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Recovering Bonhoeffer from his Betrayers (70th Anniversary of his death, 9/4/1945)

Tuesday, 31 March 2015  | Gordon Preece

If Protestants had saints, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—martyred under Hitler in 1945 just days before the Allies reached his concentration camp—would be one of the first canonised: not just due to his unsought martyr’s death in a concentration camp, a week away from liberation by the Allies, but because of his life’s movement from privilege to growing identification with the suffering, his courageous return from the safety and beckoning success of the US to Germany, his work with the Confessing Church and, more controversially, as chaplain-confessor and Jewish people smuggler with the Abwehr’s (German intelligence) underground resistance to Hitler.

Bonhoeffer’s books—The Cost of Discipleship (now known simply as Discipleship), Life Together, Letters and Papers from Prison and Ethics are the best known—have nurtured many during dark nights of the soul, during difficult days for the Australian church, and desperate days for the South African church. His writings have been my companion since late adolescence. They and his friend and confessor Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer kept me going during my son’s second major bipolar episode in 2006. The congruence between Bonhoeffer’s life and thought, his ‘walking the talk’, ‘sets him apart from most public figures in his time and our own’ as Stephen Haynes states in The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon.   

But like all saints made into static statues (like that of Bonhoeffer among ten 20th century martyrs above the Great West Door at Westminster Cathedral), their portraits often tell as much or more about the artists and their age than the saints and theirs. This is certainly true of Bonhoeffer and the Church of his anguished age. As Ragan Sutterfield writes:

Bonhoeffer is not a comfortable saint; his is a sainthood of contradictions. Since September 11 no Christian figure has been appealed to so much or so broadly as Bonhoeffer. But Bonhoeffer has not been a single saint. He is now the pacifist Bonhoeffer [the Bonhoeffer Four in Australia], the just-war Bonhoeffer [Jean-Bethke-Elshtain and George W. Bush], the resistant Bonhoeffer, even the terrorist Bonhoeffer. We are left to ask, where is Bonhoeffer the man in all of the invocations of his name?


Bonhoeffer’s writings are often read by both Left and Right, liberals and conservatives, as if they are separate, contradictory fragments—not helped by the fact his Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison (LPP) were smuggled in pieces out of prison. That’s why Karl Barth focused on his student’s earlier writings rather than the more ‘enigmatic’ later ones. This has led to a split in the church, like quarrelling heirs, between those who take different sides of Bonhoeffer’s legacy: either the worldly, ‘religionless Christianity’, or the worshipful community of disciples—and we’re greatly impoverished because of its fragmentation—like a bird with one wing. Earlier on, LPP (or, rather, sound-bites from it) was a set text for situation ethics and the ‘God is dead’ and ‘Secular City’ movements of the 1960s. I can remember The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together as compulsory reading material for the Evangelical radical discipleship and Christian community movements I was involved with in the 1970s and 80s.  

Eric Metaxas’s best-seller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is Exhibit A for the conservative Evangelical tendency to see Bonhoeffer in its own image. Fellow Evangelical Rhys Bezzant’s review of Metaxas is rightly critical of such tendencies:

I am waiting for a modern biography of Bonhoeffer that is fair and doesn’t try to force him into an evangelical box. [Metaxas’ biography makes] Bonhoeffer appear to be a conservative evangelical, who read his Bible every day, who hated preaching … divorced from the Scriptural text, and who had a conversion experience in a Baptist Church in Harlem. Actually, he confessed to his closest friend that there were times when he found it too difficult to read the Bible and pray, he was no inerrantist, and had multiple turning-points on an erratic pathway to sanctification… I was left wondering if this was a Bonhoeffer deliberately shaped for right-wing Christian conservatives in the US, who would value the Bible-reading Bonhoeffer, but may be less appreciative of the Bonhoeffer who criticises Christians too closely aligned with power. 

But looking down a well and seeing one’s own and one’s time’s reflection is hardly a monopoly of conservative Evangelicals, as Albert Schweizer’s devastating critique of 19th century German lives of Jesus showed in The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Ignoring Bonhoeffer’s careful qualifications, some 1960s ‘Death of God’ theologians projected the doubts of their own days upon Bonhoeffer’s fragmentary thoughts, provocative phrases and chapter headings of his proposed new book, like ‘religionless Christianity’ and ‘man come of age’, questioning what parts, if any, of the foundational Creeds and Christian practices like prayer, to keep today. Bonhoeffer, though appreciative of aspects of Bultmann, clearly distinguished himself from Bultmann’s radical demythologizing project in favour of a radically Christ-centred, de-religionising project. For him Bultmann, and no doubt the later Death of God school if he’d known it, did not go far enough.

A further distortion of Bonhoeffer is the common and patronising three point Niebuhrian ‘Christian realist’ sermon on his life and thought. As Mark Thiessen Nation (Bonhoeffer the Assassin) notes:

First, we “know” that Bonhoeffer was involved in one or more plots to assassinate Hitler. Second, this “knowledge then becomes the lens through which his theological and ethical legacy is understood. Third, then, … Discipleship and Life Together are works from Bonhoeffer’s less mature period before he truly confronted the hard realities of a world war and the Holocaust. These early books may still be useful as expressions of piety and devotion. But for hard, real life we need the realism … of Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison. Thus words and phrases like ‘responsibility,” “this-worldiness,”  …  “guilt,” “living unreservedly in life’s duties,” or “living in the realities of this world” – terms found in these later writings – … reflect and warrant his realism that led to his involvements in the plot to kill Hitler.”

Hitler becomes the paradigmatic terrorist or the lens through which we see the War against Terror in the minds of George W. Bush, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Metaxas and others. They are like people who read the whole Bible through the most unclear passages of its latest and least clear book, Revelation; a fatal violation of the first law of hermeneutics—read the unclear through the clear. They take the most fragmentary and allusive of Bonhoeffer’s writings, often literally buried and written in a kind of underground code, to dismantle the clear Christ-centred, pacifist, enemy-loving ethic of the Sermon on the Mount that he describes as converting him and in which, in his own words, he continued, as if in a straight line. (Here Nation and I want to distance ourselves from the danger of Sutterfield’s kind of relativising of Bonhoeffer to save the various ideological causes that capture him today.) 

It was Bonhoeffer’s reading of the Bible and friendships with fellow students (such as French pacifist Jean Lasserre and black friend Frank Fisher) and black church life during his year at Union Seminary New York (1930-31) that transformed his life rather than his exposure to Union professor Reinhold Niebuhr, of whom he was critical. In a letter to girlfriend Elizabeth Zinn as late as 27/1/1936, he writes of repenting of his own ‘crazy vanity’; namely, using Jesus for his ends and ambitions in his studies, sermons and books, but ‘I had still not become a Christian’. Then I was ‘turned around to this very day’.

I came to the Bible [‘especially the Sermon on the Mount’] for the first time… That was a grand liberation… Then came the troubles of 1933 [the rapid rise of Hitler and Nazi takeover of power]. They only strengthened me in this… I now saw that everything depended on the renewal of the church and of the ministry [hence the Finkelwalde underground seminary he led from which Discipleship and Life Together arose]… Christian pacifism…, which I had previously fought against with passion, all at once seemed perfectly obvious… I believe the nobility of this calling will become plain to us only in the times and events to come. If only we can hold out!’  

And hold out Bonhoeffer did. As Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Union Seminary wrote, ‘All the twisting possible cannot make the author of … Discipleship a volunteer for assassinating even Adolf Hitler’. Bonhoeffer’s self-professed ‘turning from the phraseological to the real’, best placed in 1930-31, was not to Niebuhr’s worldly realism of political power politics, but to the reality of reconciliation in Christ and the Church, which includes all things, including politics. Bonhoeffer wrote this in 1944, a day after a second failed assassination attempt on Hitler. 

Five points from Nation, Siegrist and Umbel (Bonhoeffer the Assassin?) back this up. First, ‘it is highly unlikely that Bonhoeffer was involved in any assassination attempts. … As Sabine Dramm has argued, ‘the central reason Bonhoeffer began employment with the Abwehr [Army Intelligence] … was to avoid military service on the front lines, killing in the name of Hitler i.e. … being a conscientious objector’ and this is what he was charged with, not attempted assassination.’ Second, Bonhoeffer had come to see from the Sermon on the Mount that Christian pacifism was ‘self-evident’. Third, while Bonhoeffer was always wary of an abstract ethics of principles (like his mentor Karl Barth), he was at least a practical Christ-centred pacifist. Fourth, Bonhoeffer had come from his elevated position in German society to take ‘the view from below’, of those like the Jews under Nazism, and the poor and vulnerable generally, who suffer, and came to see that ‘only the suffering God can help’.  Fifth, Bonhoeffer was utterly Christ-centred and sought unwaveringly to shape the life of the church in following Jesus as disciples, willing to die with him, to the world. This entailed a strenuous commitment to a new kind of reconciling ecumenical, Christian community more fundamental than commitment to nations. As he wrote to his activist grandmother in August 1933, who continued to buy from Jewish shops after they were banned: ‘Our choice is Germanism or Christianity’ (p. 224ff).  

At this time of the centenary of Gallipoli and one year into the various centenaries of the Great War, we remember so many relatively innocent and ignorant victims of an imperialistic war. Both sides blasphemously enlisted ‘God on our side’. Please God might we recognise that war is not great, that you are not our property, and that Christ’s costly reconciling grace is for all races, and his name endorses no nationalism.


Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos, honorary fellow of the University of Divinity, and editor, with Ian Packer, of Bonhoeffer Down Under, available from www.atfpress.com.au. For more on Bonhoeffer’s 70th anniversary, see www.Bonhoeffer2015australia.wordpress.com  especially the symposium on 11/4/15 at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Adelaide.



john yates
April 3, 2015, 10:17AM
thanks Gordon, clear and challenging; we always need to be wary of icons - especially, as you point out, this year
Derek McDougall
April 12, 2015, 3:32PM
Thank you, Gordon Preece, for this insightful appreciation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Bonhoeffer's gruesome execution. The general point about being wary of appropriating the thought and life of significant figures simply as a means of legitimizing positions one has reached on other grounds is well taken. However I take a more critical position in relation to the argument put by Mark Nation in Bonhoeffer the Assassin? that Bonhoeffer did not participate in the assassination plot against Hitler in 1944. Clearly Bonhoeffer did not volunteer to be the assassin and nor does he appear to have been involved in the military and political planning associated with the plot. However, Bonhoeffer 'participated' in the sense of providing a theological and moral justification for the assassination. This role is just as important, if not more important, than planting the actual bomb. I would see an evolution in Bonhoeffer's thinking from Christian pacifism in the 1930s to supporting tyrannicide in the circumstances of World War II. This does not mean that there was an inconsistency in Bonhoeffer's theological ethics but there was an evolution relating to circumstances. Would it have been inconsistent to have voted against fighting for 'King and Country' in the Oxford Union debate in 1933 and then to have volunteered for military service after 1939? I believe Bonhoeffer remained constant in his commitment to peacemaking: the circumstances changed, and he recognized this. This is not to portray Bonhoeffer as a 'Christian realist' as the 'theo-conservatives' have done (I would also argue that there has been oversimplification and misappropriation in relation to Reinhold Niebuhr). Part of the appeal of Bonhoeffer is that he cannot be reduced to easy categories; there was much constancy in his thought, but also evolution.
Gordon Preece
April 20, 2015, 2:51PM
Dear Derek,
Many thanks for the substantial response to my article and some critique. I perhaps overdid it a bit with the use of 'betrayal' in the title. Nonetheless, contrary to my earlier view, and that of many, that Bonhoeffer, in extremity, gave a theological justification for tyrannicide, I think Nation shows from Bonhoeffer's own writings and the chronology of his life that Bonhoeffer didn't really shift much from the time in the early 30s when he discovered the Sermon on the Mount and turned, in his own words, from 'the phraseological to the real': the real being determined by Christ's act of reconciliation and the formation of the church in line with it as a community of reconciliation, not some realpolitik.

The analogy you use from an Oxford debate supporting pacifism to volunteering later doesn't really fit. Bonhoeffer sees Christ's reconciliation as the real, everything else is abstract. This is not an absolute pacificism but a practical one shaped by Christ. What you see (and I once saw) as Bonhoeffer's theological justification for tyrannicide, Nation cogently, I think, sees as Bonhoeffer's pastoral accommodations to his former students' horrific situations at the front, forced into abominable acts. He never really reneges on what he wrote in Discipleship, based on the Sermon on the Mount. As Larry Rasmussen, who filled Niebuhr's chair later at Union seminary where Bonhoeffer studied, says, 'All the twisting possible cannot make the author of Discipleship a volunteer for assassinating even Hitler.' I encourage you to read Nation's book if you haven't already.


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