Bonhoeffer and Peace

The question has popped up repeatedly lately about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have responded to the War on Terror. I just posted some comments in the Facebook group, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, under the discussion question “Current Situation.” I’m reposting them here because it’s my attempt to think out loud on some stuff. What do y’all think?

Bonhoeffer did strive for peace. He visited America the second time, in part, to avoid being conscripted along with his fellow students (and Eberhard Bethge eventually) to fight on the front lines. He publicly opposed war in his ecumenical papers and in his London sermons. But he opposed it theologically, and there is an important difference there. We could call him a theological pacifist but not a political pacifist. Political pacifism meant immediate imprisonment in his day, so public political pacifists generally fled the country. The Bruderhof did this. I think that it would be fair to see his part in the Resistance as two things.
1. A desire to end the war quickly.
2. A sinful human act (tyrranicide) that was nevertheless redemptive in nature. Bonhoeffer considered himself part of a group acting on behalf of Germany. The act was saying “We are Germans who understand that the only way to act in behalf of our people at this point is to remove this leader who has become a Misleader. He has succeeded in destroying our nation. The only way forward is to remove him from power.”

Bonhoeffer did not view his participation as special, holy, or somehow not sinful. Neither did he see himself as setting a precedent to be used as justification for future circumstances. This is what makes using him as an example difficult. He wrote to friends and family from Prison who did not share his same Calling, with all the same love and eagerness to share in their lives, as the time before he got involved in the Conspiracy.

He helped his twin sister escape to England. There were other ministers whom he respected who were imprisoned and killed following very different paths. That was fine for them. He respected them for it, but neither did he doubt for a moment his own Call. When the plot failed, he accepted the situation.

It is important to see the nuance in Dietrich’s particular circumstance. There are no easy corollaries to our own.

But what we can say for Bonhoeffer is that he was awake during his times. He did not see his faith as otherworldly. Nazism came to power for theologians who we would consider both Conservative and Liberal. Neither theological programs seemed to possess what was needed to counter this political system. The system seemed to be just what everyone needed.

This is where I think we find our real basis for our times. Late Capitalism and Liberal Democracy are both systems that no political party and no church in America seems to publicly see as being threats to the gospel. For this reason, consumerism is something we cry about, but can’t see as largely infecting us without immunity. War is something we complain about and even protest, but we largely accept that it’s something we have to live with.

In our liberal Democracy we run this Iraq War as though it were just an extension of our business capabilities. The Corporate world has so infected everything else that what we use to see as Sovereign rights of State (like Iraq’s right to revoke Blackwater’s license) matters very little. The FBI can collect a crime scene in Iraq, fly it all back to America to reconstruct it, and analyze the data without fear of acting outside jurisdiction. This is War in the twenty first century. We don’t even have to feel we’re at War at all.



Filed under Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eberhard Bethge, Politics, religion and politics

2 responses to “Bonhoeffer and Peace

  1. Gary Cummings

    Dear Brother,

    Yes I do believe that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, even when he was hung at Flossenburg. Many people commited to peace are often tempted to do something more “effective” than being against war. Violence then becomes a means (kill Hitler) to an end (stop the war).

    I have read Bonhoeffer since my college days in 1968. His wiritings got me through my opposition to the Viet Nam War. Bonhoeffer knew that to take Hitler’s life was a sin, yet he was willing to risk that and his own life.
    Overall, I admire the man and read him eagerly. As far as his part in the attempt to kill Hitler, it did not work. My own unprovable personal opinion is that God did not want Hitler to die at the hands of a pastor. Hitler wound up taking his own miserable life.

    Viet Nam was certainly an evil war now followed by another evil unecessary war in Iraq. America and its bastard churches have not repented over its aggression in Viet Nam, and certainly will face a judgement by God for its war in Iraq and the Middle East.

  2. Gary, I would only add a reminder that Bonhoeffer’s involvement was not only in the plotted assassination but in the overall resistance. If you have a copy of Bethge’s biography read Chapter 12. He was praying as a patriot for his nation’s defeat. Something I feel I must do at this time for our own nation. That is no light matter! Anyway, there was a serious coup attempt that fell through first. I know that many people aren’t aware of that and it does make a big difference in the overall story. Even so, Bonhoeffer mentioned that were he called upon to do the killing himself he would first publicly resign from his church. He was pleased by Norway’s pastor strike and wanted Germany’s pastors to do the same. The Confessing Church struggle was his attempt to lead the church in that direction, but it failed. Rather than just the violence, I think we should see Bonhoeffers decade long struggle to act as a Christian in the face of his nation’s corporate sin against the Jewish people, and sin against its own people and humanity itself.

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