“I’d be a pacifist if it weren’t for Dietrich Bonhoeffer?”
Anthony G. Siegrist
“I’d be a pacifist if it weren’t for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” This isn’t an uncommon line, and we’ve heard similar sentiments expressed quite frequently. The assumption is, of course, that Bonhoeffer’s life and thought trace an arc upward from the nationalism of his youth, through the fluffy pacifism of his early work, then—checked by the harsh realities of the church’s struggle against the horrors of Nazism—it comes to rest in the Niebuhrian realism of his mature work. In this common perspective, Bonhoeffer’s lectures on peace and his famous book Discipleship fit the middle period, while his prison letters and the Ethics manuscripts are folded into the latter.
Mark, Dan, and I wrote Bonhoeffer the Assassin? because we don’t think that narrative works. Notice the question mark at the end of our book’s title. That narrative doesn’t work with the historical possibilities and it doesn’t work with his literary legacy. We’re well aware that our retelling of Bonhoeffer’s biography and our rereading of some of his prominent texts swims against a powerful current. However, that current isn’t formidable because it has overwhelming scholarly support. It’s powerful and popular because, well, it’s popular—it’s a comforting story. The Bonhoeffer who winds up a so-called moral realist is comforting because that Bonhoeffer takes us back to the way we set things up in the first place.
The problem is this popular biographical arc doesn’t fit Bonhoeffer’s life. It doesn’t fit because Bonhoeffer never was a pacifist in an absolute sense. It doesn’t fit because he never abandoned his peace ethic. And it doesn’t fit because the event that marked the assumed turning point probably never happened. That is, in our analysis it is highly implausible that Bonhoeffer was involved in attempts on Hitler’s life at all.
Again, the traditional way of telling Bonhoeffer’s life story is popular despite the fact that it lacks overwhelming scholarly support. The claims that we make in Bonhoeffer the Assassin? are not altogether novel. We martial the backing of other scholars for much of what we argue. What the book does that others haven’t is connect the dots. We connect some of the best scholarship on Bonhoeffer’s ethics with the conclusions of historians of the Nazi regime. What emerges is a new way of telling the story of Bonhoeffer’s life.
We think the book matters because Bonhoeffer has become a sort of twentieth-century Protestant saint. He continues to be respected, even lionized, by Christians around the world. None of us agree with everything the Lutheran minister wrote. Indeed, we couldn’t do that, because he doesn’t agree with himself. In various places the three of us would have significant disagreements with Bonhoeffer. Nevertheless, his work continues to inspire—and this is a good thing. We wrote the book because we want Bonhoeffer’s life and work to inspire the sort of things for which he worked so hard.
In Bonhoeffer’s mature work, we see his love of human creativity and his deep passion for Christian unity, for following Jesus in the face of heavy costs, and for social engagement despite its messiness. We see too his frustrations with nationalism. And without a doubt we see his unbending desire for peace. Bonhoeffer’s approach to the issues of war and violence was not based on inviolable rules or a separation of spheres. It was not a neatly hammered together system of interlocking duties. But he did do all that he could to avoid serving in the Nazi war machine. He encouraged others to do the same. He acknowledged the guilt implicit in being a part of the larger system and the guilt of those who lacked pure options. He did not, however, upend his peace ethic. At least that’s our argument. We’re sure that our revised reading of Bonhoeffer will not go unchallenged. We hope, though, that it reshapes the way his legacy is invoked. Hopefully it will become more common to hear, “I’m committed to peace because of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”
Mark Thiessen Nation (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is professor of theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and has authored several books, including John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions.
Anthony G. Siegrist (ThD, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto) is associate professor of theology at Prairie Bible College in Three Hills, Alberta.
Daniel P. Umbel (MDiv, Eastern Mennonite Seminary) is a pastor, formerly of Mt. Olivet Church in Dyke, Virginia, and lives in Grafton, West Virginia.
For more information on Bonhoeffer the Assassin?, click here.