There is virtually nothing so nefarious as putting our trust in the state or in patriotic hope that our nation will be our savior. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man executed by the Nazis for his religious opposition to their totalitarian regime, spoke frequently on the great danger of putting our hope in nations or organizations. One of the nefarious ways that patriotism or statism can become idolatry is when people put their hope in individual leaders:
If the leader tries to become the idol the led are looking for–something the led always hope from their leader–then the image of the leader shifts to one of a mis-leader, then the leader is acting improperly toward the led as well as toward himself. The true leader must always be able to disappoint. This, especially, is part of the leader’s responsibility and objectivity. (DBW 12, II/9 cited in Schlingensiepen, 117)
We have a way of rushing to put our hopes or trust in individuals. Bonhoeffer recognized this and even acknowledged that the leader-as-idol is not necessarily something the leader does unilaterally; often it is something that we people want ourselves. We want to be led–we want our leaders to be perfect. Such devotion can lead to our leaders mis-leading by taking up the praise we offer and becoming our idols. Woe to a church that is afraid to call out leaders for wrongdoing.
Individuals are not the only way we make idols of our nations. We can put our hope in nations rather than just in individual leaders. We may begin to speak of the righteousness of the nation, the honor of a people, or the holiness of the state. We may not use these words, but when we dismiss wrongdoing of our own nation, or when we argue that one nation is to be put above all others, we have effectively done just these things. Responding to the question asked in 1932 of why the church is afraid, Bonhoeffer said these convicting words:
Because it [the church] knows there is a commandment to peace, and yet with the clear vision that is given to the church, sees the reality that is full of hate, enmity, violence. It is as if all the powers on earth had conspired together against peace, as if money, the economy, the drive to power, even the love of one’s fatherland have been dragged into the service of hate…
How could it be anything but blasphemous mindlessness, if we were to declare ‘No more war!’ and think with that, and a new organization–even a Christian one–we could exorcise the devil? Such organizations are nothing…
Christ must be present among us in preaching and sacrament, the Crucified One who made peace between God and humankind. The Crucified One is our peace. (DBW 11, 354-355, cited in Schlingensiepen, cited below)
The message is clear: putting hope in any institution is itself idolatry and blasphemous. That institution may be a para-church group, a church, or even a nation-state. The only true hope–the only possibility of hope–is found in Christ alone. Whenever we cease to acknowledge that–whenever we put our hope in anything else–we have committed blasphemy and are called to repent.
Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance (New York: Continuum, 2010).
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