Mr Rudd’s Bonhoeffer version of Christianity


Australia’s present Prime Minister, Mr Kevin Rudd, has stated that he is a Christian. Since many make that claim, yet have widely differing views about what that means for daily life, one is left wondering how Mr Rudd is inclined to apply Scripture to his influential position as prime minister. We get some indication from a paper he presented in 2006 titled “Faith in Politics”[i] in which he stated that the German theologian, pastor and peace activist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is, without doubt, the man I admire most in the history of the twentieth century”. So who is this Bonhoeffer and, more importantly, what are the views he holds that so inspired Mr Rudd’s and how do they shape Mr Rudd’s view on politics?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) was one of very few German ministers of religion boldly to oppose Hitler and the Nazis in the lead up to, and during, WW2. He condemned their persecution of the Jews and during the war was involved in a plot to kill Hitler, for which he was hanged a few weeks before the end of the war. He was acclaimed a martyr and hero. It is, however, his religious views that Mr Rudd applauds.

Germany was, and perhaps still is, predominantly Lutheran and Lutherans hold to what is known as “the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms”.  Mr Rudd quotes James Woelfel who describes it as follows:

According to this doctrine, the proper concern of the gospel is the inner person, the sphere where the Kingdom of God reigns; the Kingdom of the State, on the other hand, lies in the outer sphere, the realm of law, and is not subject to the gospel’s message. German Christians used this argument to justify devotion to race and fatherland as ‘orders of creation’ to be obeyed until the final consummation.

The consequence of this view was that German ministers did not oppose Hitler’s National Socialism in the 1930s. That was considered the area of politics and was not governed by the Bible.

This has everything to do with the notion of the strict separation of church and state. Prof K Schilder[ii] says that Lutherans see the church as an institution that dispenses grace. Their main concern is not the Son of God but the salvation of the people. Yet the Bible speaks about the polis (city, or state) and this implies that the preaching must show what God’s will is for all areas of life. Naturally this does not mean that the church is not concerned with salvation, but the aim of salvation is that we will honour God: my food is to do the will of my Father in Heaven. The Lutheran separation of church and state meant that Hitler had little difficulty with the church, but when the Nazis entered the Netherlands they hit their head against Calvinism, which said that life wasn’t just a matter of salvation but that the goal was to honour God in accordance with His Word. Based on that Word, Calvinists could not accept the legitimacy of Nazi rule.

Mr Rudd says that unlike most Lutherans, Bonhoeffer opposed the “Two Kingdoms doctrine” and called the “German Church to assume a prophetic role in speaking out in defence of the defenceless in the face of a hostile state”, the defenceless at this time being the Jews. It is this need to give a “voice to the voiceless” and to “stand in defence of the defenceless” that characterised Bonhoeffer’s political theology. And since the Jews became defenceless in the 1930s he sought unsuccessfully to unite Christian churches to oppose the developing dictatorship of Hitler’s regime.

Mr Rudd argues that “a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer’s critique in the ’30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed”. He appeals to Scripture for this, pointing to Jesus’ “engagement with women, gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes and the poor – all of whom, in the political and social environment of first-century Palestine, were fully paid-up members of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed”.

It is undoubtedly laudable to help those in genuine need. However, it also needs to be said here that, first, Jesus never agitated for the rights of marginalised groups but offered them salvation and  called them to walk in his ways. In fact, in the Beatitudes he said the meek, the hungry, the poor in spirit and the persecuted, were blessed. Why? Because in their desperate situation they saw their dependence in Him alone. Second, recent decades have witnessed many groups claiming to be marginalised and oppressed – the homosexuals, the abortionists, the euthanasia advocates, illegal immigrants, etc. They did this in an attempt to be recognised as oppressed or marginalised in order to achieve a political “equal rights” goal.

In terms of issues relating to war and violence, Mr Rudd says they “are ultimately anchored in the Christian concern for the sanctity of all human life. Human life can only be taken in self-defence, and only then under highly conditional circumstances – circumstances which include the exhaustion of all other peaceful means to resolve a dispute”. A consequence of this for Mr Rudd is that the “Christian belief in the sanctity of life should cause us to conclude that capital punishment is unacceptable in all circumstances and in all jurisdictions”. Although there appears to be broad consensus on this in today’s political spheres, this view ignores the clear directives of Scripture which state that God has placed the sword in the hand of governments to punish wrongdoers and to protect those who do good (Romans 13:4). “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed” (Genesis 9:6).

Mr Rudd sees the function of the church, in all areas of social, economic and security policy, “to speak directly to the state: to give power to the powerless, voice to those who have none, and to point to the great silences in our national discourse where otherwise there are no natural advocates”. It is highly questionable, however, whether the church has this task as church, that is, in its official capacity. Rev Joh. Francke[iii] says its task is limited to:

  • preaching the Word of God and to administer the sacraments (BCF 29, 30; HC 38)
  • exercising church discipline (BCF 29, 30; HC 30, 31)
  • caring for the poor members of the church (CO 21)
  • proclaiming and preserving the true doctrine and warding off false doctrines (CO 26)
  • giving Christian (catechism) instruction to the youth
  • making home visits (CO 20)
  • respectfully invoking the government to protect the ministry of the church (CO 27)
  • publicly praying to God the LORD for the governments (HC 38, BCF 36)
  • ensuring that parents give their children education based on God’s Word and the confessions (CO 53)
  • organising ecclesiastical meetings

This implies that the church does not have an official task to become engaged in political and social action. That is something for the members of the church to do, where expedient. The preaching and teaching is to stimulate the members to apply God’s Word in all areas of life. Therefore we can agree with Mr Rudd when he says “the Gospel is as much concerned with the decisions I make about my own life as it is with the way I act in society. It is therefore also concerned with how in turn I should act, and react, in relation to the state’s power”.

Mr Rudd seems to want to restrict the gospel message to a social gospel when he says that “at the time of the Great Judgement, Christians will be asked not how pious they have been but instead whether they helped to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the lonely”. Just why they should not be asked how pious (virtuous, moral, sincere, holy) they have been is unstated. Scripture says everyone is to give account, even for every idle word spoken.

Anyway, Mr Rudd sees that “social gospel” as involving a “Christian socialist critique” which exposes what he claims was a “redistribution of power from the weak to the strong” under Mr Howard. He says that part of the church’s prophetic mission is to expose the truth of what industrial relations changes mean for working families. Here again: “The purpose of the church is … to speak robustly to the state on behalf of those who cannot speak effectively for themselves.” And since the planet, too, cannot speak for itself, the church’s task, says Mr Rudd, is to be increasingly engaged with the environment and specifically global climate change.

Whilst Mr Rudd says that he would like to see the church give its Christian perspective on government policy, God’s Word is not, it would seem, to have the ultimate authority. He says: “A Christian perspective on contemporary policy debates may not prevail.” It may, he adds, contribute to the debate provided it is “a Christian perspective, informed by a social gospel or Christian socialist tradition” but becomes just one of a number of “arguments from different philosophical traditions” to be considered in developing secular policy.  But this ignores that those in authority are subject to God and His Word and must govern in such a way that the clear norms of that Word govern all aspects of political endeavour.

Thus Mr Rudd, echoing Bonhoeffer, has a vision of Christianity influencing politics in a way that results in social action. He sees the church as having a direct, official, role in this, rather than an indirect role through its members. Moreover, he sees that function as a voice for the marginalised and underprivileged and all those who cannot speak effectively for themselves rather than a much broader focus on the will of God, and thereby God’s honour, in every aspect of political and social life.


[ii] Christelijke Religie, van der Berg, Kampen, undated, p. 98.

[iii] De Kerk en het Sociale Vraagstuk, Groenendijk, Rotterdam, 1954, pp. 21, 22.