Brimlow on Bonhoeffer

I’m reposting here what I posted in the book discussion forum over at Ekklesia Project because I feel that it goes well with my previous post on Just War and Pacifism. Let me begin with a lengthy quote from Robert Brimlow’s book:

“I think I recognize something of the enormous crisis and struggle that Bonhoeffer endured in the last years of his life, and it is not for me–living this comfortable life–to second-guess him, devalue that struggle, or accuse him of bad faith. In many ways I agree that Bonhoeffer is an exemplar of Christian life. Even with all that said, however, I think he erred in how he understood the dilemma. It is not clear to me that God has laid responsibility on us for the course that history will take; Bonhoeffer himself alludes to the power of the ruler of history and how he wields it over the heads of the history-makers. But if we were responsible for history, Bonhoeffer’s dilemma would shake my faith much more deeply. As unsatisfactory and philosophically untenable as I found Walzer’s discussion that performing evil actions is inescapable when confronting supreme emergencies, that intellectual dissatisfaction pales in significance when I consider Bonhoeffer’s parallel conclusion that there are situations in which I have no alternative but to sin. “
–Robert W. Brimlow, What About Hitler?, p. 124, Brazos, 2006.

I feel at a loss here. I’m blogging through Bethge’s Bonhoeffer and I’m not yet near the end, but I feel compelled to answer Brimlow on his treatment of Bonhoeffer in this book. First off let me say that I am not a pacifist so I’m not sure this book is for me. I am an ardent endorser of EP but not a pacifist philosophically or ethically. There are those of us around! Though I don’t know if they’d like to sound out because I say so! Dan M. Bell, Jr. has contributed a wonderful EP pamphlet titled: Just War As Christian Discipleship which I think states my position well. Here is where I disagree with Brimlow. First, Brimlow did not use the right sources to understand Bonhoeffer. Rather, he used some of them, but not enough of them. A key source he missed is Larry Rasmussen’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance. Brimlow states that Bonhoeffer left us very little for understanding his decision. Well, Rasmussen shows that he left a lot more than Brimlow thinks! Secondly, Brimlow just flat out misses the heart of Bonhoeffer’s Ethik. Granted his ethics was a work unfinished, but there are current examples of where it may have led! For this I recommend Nancy J. Duff’s Humanization and the Politics of God: The Koinonia Ethics of Paul Lehmann. Lehmann was a close friend of Bonhoeffer’s and chronicler of the German Church story after WWII. His developed Theological Ethic is important for understanding Bonhoeffer on the issue of whether it is ever God’s will that we sin.

I understand Bonhoeffer to fit into Bell’s–or should I say the Church Father’s vision –for Just War as Christian Discipleship. I would hope that those of us Just War can continue a long and fruitful dialogue with those pacifists here at EP. There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a case in point. There’s a simple way to alleviate this: actually read the material! I’m trying to do that now with Bonhoeffer. I’ve spent over a year now engaging Bethge and all the Confessing Church history and Bonhoeffer writings I can lay hands on in order to better understand. BTW, I also intend to read Mark Nation’s John Howard Yoder, Eerdmans, 2005. But I’ll try to extend the courtesy of not using him as a bad example without actually reading the material!

What I’ve read from the rest of Brimlow’s book is very good. I agree with him most heartily that Bonhoeffer is no one’s example for every situation. Bonhoeffer himself would have agreed with that. I love the meditative style of the book and I plan to read it slowly when I get to it.


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