A review of Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking By Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, Daniel P. Umbel (Baker Academic)
"But what about Bonhoeffer?” It’s a challenge thrown out to anyone who, under the impact of Jesus’ teaching of nonresistance and love of enemy in the Sermon on the Mount, becomes a pacifist. On the one hand, the four gospels and other early Christian writings seem to teach straightforwardly that Jesus’ disciples should be willing to die but never willing to kill.1 On the other hand, a just-war tradition going back to Augustine or earlier attempts to explain why, as a practical matter, this one aspect of Jesus’ teaching should be qualified, bracketed out, or suspended until the Second Coming.
Whatever the virtues of the just-war tradition, it remains notoriously difficult to harmonize with the words and example of Jesus himself as recorded in the New Testament. Perhaps because of this, in recent decades proponents are likely, sooner or later, to invoke the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A pastor and theologian who died resisting Nazism, Bonhoeffer’s name works as an argument-clincher because of his dramatic conversion to “realism”: faced with the horror of Germany’s crimes during World War II, he abandoned his earlier pacifism and joined a conspiracy to kill Hitler. He thus modeled the kind of responsible decision-making, freed from literalistic scruples, that is the starting point for the just-war tradition.
So runs the standard account of Bonhoeffer’s legacy. It’s a powerful story, but according to the authors of Bonhoeffer the Assassin?, it simply isn’t true.
To dislodge a narrative so deeply entrenched in popular perception is a herculean task. Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel go about it thoughtfully, meticulously, and artfully, taking pains to demonstrate how Bonhoeffer was an altogether different kind of martyr than what most people believe. Their claim: Up until his death at the hands of a Nazi executioner in April 1945, Bonhoeffer remained a pacifist, a nonviolent disciple of the crucified Christ who calls his followers to live out the “intolerable offense” of loving one’s enemies.
In making this argument, the authors certainly have their work cut out for them. They take the reader step-by-step through Bonhoeffer’s life (Part 1) and then his written body of thought (Part 2), methodically unraveling the knots of faulty assumptions that underlie the standard account. For instance, they demolish the assumption that Bonhoeffer’s work with the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence, necessarily shows active involvement in the plot to kill Hitler. They then carefully weave together threads of fact which indicate that Bonhoeffer actually used his position in the Abwehr to oppose Hitler in nonviolent ways.
To make their case, the authors examine the biographical evidence in detail. First, Bonhoeffer travelled to the United States in 1939 to avoid military conscription. Upon his return to Germany, he applied to be a military chaplain for precisely the same reason (his application was denied), and then joined the Abwehr knowing that by doing so he would gain an exemption. Bonhoeffer’s intelligence post was a cover, allowing him not only to avoid military service but also to continue his work as a pastor, theologian and ecumenical leader of the Confessing Church; trips undertaken for the Abwehr gave Bonhoeffer one of the few avenues still open to him to encourage church leaders in their resistance to the Nazis. According to the authors, his activities contributed nothing positive either to the military efforts of Germany or to the efforts to assassinate Hitler.
The authors conclude that, although Bonhoeffer was aware of various plots to kill Hitler – he knew of five assassination plots, out of the forty-two documented by historians – he himself was never an active participant in any of them: “There is not a shred of evidence that Bonhoeffer was linked in any way to these attempts on Hitler’s life” (86). Just because Bonhoeffer engaged in sensitive conversations with the would-be assassins, they argue, it does not follow that he personally participated in their plans.
Since Bonhoeffer’s arrest occurred shortly after the discovery of a failed assassination attempt which he knew of, it’s often assumed that he was arrested as a conspirator. Official documents, however, tell a different story: Bonhoeffer was arrested because of his involvement in Operation 7, a nonviolent if technically fraudulent scheme to help fourteen Jewish men and women escape Germany. When he was finally indicted in September, he was charged with misusing his position in the Abwehr to evade conscription – thus “subverting military power” – and with making efforts “to keep others from fulfilling military service entirely” (87). To put it anachronistically, the Nazis arrested Bonhoeffer not as a would-be assassin but as a draft dodger.
These charges were not without basis, as the authors show. Reviewing Bonhoeffer’s letters, sermons, and various other writings from the mid-1930s onward, they argue that he not only remained committed to nonviolence himself, but also sought to influence his students and others to consider being conscientious objectors. As late as 1942, just months before his arrest, Bonhoeffer wrote to his close friend Eberhard Bethge that he stood behind what he had written in Discipleship, the book in which he had unequivocally espoused pacifism.
Having followed the historical trail as far as it would take them, the authors turn next to Bonhoeffer’s writings. Was his commitment to nonviolence absolute, or did he come to believe that under certain circumstances violence could be justified? The standard account, influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr’s categories of realism and responsibility, interprets Bonhoeffer’s participation in the Abwehr as indicative of – or perhaps as a catalyst for – an ethical and theological shift. Bonhoeffer, it is said, changed his mind, rejecting his earlier insistence on nonviolence in favor of a more realistic moral calculus, one that recognizes that there are tragic situations in which choosing the lesser evil is the best a Christian can do.
This shift, according to this interpretation, is apparent when one compares Bonhoeffer’s two chief works, Discipleship (published in 1937; the alternate English title is The Cost of Discipleship) and Ethics (mostly written 1939 – 1941, published posthumously). The earlier work is a classical exposition of the themes of radical discipleship: life in Christian community, living for others, crying out for the disadvantaged, and taking up the cross. Throughout, the inner clarity of the Sermon on the Mount, with Christ at the center, is paramount. Accordingly, love of enemies is a matter of simple faithfulness to the crucified Christ:
Does [Jesus] refuse to face up to realities – or shall we say, to the sin of the world? . . . Jesus tells us that it is just because we live in the world, and just because the world is evil, that the precept of nonresistance must be put into practice. Surely we do not wish to accuse Jesus of ignoring the reality and power of evil! Why, the whole of his life was one long conflict with the devil. He calls evil evil, and that is the very reason why he speaks to his followers in this way.2
The Bonhoeffer of Ethics is said to move away from this demand for simple obedience, concentrating instead on such notions as the human predicament of guilt, the duty to heed God’s creational “mandates,” and the distinction between “last things” and “things before the last.” In this reading, Ethics represents a break with Bonhoeffer’s earlier writings and opens up room to consider employing violent means in certain borderline situations. Killing might be one’s Christian duty.
Does such a shift really occur in Bonhoeffer’s thinking? The authors argue that it does not. At this point their argument becomes nuanced and assumes considerable familiarity with Bonhoeffer’s oeuvre. They caution that the new approach in Ethics cannot be mistaken for an abandonment of earlier convictions. “Correction does not entail repudiation unless that which is correcting and that which is corrected are logically incompatible” (177). In a detailed analysis, they argue that Bonhoeffer’s later writings actually expand the ethical project begun in Discipleship: “Ethics is its confirmation, as it is its continuation, amendment, clarification, and culmination” (158).
An example serves to illustrate the point. In Discipleship, there appears to be a marked opposition between the church on the one hand and the world on the other. The tone in Ethics, however, is quite different: God acts to reconcile the world to himself by becoming human; Jesus Christ is the redemption of the world and the restorer of communion. Christian faithfulness is made manifest, therefore, within the divine mandate of being responsible in and for the world.
Upon a closer look, however, this apparent contrast is just a matter of viewing the same thing from a different perspective. In Discipleship Bonhoeffer’s focus is on the call of Christ and how this call forms the nature and mission of the church. Ethics, on the other hand, situates the church within a broader context of the whole world of God, of which the church forms a part. All the same, Christ remains just as much in the center as before. In the chapter “Ethics as Formation,” for instance, Bonhoeffer holds up the person and action of Jesus Christ as exemplar, in direct opposition to ethical systems that reduce Christian ethics to a set of “Christian principles”:
What matters in the church is not religion but the form of Christ, and its taking form amidst a band of men. If we allow ourselves to lose sight of this, even for an instant, we inevitably relapse into that program-planning for the ethical or religious shaping of the world, which was where we set out from. . . . The only formation is formation by and into the form of Jesus Christ. The point of departure for Christian ethics is the body of Christ, the form of Christ in the form of the church, and formation of the church in conformity with the form of Christ.3
Later in the book he drives the same point home:
God’s commandment is the only warrant for ethical discourse. . . . [Yet] the commandment of God is and always remains the commandment of God which is made manifest in Jesus Christ. There is no other commandment of God than that which is revealed by him and which is manifested according to his will in Jesus Christ.4
Only the form of Christ can shape Christian life; only through the person of Christ can we understand the world. This approach to Christian ethics, the authors observe, “is almost identical to that of Discipleship” (185). In both books, Bonhoeffer consistently criticizes any kind of ethic which is built on autonomous action. The call of the Christian is always a matter of obedience to Christ, who acts in and through his disciples living in the world.
This emphasis upon unconditional obedience to Christ comes vividly to the fore when Bonhoeffer – eschewing the traditional Reformation terminology of created “orders” or “estates” – refers to creational “mandates.” Such mandates – family, work, education, government, religion – do not possess “a static, standalone character detached from ongoing divine authorization,” let alone a separate ethic of their own in the manner of some Lutheran theology. On the contrary, all that matters is full obedience to Christ’s command. Such obedience is not (contra Niebuhr) an “impossible possibility”; rather, through the church as the corporate form of Christ himself, God’s redemptive love can meet and overcome evil head-on. Christ is Lord over every sphere of existence: his command beckons us into public life, but always in a way that we are free to live for others as Christ would in the world.
"Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ." -Dietrich Bonhoeffer The authors clarify that Bonhoeffer’s pacifism had little to do with absolute moral principles. His commitment to nonresistance was rooted solely in the person of Christ: “God’s commandments are true and valid because Christ is true and valid – an order that should not be reversed. When the commandments are, however, abstracted from their grounding in Christ’s person and made into absolute moral principles, the person of Christ is made subservient to these moral standards” (185). In both Discipleship and Ethics Bonhoeffer rejects this possibility, insisting that Christ must always remain at the center.
Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel marshal an impressive case based on Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. But there is weighty counterevidence to their thesis: recollections by some of Bonhoeffer’s associates, notably Eberhard Bethge, that in the last years of his life Bonhoeffer had remarked that he was willing to kill Hitler, if necessary personally. (Even according to Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s actual role in the conspiracy was marginal.) Here the authors make their boldest, and most controversial, move. They argue that memories after the fact cannot bear the evidentiary load of proving such a radical shift in Bonhoeffer’s convictions – especially if they conflict with the otherwise united witness of the historical record and the trajectory of Bonhoeffer’s thought. On this difficult point, the authors will not convince everyone, but they do shift the burden of proof. No longer is it possible to uncritically assume that Bonhoeffer discarded his pacifism in order to help plot the Führer’s assassination.
Nor will it do, for that matter, to set up a simplistic opposition between pacifism – defined reductively as “not killing” – and a robust sense of responsibility to combat public wrong. To accept one does not require abandoning the other. As Bonhoeffer certainly realized, in situations of profound evil such as Nazi Germany all moral choices will be fraught with ambiguity and uncertain outcomes. For a Christian, the decision is not whether or not to keep one’s hands clean (this is impossible anyway), but rather whether or not to walk obediently in the way of Jesus, trusting as he did in God’s power.
What in the end are we to make of Bonhoeffer? His courage and sacrifice stand whether or not the authors are right; indeed some would call it futile, and impious, to flog the evidence in pursuit of certainty one way or the other. Yet for anyone who has ever doubted that this apostle of obedient discipleship would really violate a teaching of Jesus that he himself understood to be central, this book explains why such doubts may be justified. Well-crafted, judicious, and happily short on polemics, it is a work that should, in the words of Barry Harvey, “decisively reframe the way we read the thought and life of this most remarkable Christian.”
For this reviewer, the book does much more. It recovers the Bonhoeffer who radically and consistently gave witness to the cross, a man to whom Jesus was all in all. As Bonhoeffer once put it: “The peace of Jesus is the cross. And this cross is the sword God wields on earth.” Wielding this sword and no other, we are called to serve a crucified master – so Bonhoeffer teaches us – bringing peace in the way He brought peace, and conquering as He conquered.
- See Richard Hays’s classic The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperOne, 1996) and Ronald J. Sider’s The Early Church on Killing (Baker, 2012).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone, 1995), 143–144.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Touchstone, 1995), 84.
- Ibid., 277 – 279.