Bonhoeffer- was he wrong?


Bonhoeffer is one of our Evangelical heroes.

The good German- an extraordinary man in extraordinary times. Whose incisive faith saw through the evil that had overcome his people like a cancer, and allowed him to stand alone- a candle in darkness, a voice in the wilderness.

I sort of knew this. But I have read very little of his writings.

Michaela is persevering with ‘Life together‘ although it is not an easy read- this is partly because of the style.

The surprise to most of us is that Bonhoeffer was executed not for passive peaceful resistance of Hitler’s regime, but rather for plotting with Canaris and von Stauffenberg to overcome Hitler with a Coup- which included the assassination of Hitler- the famous bomb plot.

The great pacifist theologian, who had visited Ghandi in the 1930s in order to understand non-violent resistance had turned to violence and political power games. He became a double agent.

Did the potential ends justify the means? It is scarcely possible to conceive of a regime that is more evil within our modern experience. What else could a good man do, but seek to overcome by any means possible? Christians fighting against Hitler have long seen this as a ‘just war‘. I think I might have agreed with them had I been a child of Bonhoeffers age.

But history has a way of allowing us time to consider, and weigh the weight of the matter- and for us, the Spirit of the thing, the theology of the thing- this becomes important.

Other Christians resisted. I visited a prison in Berlin years ago where dozens of pastors were hanged much earlier in the war than Bonhoeffer for criticising Hitler. Leaders like Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller formed the Confessing church in protest against the Nazi appropriation of theĀ  Church as part of the State machinery.

What did Bonhoeffer acheive with his part in the plot against Hitler? Probably very little. The plot failed, and by that time the war had been raging for years, and millions of Jews, Gypsy’s, homosexuals and ‘Untermensch‘ had already died and been processed through industrial ovens in Eastern Europe. History records the plot as too little, too late.

Would peaceful protests have achieved more? It seems that death would have come to him either way.

Bonhoeffers feelings about his chosen path appear to have been mixed. He had no doubt that what he was doing was a moral choice that he may well need to answer for before God. He refused to allow prayers for him by the Confessing church whilst he was in prison, as he suggested prayer should be for Christians imprisoned as martyrs, not through acts of direct resistance such as his.

So- what choices are we followers of Jesus to make in the face of war and violence and oppression? His words seem clear enough. But his followers have always found the reality more complex. Jesus seemed to be more than willing to mix with Roman Soldiers, and Peter carried a sword at least once in his company.

For me, violence is something to be resisted in itself- particularly when it is perpetrated by one state on another. Particularly when Christians appear to support this violence and claim that God is on their side. The American/British appetite for war post 911 is a case in point. But Bonhoeffer- his times were very different.

Perhaps circumstances will always demand of us- choices. Extreme circumstances demand the more black and white ones. For the rest of us, we have theory, and theology. Bonhoeffer had enough of theology that was not anchored to practical activity in the service of the oppressed.

But I still wonder if he got it wrong…

There are a few films out about his life- usually American. Bonhoeffer seems to be able to be appropriated as a Saint by the conservatives and the liberals. There are a few clips of You Tube if you are interested-