Integrity in Religion and Politics: Jesus, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer

John C. Rankin (2011)

In Search of Integrity

Integrity is an idea rooted in the Hebrew shalom,[1] and there are no shortcuts. It is, by its nature, costly. In summing up the shema, Jesus said: “ ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no greater commandment greater than these.”[2]

As a disciple of Jesus, this is at the core of my identity, and for 28 years I have deliberately pursued an understanding of how to make it “first the Gospel, then politics …”[3] This means yes to the integrity of Jesus, and no to any idolatries, which in this context refers to the nature of penultimate political power.

In the interface of religion and politics internationally, we repeatedly see a power contest. Namely, whether it is through religious or political dress, and most often in a dance between the two, we see the relentless desire of the few to gain power so as to rule over the many. Integrity is nearly always a foreign currency.

Since integrity and wholeness are synonyms, there is nothing in a person’s life unaffected. Integrity is by definition proactive, the original and desired state; whereas brokenness is by definition reactive, a distortion of ultimate reality. Thus, in approaching the question of power in the political world, do we do so rooted in the all embracive nature of the shema, or by some shortcut that is only temporal and self-serving in focus?

In face of the huge territory of this subject matter, I will seek to profile briefly some realities that I seek to honor in the pursuit if integrity in matters of religion and politics: a) a simple biblical summation of ethics that is attractive to all people of good will, by definition in pursuit of integrity, and yet costly; b) translate these ethics into the language of political ethics; c) isolate one of them for attention, “the power to love hard questions;” d) look at how Jesus, in the face of his religious and political enemies, displayed this integrity and power while paying a cost; and d) look at how William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as committed disciples of Jesus, pursued the same in quite different contexts, each with their own costs. Such a basis can ratify the possibility of integrity.

The Six Pillars of Biblical Power

Biblical theology at its core is ethical, drawn from the Greek roots of ethos and ethikos, in reference to social customs and habits, or most concretely, “ethics refers to how we treat people.”[4] It is intrinsically relational in focus. The Bible, on its own terms, is the story of creation, sin and redemption as introduced in Genesis 1-3, acknowledged across the theological spectrum.[5] Trust is assumed in Genesis 1-2. Then it is broken in Genesis 3 (thus, descriptive of the doctrine of sin) – first vertically, between man and the Creator, between woman and the Creator; and thus second, horizontally, between man and woman, and thus, between all people. The shema calls for a reversal of that reality – the restoration of the vertical love of God, and hence, the horizontal love of neighbor.

In my own commentary on the essence of the shema, both through theological discipline and Protestant midrashim,[6] if you will, I have itemized its essence in The Six Pillars of Biblical Power: Real Theology for the Gress Roots,[7] language accessible to a skeptical age and made thus accountable. Its substance is likewise affirmed by the broadest range of the church, and is summed up accordingly:

The Power to Give: We believe that the Creator, Yahweh Elohim, the Lord God Almighty, our heavenly Father, employs his unlimited power to give to and equally bless all people as image bearers of God. The power to give is modeled in the faithful marriage of one man and one woman, in parenthood, and is the basis for trust in human society.

The Power to Live in the Light: We believe that the Lord God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. As darkness and the prince of darkness flee the light, we embrace the power to live in the light of God’s presence, open and accountable to all people in all we believe, say and do.

The Power of Informed Choice: We believe that the Lord God gives us all the power of informed choice, to say yes to the good of freedom and life, and no to the evil of slavery and death.

The Power to Love Hard Questions: We believe that the Lord God gives us the freedom and power to pose hard questions of him, and of one another in Christian community. This is the power of sanctifying integrity.

The Power to Love Enemies: We believe that the Lord Jesus loved the world when we were yet enemies of the truth, drowning in a sea of broken trust. Now, as believers, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to love those who are, at present, enemies of the Gospel.

The Power to Forgive: We believe that the power to give is restored to the broken world through the power to forgive, purchased in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Thus, we as believers are called to extend this forgiveness to the broken world, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in celebration of the mercy that triumphs over judgment in the second coming of Jesus.

No one can be accountable to these six pillars, to God and neighbor, apart from the pursuit of integrity. There is no room for self-deceit for anyone who affirms these pillars, and thus, it is ultimately costly in terms of the nature of sanctification. Here the Bible precedes and affirms Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concerns for the “cost of discipleship” in the face of “cheap grace.”[8]

The Six Pillars of Honest Politics

The theological language of the six pillars of biblical power is then translated into the political realm, seeking to make a contribution to the larger social order in The Six Pillars of Honest Politics: And the Power of the Prepartisan,[9] and is summed up accordingly:

The power to give affirms that the unalienable rights given by the Creator belong to all people equally, and leaders in human government should serve such a gift.

The power to live in the light means leaders in human government at every level should be as fully transparent as possible.

The power of informed choice is rooted in an honest definition of terms in political debate, providing a level playing field for all ideas to be heard equally, apart from which political freedom is not possible.

The power to love hard questions is in place when political leaders honor and answer those who pose them the toughest questions.

The power to love enemies recognizes that even the harshest of political opponents share a common humanity and are to be treated with respect.

The power to forgive recognizes the need to address our individual and societal transgressions against one another, and to work toward justice and reconciliation.

In some 200 addresses on university campuses, speaking to the widest variety of persons and beliefs, I have yet to find anyone not willing to affirm these six pillars, other than atheists at one point.[10] Rather, I find consistent embrace, and indeed, have even been invited to teach such biblical pillars in Muslim context.[11]

Too, these six pillars of honest politics can only be embraced by those who pursue integrity. They upend the definition of “power” in the conventional sense. There is no room for self-deceit by any person who would dare to publicly espouse them.

The Power to Love Hard Questions

With the chosen focus here on the fourth pillar, we can note that as the Messiah, Jesus fulfilled the essence of the Tenakh,[12] and with it, a long and rich history of the power to love hard questions. The Bible begins with the positive metaphor for human freedom in the order of creation, as a “feast of exploration” in the learning process as image-bearers of God, free to ask questions in his presence.[13]

With the advent of human sin, questions became hard because the answers required accountability to where we err, actively or passively, an erring that inevitably hurts others. The biblical tradition of the redemptive love of hard questions is highlighted in places such as when the Queen of Sheba questioned Solomon,[14] and as she was praised by Jesus accordingly;[15] in the Book of Job, with Job’s freedom to be questioned by and to pose questions of his friends, to pose of Yahweh his deepest questions concerning his sufferings,[16] and in the end a quintessential call to integrity to “brace yourself like a man”[17] and be accountable to Yahweh’s questions;[18] in the nature of the Book of Psalms, and its liturgical codification of the broadest range of questions, so often rooted in suffering and betrayal;[19] in the very literary structure of the Book of Ecclesiastes, in a thinking out loud process of the toughest questions in life, where the “Teacher” pursued wisdom in human terms only to conclude with the need return to God;[20] in the Book of Jeremiah where the prophet was free to pose of Yahweh such a painful question so as to call him a deceiver;[21] in the Book of Jonah where the prophet, slow to learn his lesson, faced Yahweh’s concluding question he had yet to learn;[22] in the Book of Habakkuk, where the structure of the text focuses on a question posed by the prophet, with an answer given by Yahweh, a second question posed in response, with a second answer given, and then third, Habakkuk’s satisfaction expressed;[23] in Jesus’s teaching style as the quintessential rabbi who posed far more questions than he answered (by one account, 188 separate ones in the four gospels), which along with his parables, called for the integrity of his listeners to own the questions first, then to answer them, such as with Jesus’s dynamic “What if?” questions;[24] and in Paul’s teaching style, where he employed classic rhetorical skills to imitate the same purposes of Jesus.[25]

It is an understatement to say that the Bible is infused with this reality. When we are free to pose of God our toughest questions, and one of another, integrity is served. No shortcuts or cheap grace possible.

Jesus, in the Face of His Enemies

In a book just published, I examine the larger context of the classic “Christ and Caesar” question of church and state.[26] The standard interpretation is usually too facile, as though the clause “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”[27] refers to a strict separation between religion and politics. Not only is this possibility an anomaly in our international survey – as a measure of reality in terms of human nature – but with Jesus, it was the summation of a larger territory known by his hearers, in putting flight to the premise of a trick question. Or, in other words, this gravamen of the language of religion and politics come to us in the biblical profile of the power to love hard questions.

Let’s set the stage to understand the surrounding context of the trick question, and how Jesus handled it.

The first line of Matthew’s gospel is baldly political: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David …”[28] In the face of the occupation of Caesar’s Rome, and the local rule of Herod the Tetrarch, this was a declaration to a Jewish readership that Jesus, the Son of David, was the son of the founding king of Jerusalem, heir to the throne, the Messiah coming to displace false political rule. The zealots of the day looked for an immediate evisceration of the Romans, but Jesus was aiming deeper.[29] The Son of David language proves pivotal in Matthew’s gospel, used 10 of the 25 times it is found in the whole Bible. Herod the Great and his son Herod the Tetrarch were both fearful,[30] and the religious elitists immediately opposed Jesus early on.[31]

A second theme pivotal in Matthew’s gospel is that of the strength of childlikeness – which includes the unfettered freedom to ask questions, even embarrassing ones – and where Jesus identifies it as the essence of the kingdom of heaven.[32] Both of these themes converged during Passover Week when Jesus was confronted by his enemies in public.

Since the advent of Roman rule in Israel, 64 B.C., renamed as the province of Palestine, there was a strict separation of temple and state, of religion and politics, which Jesus challenged head on. The Romans were adroit in dealing with their conquered peoples, investing in the existing elite to buy them off for the sake of keeping the populations under control. The Jewish population was the only non-polytheistic people conquered by Rome, and the only peoples who refused to bow down to the imperial cult of Caesar. Also, they successfully, and uniquely, resisted being conscripted into the Roman army.

Thus, the Sadducees, Pharisees, and among them, the chief priests, in particular, were bought off. Thus, their integrity was forfeit, they were always a compromised people, placating their Roman overlords first, and thus making their devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob second and fungible. In 20-19 B.C., Herod the Great rebuilt the temple of Solomon according to its original grandeur, replacing the second temple that was much more modest following the Babylonian exile.[33] This provided the religious elite with the stature and income necessary to retain their positions of power. But in order to do so, they also had to agree that their religious rituals would be religious only, kept behind the temple walls. In other words, they were allowed to keep the Law of Moses so long as it was not fully the Law of Moses. All the elements in the Law calling for social justice were not permitted to permeate Roman dominated society, to go outside the temple walls as it were. The moment such an attempt would be made the Roman boot would come crashing down.

Thus, much of the religious elite were fearful of anything smacking of the Messianic or political, and at a deeper level, it was due to their idolatry of the temple served by their quiescence toward issues of political justice. The Judahite remnant of Israel lost the original temple in 586 B.C. because of such idolatry, and the evil practices into which they as a nation had descended,[34] and were now descending into it again sans the original practices.[35]

With these themes and realities well known and percolating beneath the surface, Jesus entered Jerusalem for his first public time on the first day of Passover week, just days before his crucifixion and resurrection. He was stepping into a huge political drama with a theological agenda that was far larger but fully inclusive of it, and in fact, the Passover Week saga is the most crucial biblical and historical nexus of the clash between the domains of religion and politics.

Jesus had been ministering in the countryside theretofore. His reputation was widespread, in the authority of his teaching, the power demonstrations in healings, driving out of demons, other miracles, and in showing of mercy to the dispossessed. And Lazarus had just been raised from the dead.[36] All this threatened the religious and political elite.

In his triumphal entry, Jesus eschewed the pretense of a Herod, and entered the city as among the people, not over them,[37] being cited prophetically as “gentle.”[38] The Messianic expectations were high, and among the tens of thousands of people there,[39] many were shouting and singing Messianic texts, and especially, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”[40] The first act of this “gentle” Jesus was his only act of recorded “violence” in the Scriptures – driving out of the temple area the people buying and selling, and overturning the tables of the money changers along with the benches of those selling doves. These Jewish merchants were charging usurious rates of fellow Jesus, in the sight of Gentiles, for otherwise legitimate business needs that should have occurred outside the temple walls.[41] Jesus quoted the prophets in declaring that these merchants had perverted the temple from a house of prayer into a den of robbers.[42] His gentleness was not with hypocrisy and usury, but it was with the people being thus victimized.

Accordingly, the blind and lame came to him to be healed, and as a result the children repeated the words they had heard earlier from their parents, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”[43] Here now were political claims made in the temple area, and if allowed to grow, would invite Roman opprobrium.

With the integrity of Jesus thus far unimpeachable, but with a political clash in the offing, the chief priests sought to intervene. They challenged Jesus: “Do you hear what these children are saying?”[44] Sub-terra, what this meant was, “Shut them up, lest the Romans charge us with a riot, and shut down Passover Week and the temple.”[45] They were employing sarcasm employed again a man who had healed the deaf, and Jesus replied with sarcasm: “Have you never read, ‘ “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’”?[46]

Jesus quoted the Septuagint’s Greek[47] rendering of one clause of the Hebrew text from the eighth psalm, to an elite who not only had read this passage, but had the entire Tenakh memorized as well. The Hebrew word for “strength” had been rendered “praise” in the Septuagint, and the chief priests knew this linguistic reality.

As well, since Jesus stopped quoting the text in the middle of a grammatical sentence, he knew the chief priests would finish it in their minds: “… because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.”[48] In other words, his enemies tried to silence any debate, any questions, with their sarcasm. They tried to silence the one who has healed the deaf with a claim that he did not “hear,” and Jesus, in response, asked them if they had “read” words they took pride in having memorized. Jesus, in the face of his enemies, with integrity, prepared to embrace the cost of such a conflict, all for the sake of bringing the Gospel and its mercy to the needy who sought it, needing to remove the self-justification of such hypocrisy so that the Good News could be more clearly seen and believed.

In his reply, Jesus was saying two crucial things. First, in terms they clearly understood, that the praise of the children so despised by the chief priests, was in fact his strength in the face of their pretence – the love of questions and the integrity of innocence versus the fear of questions and the pretense of power and pride. True opposites. And second, Jesus was allowing his enemies to declare themselves his enemies, in their own minds by their follow through of the sentence from the eighth psalm, enemies of the one whose Messianic nature was increasingly evident to the common people. They were seeking to disprove such Messianic claims, and the Hebrew prophets he and others were citing accordingly, and here Jesus quoted in part, another Messianic text.

Jesus was inviting his enemies into an honest debate, which is to say, all they had to do to disprove him as the Messiah was not to be silenced, to successfully filibuster him.

Thus, by grasping even this brief overview of the context, we see how Jesus set the stage in this classical religion and politics debate through the power to love hard questions. Instead of a top-down power exercise of telling his enemies to shut up, or to otherwise seek to marginalize them, as they were seeking to do with him, Jesus extended hospitality for them to rake him over the coals with their toughest questions. Here, they initially silenced themselves relative to the central question of Jesus being the Son of David, but in this rigorous freedom given them, the enemies of Jesus followed through with four secondary questions seeking to gain the upper hand, ad hoc and not in coordination between the various self-interest groups among his enemies – questions of 1) credentials, 2) religion and politics, 3) theological nitpicking and 4) theological grandstanding.

First, the chief priests and elders challenged him: “ ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked, ‘And who gave you this authority?’ ”[49] Jesus was not credentialed in their eyes, not having formally studied under a rabbi in Jerusalem. But in classic rabbinic style, Jesus answered a question by a question, probing for integrity by means of a level playing field approach: “I will ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”[50] Jesus’s question centered on the authority exercised by John Baptist, and to have answered it, the chief priests and elders would have been trapped by their own deceptiveness. “So they answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’ Then he said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’ ”[51] They had nothing more to say. This pretension of ignorance was the oldest and weakest form of moral argument,[52] yet the best the chief priests and elders could manufacture at the moment. Thus, the elitist trump care of credentials failed.

Second, some disciples of the Pharisees, along with members of the Herodian political party, conspired to trap Jesus in asking him if it were right to pay taxes to Caesar, using unsuccessful flattery as their modus operandi.[53] The Pharisees reasoned that if Jesus agreed to pay taxes, then they could call him an idolater, since the denarius had an image on it with words declaring “Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus,” and, ipso facto, to handle the coin was in some measure to give heed to the imperial cult.[54] Thus, they could dismiss him as a mere pretender to the title of the Son of David. The Herodians – as politically driven turncoat Jews, despised by the Pharisees, and vice versa, but here as convenient co-belligerents[55] — reasoned that if Jesus refused to pay taxes, he could be charged as an insurrectionist and thus sentenced to death by Roman political authority.[56] Trapped, coming and going, so they thought.

So Jesus asked to see the denarius coin, and asked whose portrait and inscription was found on it. They answered “Caesar’s,” so Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”[57] They were amazed, and left his presence speechless. Why?

Because, as the Son of David, Jesus was not threatened by Caesar, since in his first coming he was the “Suffering Servant,”[58] seeking to win the allegiance of all peoples, and make them into disciples, not seeking temporal political power – eternal and just political power would come in his second coming.[59] He was not defining a facile separation of spheres between religion and politics, but was claiming Lordship over both, even if not being politically enforced in the present. To the Pharisees, in other words: “Give to Caesar his money, with its false apotheosis, and see what good it does him when he stands before the true Creator and Judge – no skin off your back.” And to the Herodians, in other words, “Give to God his image, which is yourselves as image-bearers, and love him with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”[60]

Though this was the cardinal moment of religious and political conflict, there was further context still to come. Jesus’s greatest concern was with religious hypocrisy among the self-defined elitists, knowing that if the religious leaders were true to their theological callings, then political tyranny could not take root, all the way back to the exodus and final exile. Thus, the trap of “Christ and Caesar” failed.

Thus, third, the heterodox Sadducees came with a trick question that addressed their pet peeves concerning the resurrection and angels, and as Jesus answered the, the crowds were “astonished” and the Sadducees were “silenced.”[61] Theological nitpicking thus failed.

Then, finally, the Pharisees got together for one final try, served coincidentally by an honest member of their sect,[62] and asked Jesus what the greatest command was, and Jesus answered with the shema.[63] They had nothing more to say, and thus their theological grandstanding failed. So, while they were still gathered there, Jesus turned the question back to the nature of the Son of David, quoted another Messianic text, from David himself, and accordingly, “No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”[64]

The enemies of Jesus were self-silenced, even as Jesus wept over their chosen disinclusion in the kingdom of heaven,[65]and they could not contest his claim to be the Son of David, and hence the ultimate “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Nor could they discount John the Baptist’s claim that Jesus was the “Lamb of God.”[66] This meant that Jesus was free to continue to the cross publicly blameless in the sight of his enemies,[67] with authority to atone for human sin, embrace a costly death, rise again, ascend to the right hand of Power, then to return as the Judge of the living and the dead, and thus inaugurate fully the kingdom of God. Ultimate political justice and mercy achieved.[68]

Out of this paradigm, we can note the following realities for the interface of religion and politics:

  1. The freedom for public worship in political context is assumed.
  2. An examination of the details of how Jesus conducted himself in the face of his enemies would reveal how he exemplified all six pillars of biblical power, and set the stage for his disciples to exemplify the six pillars of honest politics.
  3. Disciples of Jesus are called to advance the power of the level playing field and its power to love hard questions to all people equally.
  4. Disciples of Jesus are called to use our earthly citizenship to advance the coming kingdom of God, being fearless in speaking truth to power.
  5. Through such costly integrity, disciples of Jesus are able to remove static interference to the Gospel, remove false barriers, and thus empower the grasp of justice and mercy as a taste of the power of the age to come.

This paradigm is rooted in the hermeneutical power of the eighth psalm, ands has not been exegeted in church history. Buit too, its ethics have been deeply assumed and exemplified repeatedly across two millennia. We can look at two lead examples from recent biographies by Eric Metaxas.[69]

William Wilberforce

As an heir to a rich abolitionist history myself,[70] I was drawn in my first seminary degree to research the former slave trader John Newton. He is the writer of one of the most universal and deeply loved Christian hymns, Amazing Grace,[71] and who through 52 years of pastoral ministry in the Church of England also worked prophetically against the slave trade and slavery, joining with John and Charles Wesley and others. It was Newton who personally challenged the young William Wilberforce in 1787 not to leave politics and become an Anglican priest, but to stay in Parliament and work toward the abolition of the slave trade, and slavery, in the United Kingdom.[72] The first was accomplished in 1807, and the second, just three days before Wilberforce’s death in 1833.[73] In the process Wilberforce also spent his entire inherited fortune, ending up a pauper, investing in “sixty-nine separate groups dedicated to social reform of one kind or another.”[74]

Metaxas details his early years, crucial elements in his formation, including his early faith, parental efforts to drive him from it, and his return to it through Isaac Milner.[75] Part of his character was that Wilberforce loved people, and loved chewing on the hard questions with friends and foe alike for hours at a time.

In Parliament, to which Wilberforce entered very young, his eloquence, wit and extemporaneous speaking abilities became soon evident and lauded widely. But he was in a lapsed state of faith, and upon the chance of a long carriage ride on the continent with Milner, his thinking was catalyzed to consider the essence of the Christian faith. As Metaxas states: “Wilberforce was throughout his life possessed of a rare and bracing intellectual honesty,”[76] and in the process of a sustained consideration of the faith, he wrote in his diary in 1785, “I believe all the great truths of the Christian religion, but I am not acting as though I did.”[77] This eventually led to his meeting with Newton, and formal (re)conversion that December, and first taking of communion on Good Friday, April 14, 1786. Wilberforce had been previously known for a range of common vices exacerbated through his irritability, sarcasm and harsh temper. But following his “great change,” those in the polite society, of which he was a leading member, thought he had become mad (and thus vulnerable to the damning charge of “enthusiasm” lodged against those practicing the Methodism of the Wesleys, especially among the poor and dispossessed). Yet, as one prior antagonist stated in seeing the sea change in Wilberforce’s character and priorities, “If this is madness, I hope he will bite us all.”[78]

Metaxas gives the alarming details that sustain a summary statement: “Entirely surprising to most of us, life in eighteenth Britain was particularly brutal, decadent, violent and vulgar. Slavery was only the worst of societal evils that included epidemic alcoholism, child prostitution, child labor, frequent public executions for petty crimes, public dissections and burnings of executed criminals, and unspeakable cruelty to animals.”[79] At least twenty-five percent of all unmarried women in London were prostitutes,[80] the small upper class set it itself above it all, and religion has grown toothless in partial reaction to the religious wars. Wilberforce had been aware of this reality only in the sense of background, but when he became a professing Christian, he set himself to address it vigorously. He declared in his diary in 1785: “God almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”[81] The “reformation” of manners is a quaint phrase today, but in the late eighteenth century, it referred to all public conduct and ethics, addressing all the social evils mentioned above. Wilberforce was all-embracive, indeed, reflecting the etymology of shalom, of integrity.

He became tirelessly involved in a range of societies he founded or was leader within, but especially the Clapham Society, which met regularly for prayer and political strategies when Parliament was in session. This was a group of well-connected and influential people who were devoted Christians, averaging 12-20 people at the core, with a dozen or two otherwise involved from time to time. The well-known writer Hannah More was centrally involved, and the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, was a close friend to Wilberforce and strategic ally. The Society selected a member of their own to personally investigate the slave trade, traveling to the West Indies, and his published eye-witness report was the first of a kind and explosive, showing the myth that the slaves were treated humanely in the “gentile occupation” of slave trading. Then they developed what may have been the first public petition drive ever, in opposing the slave trade.[82] All the while, Wilberforce was a superb orator, an ambassador to his colleagues, relentlessly putting before them the tough questions whether in Parliament or in countless personal visits, and seeking their questions in reply.

In the face of many great political odds, with many sore disappointments between 1789, when he introduced his first bill calling for the abolition of the slave trade; and in 1807, just before John Newton died, when it finally passed by the huge margin of 283-16,[83] he prevailed. Wilberforce was little in physical stature with many physical ailments tracing to a childhood sickness, but of unquestioned integrity and moral authority by all who knew him, friend and foe alike. Parliament gave him a standing ovation upon passage of the bill, and by many colleagues who had vilified him for years, and remarkably, Wilberforce and his colleagues succeeded in having Parliament to pay the redemption price for all the slaves, so as not to implode the economy.[84] And in the 24 subsequent years until slavery itself was abolished, no blood was shed unlike what happened in the American Civil War. Wilberforce’s integrity was proactive and hence pre-emptive in the most positive sense. His pervasive Christian integrity was such a model that “When Wilberforce entered Parliament, there were three MPs who would have identified themselves as serious Christians, but a half century later there were closer to two hundred. Politics had come to be thought of as a noble calling.”[85]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In Metaxas’s biography, he researches Bonhoeffer’s remarkable family life, one of the most well known and influential families in Germany prior to and after the turn of the twentieth century.[86] His parents shaped a highly educated man, but one who also went against the elite presupposition of pursuing science or philosophy in university, opting instead to study theology, where he gained his Ph.D. by age 21.[87] In an era where academic theology and life were functionally distinct, it was the opposite with Bonheoffer, who would become famous for such integrity. Even though his father was an agnostic, with his mother a deeply committed Lutheran believer, the respect and love between father and mother was profound, and together they opposed anything less than the fullest integrity of all life, from thinking to action, were firm opponents to the Nazis from the outset, and deeply devoted to the equality and dignity of the Jews,[88] which also meant dissenting from Luther himself.[89]

Adolf Hitler became Führer in 1933, seizing power in the Reichstag. In an already planned radio speech set for two days later, Bonhoeffer publicly opposed to the so-called “Führer principle” identifying it as an idolatrous term, as a “mis-leader.”[90] Before his speech was done, the radio signal was cut off. Well ahead of his peers in the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer saw the evil of Hitler’s rise, and never backed down. He was a lone prophetic voice in the 1920s and early 1930s. Metaxas identifies Bonhoeffer’s distinction as “ … real leadership derived its authority from God, the source of all goodness … But the authority of the Führer was submitted to nothing. It was self-derived and autocratic, and therefore has a messianic aspect.”[91] Very quickly the Nazis ramped up the fiction of the Aryan race and its supremacy, and the cognate hatred for the Jews, blaming them principally for all of Germany’s woes.[92]

At the theological level, Bonhoeffer identified the anti-Christian nature of Nazi theology. Hitler used the church for his own ends, and brought most of the “German church” into line for his National Socialism and his role as Führer. He was virulently and openly anti-Christian, as were most his top lieutenants, included much paganism in his own self-apotheosis, yet “What helped him aggrandize power, he approved of, and what prevented it, he did not. He was utterly pragmatic.”[93] Serious Christians saw the handwriting on the wall, including Karl Barth, but they were a minority in the church.

Thus, a struggle for the church began, and Bonhoeffer was at the lead in such documents as the Bethel Confession,[94] and drawing a line: “The question is really: Christianity of Germanism? And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of day the better.”[95] But there was a deep reticence to believe that Hitler and Nazism were as evil as history proved to show, so with the Confessing Church resistance, there continually sought to reach out to and influence Hitler for the good, with even Martin Niemöller holding back from his deepest convictions.[96] His words after eight years in concentration camps as a personal prisoner of Hitler’s are well known:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. And then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”[97]

But Bonhoeffer never held back. In his work in Germany, and in England in the U.S., seeking to shore up support for the Confessing Church, he was tireless. In the face of the “Aryan Paragraph” and Hitler’s co-opting of church leader Theodor Heckel, the declaration of the “Reich church,” and Heckel’s opposition to Bonhoeffer, they only faced a man “strangely immune to intimidation,”[98] and thus joining in the Barmen Declaration,[99] principally authored by Karl Barth. Metaxas: “The purpose of the Barmen Declaration was to state what the German church had always believed, to ground it in the Scriptures, and to differentiate it from the bastardized theology that had been coming from the German Christians. It made clear that the German church was not under the authority of the state, it repudiated the anti-Semitism and other heresies of the German Christians and their ‘official’ church led by [Johann Heinrich Ludwig] Müller.[100]

Through the murderous “Night of the Long Knives”[101] to the Nuremberg Laws ,[102] the Confessing Church was slow to act, always hoping for some way around the increasing conflict. “It was guilty of the typically Lutheran error of confining itself to the narrow sphere of how church and state were related.”[103] Namely, the Lutheran church would react to protect itself from state encroachment, but did not see its mission to proactively “speak for those who could not speak”[104] for themselves outside the church. Bonhoeffer remained the most adamant protester of such a false dichotomy. Here again, the very definition of integrity surfaces, as it did with his whole life.

In 1937 the Nazis cracked down on the Confessing Church, arresting 800 pastors and lay leaders, including Niemöller. The next year Bonhoeffer was banned from Berlin. Hitler annexed Austria On April 20, the head of the Reich church demanded that every pastor in Germany take an oath of allegiance to the Führer,[105] and later that National Socialism was a natural continuation of “the work of Martin Luther,” and that the “Christian faith is the unbridgeable religious opposite of Judaism.”[106] Kristallnacht followed on November 9, the Leiben sunwertes Leiben against the mentally handicapped and other weakened people came into the equation, and with the escalation of war against European neighbors, Bonhoeffer decided to stay in Germany and suffer with his people in the hope of eventual reconstruction, returning from America where he was stunned that at Riverside Church, “tolerance triumphed truth.”[107] He was always intellectually honest, being fearless not to bow to any political idols.

Sometime in this process Bonhoeffer joined the conspiracy to kill Hitler, a saga that had many near misses and never succeeded. He wrestled deeply with the need to act in such a way, including issues of purposeful deception in the face of consummate evil, [108] but was convinced that integrity demanded nothing less. “All his life, Bonhoeffer had applied the same logic to theological issues that his father applied to scientific issues.”[109] Part of this integrity in thought involved a “readiness to accept guilt and freedom,”[110] which is to say, “He knew that to act freely could mean inadvertently doing wrong and incurring guilt.”[111] In other words, his whole person recoiled from the idea of assassinating a political leader on the one hand, while on the other, how could he not take action with millions of innocents being murdered and killed because of this one man? He “was outraged by injustice,”[112] and had “theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive.”[113] He actively opposed evil, risking his soul and life in the process. “In the light of the events in Germany, everyone was trapped in a situation of ethical impossibilities.”[114] Most fled such conundrums, but Bonhoeffer addressed the impossible questions head on. In the end, Bonhoeffer was sent to prison on a technicality, then his role in the conspiracy was discovered, and Hitler had him personally hanged with a few others just two weeks before the Allies triumphed, and Hitler hanged himself.


Integrity in the matter of religion and politics is possible, and for the Christian it is rooted in the apostle Paul’s confession: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”[115] It is self-centered ego that prizes top-down religious and/or political power, and only when the ego is redeemed, can integrity be found, and thus justice and mercy advanced for all people equally.

This I seek to do, and hence the six pillars, in both theological and political context, hold my feet to the fire.

In Jesus I see intellectual honesty at all points, and fearlessness in the face of evil, while being prepared to die for his enemies whom he loved to the end.

As the shema is central to biblical faith, and in its ethical nature, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer are disciples of Jesus as I am. In them, I see the embrace of the shema where they were relentlessly true to God and neighbor, with intellectual honesty that is prerequisite to an honest embrace of hard questions in pursuit of integrity and truth, and as they tackled great political evil, they give courageous examples for integrity in the matter of religion and politics.



[1] It is a word that means “wholeness,” and only then, as a predicate for the popular rendering of “peace.”

[2] Mark 12:29-31.

[3] Rankin, John C., Hartford, TEI Publishing House, 1999.

[4] In a discussion with my advisor at Harvard in the 1980s, Arthur Dyck, chairman of the ethics departments in three of the graduate schools, I made this observation in the context of a more technical discussion about the etymology of ethics. He stroked his chin, and said, “Yes.” In other words, I was aiming for a simple summation accessible to the wider culture.

[5] Again, at Harvard, the late Krister Stendahl, proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis of inchoate sources for the Pentateuch and whole Tenakh, said once in conversation, “If there is anything that holds the Bible together, it is the story of creation and the repair of a broken creation.”

[6] The Talmudic practice of story-telling from one’s own perspective in order to get inside the storyline of Scripture ,and my Protestant love of doing the same.

[7] Rankin, John C, Ventura, Regal Books, 2008; Hartford, TEI Publishing House, 2009-2011.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone Books), 1959.

[9] Rankin, John C., Hartford, TEI Publishing House, 2009-2011.

[10] Atheists react to the language of the Creator, but too, rarely dispute the same desire for the unalienable rights of life, liberty and property for all people equally.

[11] Dr. Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic Studies at American University, is enthusiastic for these political ethics in his native Pakistan and across the Muslim world; and too, Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, has similar interest.

[12] This is the English acronym for “the Law, the Prophets and the Writings” which equal the Hebrew Bible.

[13] Akōl tōkël in the Hebrew, “in feasting you will continually feast,” as the first words spoken in the Bible to Adam by Yahweh, giving defining metaphor to the freedom to learn and ask questions.

[14] 1 Kings 10:1-9

[15] Matthew 12:42.

[16] Job 3-37.

[17] Job 38:3.

[18] Job 38-41.

[19] E.g., Psalm 22:1.

[20] Ecclesiastes 1-12.

[21] Jeremiah 20:7ff.

[22] Jonah 1-4.

[23] Habakkuk 1-3.

[24] Matthew 11:20-24.

[25] E.g., Romans 6:1-3; 11:7ff; 14:1-12.

[26] Rankin, John C., Jesus, in the Face of His Enemies: A Paradigm Shift for Overturning Politics As Usual, presently available on Amazon’s Kindle, later in January, 2011, as an Amazon paperback, then by Beaufort Books, New York.

[27] Matthew 22:21.

[28] Matthew 1:1.

[29] His first coming as the Suffering Servant according to the four songs in Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12; and his second coming as reigning King of kings in Revelation 19:1ff

[30] Matthew 2:1-18; Luke 13:31-35.

[31] E.g., Matthew 12:1-14.

[32] E.g. Matthew 18:1-9.

[33] The returning refugees began in 539 B.C., addressed in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

[34] Sorcery, sacred prostitution and child sacrifice, itemized across the pages of the historical books and prophets, especially Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

[35] The newer idolatry was more a matter of the temple as an end to itself, not to worship God foremost, and as a means of power and position.

[36] John 11:1-44.

[37] On the foal of a donkey, not on a war stallion like Herod would.

[38] Matthew 21:5; Zechariah 9:9.

[39] As Josephus estimates, some 80,000 city residents, swelling four-fold during Passover Week.

[40] Matthew 21:9.

[41] But to doing inside the temple walls, religious pressure allowed usury to occur more readily.

[42] Matthew 21:13; Isaiah 56:7; Jeremiah 7:11.

[43] Matthew 21:15.

[44] Matthew 21:16.

[45] See Matthew 26:5 and John 11:48.

[46] Matthew 21:16.

[47] aka the LXX, translated in the Diaspora ca, 284-236 B.C. by 72 Jewish scholars with extraordinary care in rendering the contextual Hebrew into the atomistic Greek.

[48] Psalm 8:2.

[49] Matthew 21:23.

[50] Matthew 21:24.

[51] Matthew 21:27.

[52] We see this first Cain in pleading ignorance about his murdered brother’s whereabouts (Genesis 4:9).

[53] The Pharisees, in the first question sought to put down Jesus’s credentials; not their disciples try the opposite track.

[54] The disciples of the Pharisees handled such coinage, but surely no Messiah, coming to overthrow a false king, would affirm such a king in any measure, they could easily have reasoned.

[55] Fulfilling the ancient Near Eastern proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” at least until the mutual enemy is dispatched, and the prior status quo reasserts itself.

[56] The Jew had no such political authority, and had to yield to Rome here.

[57] Op. cit. n. 27.

[58] Op. cit. n. 29.

[59] See Revelation 21:1-5.

[60] The essence of the shema, to be quoted by Jesus explicitly near the end of this drama.

[61] Matthew 22:23-34.

[62] Mark 12:28-34.

[63] Matthew 22:34-40.

[64] Matthew 22:46.

[65] Matthew 23:37-39.

[66] John 1:29, 35.

[67] Fulfilling the Levitical requirements.

[68] See James 2:12-13.

[69] Metaxas, Eric J., Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (San Francisco, HarperCollins), 2007; Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, Thomas Nelson), 2010.

[70] Close to my direct lineage is the Rev. John T. Rankin, 1793-1886, known as the “manager of the underground railroad,” in leaving slave holding Kentucky for the north side of the Ohio River, personally, with his sons, in serving 2,000 fleeing slaves, and teaching and networking widely; and a more distant relative is the Rev. Andrew Rankin, founder of Howard University after the Civil War; and in my direct lineage, many others were Presbyterian ministers active in abolition.

[71] Olney hymns, 1864.

[72] Newton, John, Out of the Depths (London, C.J. Farncombe & Sons), 1935, pp. 169ff.

[73] Metaxas, Amazing, p. 274

[74] Ibid., p. xvii.

[75] Ibid., pp. 41ff

[76] Ibid., p. 50.

[77] Ibid., p. 53

[78] Ibid., p. 66

[79] Ibid., p. 69; and becoming one of the founding members of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (p. 266).

[80] Ibid., p. 76

[81] Ibid., p. 85

[82] Ibid., p. 148

[83] Ibid., p. 211

[84] Ibid., p. 272

[85] Ibid., p. 234

[86] His father Karl was chair of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Berlin, the most consulted such expert in the nation.

[87] Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, op cit, p. 66.

[88] Ibid., p.14ff.

[89] Ibid., p. 90.

[90] Ibid., p. 139

[91] Ibid., p. 141.

[92] Ibid., pp. 150ff.

[93] Ibid., p. 165

[94] Ibid., p. 183ff.

[95] Ibid., p. 183.

[96] Ibid., p. 207

[97] Ibid., p. 192.

[98] Ibid., p. 206, 215.

[99] Ibid., pp. 220ff.

[100] Ibid., p. 222.

[101] Ibid., p. 229ff

[102] Ibid., p. 279ff

[103] Ibid., p. 280

[104] Ibid., p. 281

[105] Ibid., p. 308

[106] Ibid., p. 324

[107] Ibid., p. 338

[108] Ibid., p. 365

[109] Ibid., p. 361

[110] Ibid., p. 424

[111] Ibid., p. 425

[112] P. 450

[113] P. 446

[114] P. 470

[115] Galatians 2:20.


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