Pioneering Lutheran theologian, anti-Nazi resister, educator, ecumenist, poet, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on 4 February 1906 – just over 108 years ago this month.
Bonhoeffer's writings – including his books Life Together, Discipleship, Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison – have been crucially important for my own spiritual and intellectual journey over the years.
Of course, Bonhoeffer's writings, though voluminous in the way that they have been collected and curated (especially in the excellent Fortress Press edition) are also fragmentary and open to multiple interpretations. The latter is true of all texts in a way, but perhaps these more than most due to the extreme pressure of the conditions under which they were written. Indeed the last two of the volumes mentioned above were actually compiled after their author's death by colleagues, friends and former associates.
Over the years a veritable 'Bonhoeffer industry' has emerged; something to which I have made a couple of very modest contributions, most recently in bringing into print the important book by scholar and expert Keith Clements, Bonhoeffer in Britain (CTBI, 2006). Dr Clements, who has researched and written widely in this area, also made a significant contribution to the Fortress collected works in English in the shape of a full translation of the London sermons, many of which had previously only been available in German.
Bonhoeffer is important for all kinds of reasons. He combined a deeply prayerful and Christological approach to doing theology through biblical commitment and exploration, and with a determination to engage the reality of the world on its own terms – while recognising it to be God’s gift and promise in spite of its brokenness. His approach, arising out of his early doctorate and habilitation theses, therefore resists certain simplistic trends in both conservative and liberal theology which have persisted to this day, and beyond which I believe we need to move if we are going to continue to develop and sustain a transformational theology capable of facing up to the emerging post-Christendom context in which we find ourselves.
I say 'we', meaning Christians of a radical disposition (those wanting to nourish roots as well as open up routes), though I am glad also that Bonhoeffer has his appreciators among secular and interreligious audiences too – albeit, perhaps, smaller in number these days. The kind of 'secular religion' thinking prevalent in the 1960s did not always do justice to the subtlety of his thought in this area, it must be admitted. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer, anchored in Barth while able to hold back from too positivistic an account of revelation, rightly emphasised that incarnational Christianity was not about learning to be 'religious', but rather discovering what it means to be truly human. For him the narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was central to this understanding and to the faith and practice emerging from it.
Equally, it was Bonhoeffer who developed a language about reading 'history from below'; who spoke of the kind of 'new monasticism' necessary to re-founding a church capable of faithful service to the world; who posited prayer and action for justice as the two non-negotiable elements of Christian living in a world shrouded in deep darkness; who preached Christ as 'the man for others'; who foresaw the demise of Christendom and the church of power; who was inspired and revitalised by African-American Christianity at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York; and who went against the dominant Lutheran grain by embracing pacifism as a central part of his theology, shaped by Jesus's Sermon on the Mount.
This, of course, is just a partial flavour of the riches that Bonhoeffer has to offer the contemporary reader attuned to the thoughts and lessons of the past resourcing the thought of lessons of the present and future.
Of the points I have listed above, perhaps the one that may raise most questions for some readers is the point about pacifism. Did not Bonhoeffer abandon his earlier commitment to nonviolence and embrace a more situational and 'realistic' ethic in confrontation with Nazism? Was he not involved in, legitimating of, and arrested for, a resistance plot which involved plans to assassinate Hitler? Is he not therefore something of a prophet against, rather than for, nonviolence, at the end of the day?
That is the kind of reading of Bonhoeffer that all to easily emerges from some popular writing and pronouncements about him – perhaps not least the best-selling, recent biography by Eric Metaxas, which has gained the great theologian-martyr a rereading by many conservative Protestant evangelicals in the United States, among others, of late.
However, the notion of Bonhoeffer as virtually a just warrior is one which has been robustly (and, in my view, rightly) challenged in an authoritative way in an important new book published in November 2013 by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist and Daniel P. Umbel, entitled Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the myth, recovering his call to peacemaking (Baker Academic, USA).
I should declare something of a connection here. My long-term involvement with the former London Mennonite Centre included crossing paths with Mark Thiessen Nation when he was director of the LMC from 1996 to 2002. Though I enjoyed his theological contributions and gained a far greater ongoing familiarity with the work of Stanley Hauerwas through him, it would be fair to say that we did not always see eye-to-eye. However, I remember well one of the last seminars that Mark led at LMC before he left, and in which I had the pleasure and privilege to participate as a respondent. This focused on Bonhoeffer and peacemaking. It was excellent. We very much found a common language and commitment through Bonhoeffer’s work and witness – not least, on the issue of peace and struggle.
I have long held the view that attempts to suggest that Bonhoeffer abandoned his commitments concerning the directness and centrality of the Sermon on Mount, discipleship, and peace as the Christian way are profoundly wrong and not borne out by proper readings of his later texts and actions. Whatever one makes of claims for his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler (and this new book shows that there is little direct evidence for this, though his involvement in resistance clearly brought him into contact with people who were going down that road), it seems evident that Bonhoeffer never sought to develop a theory, a theology or a justification for killing – though he was certainly prepared to throw himself without self-preservation into putting a 'spoke in the wheel' of the Nazi death machine in a variety of ways. The outcome of this, of course, was his own execution right at the end of the war, following arrest for treason.
Bonhoeffer the Assassin? highlights the evidence that the practical issues involved in his final arrest included what can rightly be called conscientious objection (which was punishable by death anyway) and activities to do with helping Jews and resisters.
However, the book goes much further than this. It provides close readings of Bonhoeffer’s biography set within the larger story of opposition to Hitler, compromise in the church, and the development of what became the Ethics manuscript, in which the more 'realistic' account of his thinking is supposedly found. As Professor Barry Harvey observes: "Regardless of whether you are persuaded by the authors concerning Bonhoeffer's level of involvement in the attempt to kill Hitler, this volume will decisively reframe the way we read the thoughts and life of this most remarkable Christian."
It certainly will, and I hope to return to its issues and arguments in greater detail at a later stage. Suffice it to say that I am very sympathetic towards the general drift of this work. Much of the detailed textual summary and historical commentary is exceptionally valuable. This is an important contribution to scholarship and thinking about one of the most important theological figures of the mid-20th century. It is also a substantial work in the area of Christian nonviolence, and advocacy for theological and Christological peacemaking or pacifism. I would commend anyone interested in any of these themes to read it with care.
Meanwhile, I will end with several quotations from Bonhoeffer himself, in the Fortress edition; ones which continue to have great purchase on our continuing attempts to be engaged and faithful as Christians in a troubled world today.
"The peace demanded by God has two boundaries: first, the truth; second, justice. A community of peace can exist only when it does not rest on a lie or on injustice. Wherever a community of peace endangers or suffocates truth and justice, the community of peace must be broken and the battle must be declared. If the battle from both sides is really about truth and justice, then the community of peace, even when externally broken, will be realised more deeply and strongly in the battle for this very cause... The sole reason that Christians have a community of peace is because the one wishes to forgive the sins of the other. Even where the order of external peace in truth and justice remains secure, forgiveness of sins remains the only basis for all peace. It is therefore also the last foundation upon which all ecumenical work rests, particularly where the brokenness seems hopeless... Neither the external order of peace nor of the peace struggling for the same cause, but only the peace of God who creates the forgiveness of sins, is the reality of the gospel in which truth and justice are preserves together." (Bonhoeffer, 'On the theological foundation of the work of the World Alliance' in Ecumenical, Academic and Pastoral Work, pp. 365-366).
"Today, however, there is a widespread and extremely dangerous error that says that in the justification of struggle [against evil] there is already the justification for war, that this contains the fundamental Yes to war. The right to wage war can be derived from the right to struggle no more than the right to inflict torture can be derived from the necessity of legal process in human society... Our contemporary war does not fall under the concept of battle because it means certain self-destruction of both warring sides. For that reason today it is utterly impossible [for Christians] to characterise it as an order of preservation toward revelation, simply because it is absolutely destructive... Today’s war destroys soul and body. Because there is no way for us to understand war as God’s order of preservation and therefore as God’s commandment, and because war needs to be idealised and idolatrised in order to live, today's war, the next war, must be condemned by the church... We must face the next war with all the power of resistance, rejection, condemnation... We should not balk here at using the word 'pacifism'. Just as certainly as we submit the ultimate pacem facere to God, we too must pacem facere to overcome war." (Ibid pp. 366-367).
"War in its present-day form lays waste to God’s creation and obscures the view of revelation... The church forsakes obedience whenever it sanctions war. The church of Christ stands against war in favour of peace among the peoples, between nations, classes and races. However, the church also knows that there is no peace unless justice and truth are preserved. A peace that violates justice and truth is no peace, and the church of Christ must protest against such peace. There can be a peace that is worse than struggle. Yet it must be a struggle out of love for another, a battle that comes from the spirit, not from the flesh." (Ibid p. 380).
"We reject the false doctrine of the Christian state in any form... The state cannot presume to bring salvation to human beings. It cannot misuse the church as its moral and religious foundation. It is wrong to think of the church as the soul or the conscience of the state." (Bethel Declaration 415-6).
"These brothers in Christ obey his word; they do not doubt or question, but keep his commandment of peace. They are not ashamed, in defiance of the world, even to speak of eternal peace. They cannot take up arms against Christ himself – yet this is what they do if they take up arms against one another! Even in anguish and distress of conscience [there] is for them no escape from the commandment of Christ that there shall be peace.
"How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great adventure. It can never be made safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hands of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won where the way leads to the cross. Which of us can say [s]he knows what it might mean for the world if one nation should meet the aggressor, not with weapons in hand, but praying defenseless, and for that very reason protected by 'a bulwark never failing'?" (Bonhoeffer, 'The Church and the peoples of the world', in London, pp. 307-309).
It is evident that Bonhoeffer's commitment to peace is neither romantic nor rooted in mere optimism, nor abstract principle (which he rejected as an ethical procedure). Instead, as I have already indicated, it is profoundly theological and Christological, looking for the transformation of power by love which only abandonment to God makes possible.
At the same time, it also faces the world as it is, acknowledging complexity and ambiguity while seeking obedience to the call of the eternal in and through the fabric of the temporal. It may or may not be the case that Bonhoeffer felt the need to "sin boldly" in opposition to Hitler. But nowhere in what he left us are there suggestions that as a matter of policy he wanted to rewrite the very biblical theology that in turn re-wrote his life and story, such that, as an intellectual confronted by the obduracy of grace and gospel, he finally "became a Christian", as he put it.
* Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist and Daniel P. Umbel, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the myth, recovering his call to peacemaking (Baker Academic, USA, 2013). http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/bonhoeffer-the-assassin/329520
* Keith Clements, Bonhoeffer and Britain (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, 2006). http://www.chbookshop.co.uk/books/9780851693071/Bonhoeffer-and-Britain
* Augsburg Fortress Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series: http://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/productfamily/88/Dietrich-Bonhoe...
* Bonhoeffer's Life Together: God and the world re-understood in Christ', by Simon Barrow (CCOM paper): http://www.simonbarrow.net/article29
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. You can follow him on Twitter at @simonbarrow.