Fight or Flight

December 4, 2015 by

I just attended a conference in Fulda, Germany, held to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of Eberhard Arnold’s death. At the conference Dr. Thomas Nauerth of the Institute for Catholic Theology at the University of Osnabrück and author of a forthcoming book, Witness, Love, and Resistance, spoke about the key points of his research. The book’s focus is the Bruderhof’s confrontation with the Nazi regime from 1933–1938. One thing Professor Nauerth writes about in his book is the decision of Bruderhof members to flee Nazi Germany rather than stay and resist. I thought I’d write something on that decision myself.

a man ploughing with oxen

But first, a more well-known story: frustrated by the inability of the Confessing Church to offer unified resistance to Hitler, and also to avoid conscription, Dietrich Bonhoeffer accepted a position at Union Theological Seminary. Moving to New York in June 1939 gave him the freedom to live and work according to his convictions, out of the reach of the ever-more-restrictive Nazi regime. Almost immediately upon arrival in New York, however, he began doubting the rightness of the move. Perhaps he remembered the words Karl Barth had written him in the fall of 1933 after he had accepted a pastorate in London:

Get back to your post in Berlin straightaway!... You need to be here with all guns blazing!... you are a German,... your church’s house is on fire,... you know enough, and know well enough how to say what you know, to be able to help, and in fact you ought to return to your post by the next ship!

But returning to Germany in 1939 would be dangerous and only after weeks of prayer and inner turmoil could Bonhoeffer write, “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America.... I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.”

When he returned to Germany on the last passenger ship before the outbreak of the war, Bonhoeffer knew well what it could cost him, yet he had faith. “He who believes does not flee” (Isaiah 28:16) became a watchword for him, implicating those who chose flight. And his martyr’s death made him a hero for many who believe that active resistance to an evil regime is the only right and honorable course for a Christian.

The Bruderhof faced a similar dilemma. They chose to leave Germany, refuting friends advice that martyrdom would be the best way to witness to their convictions. For them, fleeing was not a matter of cowardice. Founder Eberhard Arnold summed up the Bruderhof’s position in a meeting with guests on July 24, 1935:

Our brothers are decided about refusing any kind of military service, even service in the medical or labor corps... [and] are continually threatened with the danger of martyrdom.... [But] the refusal to bear arms is not our only concern, for it is only of a negative nature. For us it is still more essential that we dedicate our whole life to the life of Christ’s love and his spirit. We believe that this dedication finds its strongest expression in the common life, where in all things there is understanding, mutual help and common work.

a women holding two small children on a swing

Seen in this light, fleeing Germany was regarded by the young members of the Bruderhof not as an escape from danger, but as an opportunity for continued mission. Indeed, they felt obligated to witness to the radical alternative to war which they had found: full community of goods practiced by people from high and low society who found themselves united in their desire to serve God above everything. Their conviction has borne fruit. Their flight enabled their descendants and those who joined them to continue living in full community, living out the teachings of Jesus and the experience of the early Church and witnessing to the coming kingdom of God.

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