the times which question every theology in an unprecedented radicality.”23 “According to Marquardt, writes K. Hannah Holtschneider, “‘the biblical order of reality’ is defined by the relationship between the Jewish people and God narrated in biblical texts and enacted in history.”24 And in that theology and historical narrative, the biblical land promise takes center stage. In his 1992 paper “When Will You Restore the Kingdom to Israel?” Marquardt argued that the meaning of Jesus’ response to the question asked of him by the apostles in Acts 1:6 is not “go to Jerusalem to receive the power of the Holy Spirit.” Rather, the message of the New Testament is that the expectation for Jesus’ realm is not a spiritual but a political reality—the restoration of autonomous Jewish rule. What was intended by Jesus, maintained Marquardt, and what has now been fulfilled in modern times, is “the actual rebirth of a State of Israel [emphasis added] in the land of the fathers in 1948, the self-identification of its Jewish residents with the ‘ancient,’ biblical ‘state’ of Israel lost in the years between 70 and 135 CE… We see the year 1948 as an hermeneutical event.”25


Few if any mainline Protestant theologians would go so far in their interpretation of this text. But this understanding of the place of biblical promises in Christian theology and the meaning of the Jewish return to Palestine in modern times became normative for the German Protestant church in the postwar era. Along with Bethge, Berthold Klappert, Martin Rumscheidt, Andreas Pangritz, and other prominent German theologians involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue, Marquardt played a key role in the writing of the 1980 “Towards Renovation of the Relationship of Christians and Jews” declaration of the Synod of the Evangelical Church of the Rhineland.26 The declaration explicitly links the terms of the original covenant to the contemporary Zionist project: “[T]he continuing existence of the Jewish people, its return to the Land of Promise, and also the foundation of the state [sic] of Israel, are signs of the faithfulness of God towards his people.”27 The Rhineland Declaration was “transformative,” wrote Ulrich Rosenhagen in 2011, “the beginning of a swift wave of changes blowing through the Protestant churches in Germany…public declarations and amended constitutions [that] seek to express God's faithfulness to Israel and emphasize the fact that Israel has never been rejected and that the covenant between God and Israel has never been broken.”28


          As discussed above, this brand of philojudaic theology spread quickly westward. American Protestant theologians, exemplified by Paul van Buren, Franklin Littell and Clark Williamson, surpassed their European counterparts in their full-throated endorsement of political Zionism. Consider the following passage from van Buren's contribution to a 1979 interfaith symposium, “The Jewish People in Christian Preaching.” Why, asked van Buren, after eighteen centuries, should Christian leaders “turn Christian teaching on its head” with respect to the Jewish people?


The Holocaust and the emergence of the state [sic] of Israel…are what impelled them to speak in a new way about Jews and Judaism. It is my judgment that the emergence of the state [sic] of Israel was the more powerful of the two, for, shameful as it is to confess it, more than one Christian leader was able to absorb the Holocaust into our traditional theology of the Jews as wandering, suffering, despised souls, paying forever for their stiff-necked rejection of Christ. What could not possibly fit into that mythical picture was the Israelis, holding out and winning their war of independence against the combined forces of five national armies…the Israeli Defense Force sweeping over the Sinai and retaking East Jerusalem was what could not possibly fit our traditional myth of the passive suffering Jew. The result is that events in modern Jewish history, perhaps as staggering as any in its whole history, have begun to reorient the minds of increasing numbers of responsible Christians.29

          It is impossible to miss the biblical drumbeat in the words “Sinai” and “Jerusalem.” But it is not van Buren's glorification of Jewish military power and its conflation with the biblical narrative of promise and conquest that is the most troubling. It is that Christians could now join in the triumph of the Jewish return to Zion, absorbing this historical event into a Christian vision of what it means to be faithful to God's plan. “These events of our time,” continued van Buren, reflect “the will of the holy one of Israel, that the greatest of all love affairs of history between God and God's people continue, but that God provides also a way for Gentiles, as Gentiles, to enter along with the chosen people into the task of taking responsibility for moving this unfinished creation nearer to its completion.”30


Not all post-Holocaust theologians, European or American, have been as enthusiastic in their endorsement of the Zionist project, nor as palpably triumphalist in the advancement of a Judeo-Christian eschatology.31 But the theological principles exemplified by the Rhineland Declaration, accompanied by the vigorous pursuit of Christian-Jewish dialogue on institutional as well as personal levels, provide the basis upon which a consensus has been achieved across a broad spectrum of Christianity.32 This theological move has created a dilemma for Christians today. Clergy, academics and church leaders alike must choose between their desire to preserve hard-won relationships with the Jewish community on the one hand and remaining true to the justice imperative of Christianity on the other. The rules of the game have been clear for close to half a century. “No one can be an enemy of Zionism and be a friend of the Jewish people today,” wrote Littell in 1975.33 He had joined a school founded in the United States early in that decade by Jewish advocates, historians and political advisors in reaction to a growing awareness of Israel's human rights crimes. Mounting a campaign against what they termed the “New Anti-Semitism,” they identified criticism of the State of Israel as a new, virulent form of the age-old hatred of and demonization of Jews.34 This movement, closely associated with the rise of neoconservatism during the Cold War, flexed its pro-Zionism muscles by associating criticism of Israel with the perceived threat posed by the New Left to traditional American values of individualism and free enterprise. “The new code word for Antisemitism is Anti-Zionism [emphasis in original],” Littell warned, “whether the slogan is uttered by Communists, Arab League propagandists, or adherents of the ‘New Left’.”35 Bonhoeffer scholar and biographer Eberhard Bethge participated in the scholarly and cultural life of this school, turning to Littell and others in his effort to bring post-Holocaust theology to bear on the question of Bonhoeffer and the Jews.

The Burden of the Shoah

“Nothing challenged him more,” wrote Bonhoeffer scholar John de Gruchy in his biography of Eberhard Bethge, than “retrieving Bonhoeffer's legacy” with respect to Jewish-Christian relations in the wake of the Holocaust.36 Bethge's work in this area was shaped by his intense involvement with post-Holocaust theology. This is not a matter of interpretation—Bethge was transparent about how his life story and his drive to mend Christian-Jewish relations were a guiding force in his theological work as well as in his vocation as steward of Bonhoeffer's legacy. “My biography carries the burden of the Shoah,”37 Bethge declared in an address at the founding of the association “Against Forgetting” in Bonn in 1993.38 He returned again and again to the project of rehabilitating Bonhoeffer's record on the Jews, defending his friend and teacher from censure related to the anti-Judaism in his writings and the charge that he had failed to speak up for the Jews. “Is there a stain on Bonhoeffer?” Bethge asked in his 1991 essay “One of the Silent Bystanders?”39 In this paper, subtitled “Dietrich Bonhoeffer on November 9, 1938,” Bethge takes us back to Kristallnacht, the night Nazis carried out the burning of synagogues, the vandalizing of Jewish homes, schools and businesses, and the murder of close to 100 Jews throughout Germany. The next morning, Bonhoeffer wrote “November 9, 1938” in the margin of his Bible at verse 8 of Psalm 74: “They burned all the meeting places of God in the land” (NRSV). In the paper Bethge offers the Kristallnacht notation in an effort to lessen the sting of the anti-Jewish theology found in Bonhoeffer's 1933 “The Church and the Jewish Question.” He goes on to list six additional instances in Bonhoeffer's writing and actions. They include refusing to sign the Bethel Confession because of the removal of references to Jews, his 1935 statement “only someone who speaks out for the Jews can sing the Gregorian chants,” his assistance in the escape of seven Jews to Switzerland in 1942, and some of his writings on the Old Testament. Bethge's case appears thin even to the most sympathetic to this point of view. Haynes challenges as “hopeful interpretation” these and other pieces of evidence brought by Bethge and others such as Peck, Kelly and Smith that compassion for the Jews directed both the development of Bonhoeffer's theology and his decision to join the resistance.


It is not hard to understand Bethge's interpretive stretching. He was haunted, within himself and on behalf of Bonhoeffer, by the failure of the Confessing Church to speak out against the persecution of the Jews. In “Steps to Combat Forgetting,” Bethge lamented “our weakness…our cowardice in the face of the Hitler's SA and SS.”40 Karl Barth had famously confessed to that failure in a letter to Bethge in 1967. But Bethge is pursuing a different line here. Worse than the failure to stand up to Nazi crimes, he writes, was the “blindness that afflicted even the opposition mounted by the Confessing Church against the Third Reich and of which we are hardly free of today—the blindness in which Christians consider themselves the chosen successor to the Jews and the Jews as rejected by God.” “Our blindness,” he continued, “rested on centuries-old creeds and theologies of contempt for Israel, which we robbed of the Bible and of ‘election’ on top of that. And so we were silent…”41 Here Bethge leads us to the key issue, but not as he intended. Our great failure, he was saying, was not in the realm of politics or social action. Rather, it was our theological error; taking the blessing away from the Jews and claiming it for ourselves was a sin against God. Bethge's confession evokes the cry of fellow Confessing Church member Hans Joachim Iwand quoted in the epigraph: “Who is going to take this guilt away from us and our theological fathers… How can the German people that has initiated the fruitless rebellion against Israel and his God become pure?”42 For Bethge, the opportunity to join in the work of both Jewish and Christian post-Holocaust theologians was a sacred task of penitence that was inextricably bound up with the work of reconciling with the Jewish people. In the last decades of his life, Bethge devoted himself increasingly to connecting the work of post-Holocaust theology and the forging of a new relationship with the Jewish people to the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


          In “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jews,” an address to the International Bonhoeffer Society in Oxford, England in 1980, Bethge proposed that Bonhoeffer had laid the groundwork for the radical revision of Christian theology compelled by the trauma of the war. Citing his 1979 correspondence with Emil Fackenheim, in which the Jewish theologian called for an exploration of Bonhoeffer as an entry point for Christian-Jewish relations after the Holocaust, Bethge stated that “my thesis will be that Bonhoeffer did expect something new in theology after 1945 and that, although he himself had not yet explicitly begun to formulate ‘a theology after the Holocaust,’ still he was among the earliest and strongest on the Christian side to break fresh ground in that direction.”43 He followed with this charge to his colleagues: “The task of writing a full-fledged theology after the Holocaust remains for us to pursue today. It is our duty because of, through, and with Bonhoeffer.”


We shall see how something like a hermeneutic of the Holocaust became existentially and linguistically effective for Bonhoeffer. In this way we will begin to speak of Bonhoeffer's breakthrough to a nascent post-Holocaust theology, to a theology which recognizes the epochal character of this event for Jewish-Christian relations and contributes to an interpretation of Jewish-Christian relations.44

Bethge’s claim leads us back to a central issue in the debate about Bonhoeffer and the Jews. At the conclusion of the paper Bethge lamented that after the war the church in Germany “returned to the forms and practices of the church in 1932.” The Holocaust, he continued, “now seems to be something more to be reacted to as a disturbing fact reacted to emotionally, but not leading into new theological thinking about the relation between church and synagogue.”45 Bethge was proposing that Bonhoeffer could provide the remedy. He was passionate as he addressed the Oxford Conference about how Bonhoeffer’s writing on the meaning of Jesus’ suffering could inform post-Holocaust theology and deepen the work of Christian-Jewish reconciliation. He offered several passages to demonstrate how in Bonhoeffer’s later writings “an exclusively interpreted cross of Christ becomes more and more inclusive.”46 Bethge quoted these words from Bonhoeffer’s 1942 essay “After Ten Years”: “The Christian is called to compassion and action not only after he experiences something in his own body, but by the experiences of suffering in the body of the brothers [emphasis in the original].” “One cannot avoid thinking,” Bethge proposed to the Society, “that this primarily points to nobody else than to the Jews.”47 “Now, as in ancient times, he argued, quoting from Bonhoeffer, “the Jew keeps open the question of Christ.”48


          And herein lies the difficulty. Bethge was summoning up a vision of inclusivity, but theologically his formulation was particularistic. Whatever he meant by “inclusive,” Bethge remained within the framework of Jewish exceptionalism and Christian presumption exemplified by Littell. Bethge’s goal was to repair the ancient rift and to bring Christians and Jews together in a shared vision. But what he has proposed is a Christian-Jewish syncretism that partakes of the same toxic theology that Haynes decries in the persistence of the witness people myth. Whether Christians see them as damned or blessed, the projection of either goodness or evil onto the Jews has the same result: the failure to see the shadow (in the Jungian sense of that which is unacknowledged by and unacceptable to the self) of particularity that has bedeviled Christian identity and plagued church history. Keeping with the theological pivot made by Marquardt, Littell, van Buren and others, in seeking to reverse supercessionism Bethge had succeeded only in reinforcing the triumphalist heart of it.49

All the Houses of God

We can understand Bethge's desire to bring a newly interpreted Bonhoeffer to the work of correcting Christianity's legacy of anti-Judaism. But it is a project that Bonhoeffer would have rejected as cheap penitence. It is Christians trading the opportunity for metanoia—a change in heart, mind and deed—for the re-granting of that very exceptionalism and particularity to the Jews, and with it the embrace of an archaic, territorially-based theology. In making that choice, Christians, rather than engaging with the scandal of particularity, have succeeded on transforming it into an even more powerful Judeo-Christian version. Christian post-Holocaust theology has produced a shared exceptionalism more antithetical to the gospels than the doctrine it was meant to replace, and its language is Zionism.


          Buttressed by theories of racial superiority, the theological antecedents of Christian Zionism furnished the justification for the colonization, enslavement and extermination of indigenous peoples from the Age of Discovery through the early twentieth century.50 The arrival of Jewish political Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century provided the opportunity for the flowering of a potent, contemporary Christian Zionism. A powerful amalgam of political ideology and theology, Zionism is an example of what happens when nationalism and religion coalesce in the context of power. We have seen this before. In South Africa, the descendants of European settlers claimed a divine mandate to dispossess and effectively enslave the indigenous Africans. For the English Protestant founders of the United States, a doctrine of divine right played an important role in the nation's origin and expansion as a colonial settler project.51 In the twentieth century, the rise of a malignant nationalism in Germany between the World Wars, born of defeat and backed by theology served up by a willing church, furnished the context for Bonhoeffer's personal and theological odyssey. Bonhoeffer's passionate and singularly focused Christology powered him through his struggles with a nascent ecumenical movement that refused to reject the Deutsche Christen in favor of the Confessing Church. It drove his passionate effort to bring his church and his nation into alignment with the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We must believe that Bonhoeffer fully comprehended the horror and sin of the persecution of the Jews. But it was not the central issue for him. If we make Bonhoeffer over into a post-Holocaust theologian, we have lost Bonhoeffer, and we have lost the Jesus he devoted his life's work to bringing to us.


          Bonhoeffer did not die for the Jews. Kristallnacht was not a turning point that determined the subsequent course of his theology and his decision to join the resistance. Bonhoeffer died for the church and for his country, his decisions impelled by the calamity of Nazism. For Bonhoeffer, the burning houses of God of the Kristallnacht margin note were not confined to the synagogues. The German “alle Hauser Gottes”—all the houses of the Lord—were for him not the brick and mortar sanctuaries of one particular group, but the ethical foundation of society itself. What were the opening words of the psalm that met Bonhoeffer's eyes as he opened his Bible on that day in 1938? “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? Remember your congregation”—in German, “Gedenke an deine Gemeinde.”52 Gemeinde—community—is at the center of Bonhoeffer's doctoral dissertation, “Sanctorum Communio,” the theological earth from which his later work sprang. There, Bonhoeffer set out how devotion to Christ, indeed the whole of theology, is expressed in responsibility for our fellow human beings, in how we construct an ethical society, and in our understanding of what it means to be the church. “Sanctorum Communio” is where we find Bonhoeffer's astonishing formulation “Christus als Gemeinde existierend.”


          Look at the psalm! “God, why do you cast us off forever?” Bonhoeffer is thinking about the Germany of 1938—the burning houses standing for the shattering of the order of righteousness in which he had been raised, a society upheld by the twin pillars of nation and church. The question posed in his 1933 “The Church and the Jewish Question”53 is what is to be done when the state violates the divine imperatives of justice and mercy. In that essay, and in the Kristallnacht notation, the issue is not the persecution of the Jews per se, but what the Aryan clause and the burning houses of God's Gemeinde meant for Germany and for the world at large. Bonhoeffer's Christology led him to a love of humanity that transcended the claims of any one religious group. If, instead of searching for Bonhoeffer the martyr for the Jews, we were to regard the Bonhoeffer standing before us in plain sight, who knew that the suffering of one is about the suffering of all, where might the search for the causes of the church's complicity with Nazism have led? What might have been the consequences for the Zionist project itself if theologians had taken a hammer to the hard kernel of Christian triumphalism rather than resorting to the comfort of a guilt offering, and with it the enabling of the Jews’ sins of conquest and dispossession?


          Bonhoeffer did not live to pursue the postwar journey of recovery and renewal, for both his country and his church, that he wrote about from prison. Without him to set the course, those left behind, traumatized by war and reeling in shame, constructed a Bonhoeffer that wasn’t: the German churchman who died for the Jews, the theologian who opened the way to a postwar reversal of anti-Jewish doctrine. With respect to the question of the Jews, they have given us a cheap Bonhoeffer.

The Treasure Hidden in the Field

In Discipleship, Bonhoeffer describes the call to follow as the willingness to leave behind the familiar, comfortable, and useful—take your hand off the plow, leave your fishing nets behind, walk away from the toll station. For the church, it is to relinquish the claim to moral authority and the pursuit of doctrinal certainty, to cease placing the stability of the institution and the preservation of treasured relationships above obedience to God. “Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system,” Bonhoeffer wrote in the opening of Discipleship. Established doctrine and structures of church authority remain intact, unchallenged. “Grace alone does everything, and so everything can remain as it was before… It is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”54


          Confessing responsibility for Jewish suffering and purging the church of its anti-Jewish doctrine is not, as Bonhoeffer describes costly grace, “the treasure hidden in the field.” It does not question the notion of God's special people that Jesus addressed repeatedly in his ministry: the lesson to the Samaritan woman at the well, the question posed in the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the message of Pentecost, where the power of the Holy Spirit bestowed, not the restoration of King and Temple, but the ability to speak all the languages of the world. The post-Holocaust philojudaic position locates Christians in the comfortable space of God's continuing covenant with Israel, thereby affirming the notion of specialness and privilege and reassuring Christians of their own standing as the elect. It does not demand an examination of the fundamental sin that manifested in Jew-hatred—it only requires the beseeching of forgiveness from the victim. Everything can remain as it was before.55


          Post-Holocaust theology on the part of Christians reveals a particular brand of exceptionalism: our guilt, our sin, is the greatest sin of all—we killed God. Writing in 1999 about the need for a “wholly other theology” in the wake of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer scholar Martin Rumscheidt quoted his teacher Wilhelm Friedrich Marquardt:


Christians begin to grasp how deeply enmeshed they are in guilt on account of anti-Jewish elements in their proclamation of Christ… As Jews were abandoned, the electing action, the covenant and the faithfulness of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Father of Jesus Christ were also abandoned and God was attacked in God's self-manifestation as true and living God.56

This is a curious reversal of the charge of deicide that had been leveled against this same Jewish people—and it is as antithetical to the gospel as was its predecessor. Jesus admonishes the disciples against neglecting “the least of these my brothers”—a universal category. You kill God all the time, Jesus was saying. But for Marquardt, Rumscheidt, and those who preceded and followed them, the sin against the Jews stands out—we killed the elected of God, not just “anybody.” Although the intention was to rehabilitate the Jewish people in the eyes of the church, the effect is that by making the Jews special, Christians remain special. Whether it is unique in history or not, whether it is right or wrong to assign a capital “H” to this particular genocide is an argument for another day. What is at issue here is how the theology intended to atone for this catastrophic church failure has shored up the triumphalism that lies at its root. Everything can remain as it was before.

A Call to the Churches

Bethge survived the war to find himself on the horns of a dilemma. Like Bonhoeffer, he was reared in a Christianity that saw the existence of the Jews as inseparable from the Christian mission to proclaim the Lordship of Christ, a view of the Jewish people that led to a catastrophic betrayal of fundamental gospel principles throughout church history. Bethge took on the vexing theological issues raised by that history through his active participation in post-Holocaust studies. By his report, there were Jewish colleagues who received his overtures with the guardedness of a wronged party beseeched for forgiveness. Some of these relationships warmed and became for Bethge productive and treasured connections. But throughout, one fundamental condition prevailed—by and large, the exchange flowed in one direction, the responsibility for self-examination falling on one party only: what can we Christians learn from you Jews? What can we do to repair the damage? Was Bethge blind to this dynamic in the relationship and to the dark side of the Jewish position? If he felt it, he did not address it publicly or write about it.


          We can no longer ignore the evidence of that dark side. It is before us in the checkpoints of Bethlehem, the devastation and starvation of Gaza, the dispossession of the Bedouin, and the imprisonment and torture of the children of Jenin and Nablus. For Jews and Christians alike, the Kairos—the historical and theological challenge—that we face today differs from the one brought on by the trauma of World War II. We have passed from the post-Holocaust into the post-Nakba era. Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” is the Palestinians’ word for the expulsions of 1948 and the ethnic cleansing and incremental genocide that continue to this day. The lessons to be drawn from the debate on Bonhoeffer and the Jews is that we Jews must turn from our fixation on what has been done to us to the realization that our story today is what we are now doing to others. And the message to Christians is this: if Christ truly is Lord, then he requires that we, as he did on that Sunday in Jerusalem, stand before today's temples of Empire, the governments and systems that steal land and despoil creation, that impoverish the many to enrich the few, that we demand, as that bold and radically reforming Jew did on that day, that we not rest until not one stone is left upon another. That we ask, as was asked and answered by Jesus: who is my neighbor? That we confront this question today, tomorrow, and every day, seeking, with Bonhoeffer, to answer the question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”


Mark Braverman


1.Gregory Baum, in Rosemary R. Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995), 6–7.


2.Throughout the article I use the term “Holocaust” as it has come to refer to the genocide of the Jews of Europe by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. This is done for the sake of simplicity and to conform to convention, even though I disagree with the assumptions and attitudes underlying the term “the Holocaust.” Both the definite article and the capital “H” convey the message that this event outweighs all other crimes of race-based oppression and genocide. Used in his way, the term also implicitly reinforces attitudes about how the catastrophe has granted to the Jews special privileges and immunity from culpability. This issue has been taken up by Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis, historian Norman Finkelstein, and the author.


3.Mark Braverman, “The Moment of Grace and Opportunity: The Global Kairos Movement for Justice in the Holy Land,” Theologies and Cultures XI:1 (June 2014): 42–83.


4.Stephen R. Haynes, The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006).


5.In Marc H. Ellis, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation: The Challenge of the 21st Century (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2004), 34.


6.Ibid., 35.


7.Earlier in the twentieth century, prominent Jewish thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and the leaders of Jewish religious denominations in the United States had challenged the very notion of political or state Zionism, while still supporting Jewish settlement in a shared Palestine. Effectively, any such opposition disappeared from the Jewish mainstream following World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel.


8.Emil Fackenheim, What is Judaism? An Interpretation for the Present Age (New York: Summit, 1987), 238–39. Shoah, a Hebrew word translated as “catastrophe,” but literally, like “Holocaust,” denoting total destruction, was officially adopted in Israel in the early years of the state to refer to the genocide of European Jews during WWII. Like “Holocaust,” it came into wide use in the 1970s with the appearance of books and films for a mass audience. Shoah in its meaning and import is similar to the common reference to “the Holocaust”— the definite article and capitalization conveying the message that this is unique among other instances of genocide.


9.Fackenheim, What is Judaism, 123.


10.Marc H. Ellis, Beyond Innocence and Redemption: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power, Creating a Moral Future for the Jewish People (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990).


11.Paul M. van Buren, “The Jewish People in Christian Theology: Present and Future,” in The Jewish People in Christian Preaching, ed. Darrell J. Fasching (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1984), 23.


12.Members of this school include Protestant theologians Kendall Soulen, Paul van Buren, Krister Stendahl, Franklin Littell, and Clark Williamson. Catholic writers include John Pawlikowski and Gregory Baum. Baum adopted Fackenheim's concept of Christian “conversion” to describe Christians’ acknowledgement of responsibility for Jewish suffering. Baum also endorsed Fackenheim’s “614th commandment” (the Talmud records 613 commandments found in the Pentateuch)—the duty to survive, to not allow Hitler a posthumous victory.


13.Haynes, The Bonhoeffer Legacy, 25.


14.Ibid., 81.


15.Ibid., 82.


16.Ibid., 100.


17.Stephen R. Haynes, Reluctant Witnesses: Jews and the Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995). What is evidenced but never made explicit in the work of Haynes and others is the persistence, through more than three generations of postwar scholarship, of the practice of viewing Jews through a Christian lens, whether the result be denigration or elevation to exceptional status. The fact that Christian scholars as well as church leaders have been overwhelmingly unwilling or unable to bring a critical theological or hermeneutical lens to the modern Zionist project over this same period furnishes further evidence of the pull of post-Holocaust theology. Notable exceptions include Michael Prior, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Walter Brueggemann.


18.Mark Braverman, Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land (New York: Beaufort, 2010).


19.Franklin H. Littell, The Crucifixion of the Jews (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 66. Emphasis added.


20.Ibid., 4.


21.Franklin H. Littell, “Church Struggle and Holocaust,” in The German Church Struggle and the Holocaust, ed. Franklin H. Littell and Hubert G. Locke (Detroit, MI: Wayne State, 1975), 18.


22.Clark M. Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Church Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1993).


23.In K. Hannah Holtschneider, German Protestants Remember the Holocaust: Theology and the Construction of Collective Memory (Munster-Hamburg-London: Lit Verlag, 2000), 107.




25.In Andreas Pangritz and Paul S. Chung, eds., Theological Audacities: Selected Essays, Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt, foreword by H. Martin Rumscheidt (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2010), 92–93.


26.The work of Pangritz and of Rumscheidt in post-Holocaust theology and the activities of Christian-Jewish dialogue that ensued follows the theological principles set out by Marquardt. See Martin Rumscheidt, In Search for a Theology Capable of Mourning (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017); Andreas Pangritz, “Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt – A Theological-Biographical Sketch,” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe 38:1 (Spring 2005): 17–47 (also found in Holtscheider, German Protestants Remember the Holocaust, 223–58). Pangritz recounts how Marquardt's visit to Israel in 1959 led to the formation of the Working Group “Jews and Christians” of the German Evangelical Church Kirchentag in 1961. Marquardt took over the leadership of the Working Group in 1971.


27.Holtschneider, German Protestants Remember the Holocaust, 41.


28.Ulrich Rosenhagen, “God is Faithful to God’s People: The New Theology of Israel in Contemporary German Protestantism,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 46:4 (2011): 621–38.


29.Van Buren, “The Jewish People in Christian Theology,” 20-21.


30.Ibid., 25.


31.Swiss theologian Marcus Barth shared many of his German colleagues’ support for the Jewish right to the land. Unlike Marquardt and others, Barth expressed sympathy for the Palestinian cause and criticized the State of Israel for its militarism and the abrogation of Palestinian rights. Despite his reservations about the State of Israel, however, Barth's theology incorporates a full-blown Christian appropriation of Judaism, seeing the Christ event as the fulfillment of biblical promises and Israel's election as integral to Christian eschatology (Markus Barth, Jesus the Jew, trans. Frederick Prussner, Atlanta: John Knox, 1978). The reader is also referred to the work of Mark Lindsay on the troubled relationship between Barth and Jewish post-Holocaust theologians: Mark R. Lindsay, “Jewish-Christian Dialogue from the Underside: Markus Barth’s Correspondence with Michael Wyschogrod (1962–84) and Emil Fackenheim (1965–80),” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 53:3 (2018): 313–47. Lindsay’s work reveals the inevitable collision between Christian presumption and Jewish privilege that lies beneath the too-often smooth surface of contemporary Christian-Jewish dialogue.


32.A review of the literature emerging from an industry of conferences and academic departments devoted to Christian-Jewish dialogue and the exploration of Christian theology of the Jews after the Holocaust would itself fill several volumes. A recent example is the proceedings of a 2000 conference at the University of Notre Dame. Michael A. Signer, ed., Humanity at the Limit: The Impact of the Holocaust Experience on Jews and Christians (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University, 2000).


33.Littell, The Crucifixion of the Jews, 97.


34.Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein, The New Anti-Semitism (New York: McGraw Hill, 1974).






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