The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives

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The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives, by Stephen R. Haynes. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006. 224 pp. $22.00.

Stephen R. Haynes was ideally prepared to write a book about the relationship of noted theologian and Protestant church leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer to post-Holocaust Christianity. The associate professor of religion at Rhodes College had already authored, among other works, a book about Christian thinking about Jews, Reluctant Witnesses: Jews and the Christian Imagination (1995), and a more recent work in 2004, The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon. This new book explores Bonhoeffer's thinking about Jews in relationship to his own actions and emerging theology.

Professor Haynes demonstrates an impressive familiarity with the enormous corpus of English-language works about Bonhoeffer, including theological analyses, biographical writing, and popular material. He even quotes at one point President George W Bush's line about Bonhoeffer uttered at a university commencement address. He is also conversant with Holocaust literature, especially the work on rescuers. His final analysis makes judgments about Bonhoeffet's life and thought from the vantage point of Christian theology.

Haynes, like all who have tried to probe the theologian's thinking about Jews, devotes considerable attention to Bonhoeffer's essay, "The Church and the Jewish Question," written shortly after Hitler took power in 1933. In this essay Bonhoeffer makes his most explicit commentary about Jews. He distinguished between Christians of Jewish descent and religious Jews and held the old notion that the suffering through history resulted from the Jewish crucifixion of Christ. The solution to the Jewish "problem" then for Bonhoeffer was the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. While Bonhoeffer's later theological work showed much greater appreciation for the Jewish Bible and his words and actions increasingly displayed sensitivity to the suffering of Jews, he never repudiated his positions of 1933.

One of Bonhoeffer's most dangerous and courageous actions was his participation in 1942 in Operation Seven, a conspiracy to spirit fourteen German Jews to Switzerland by disguising them as agents of the Abwehr, the military intelligence office that was a hub of the German resistance movement. It was Bonhoeffer's role in this operation that brought his arrest by the Gestapo and ultimately his execution in 1945.

Haynes notes that no consensus has emerged in Jewish understandings of Bonhoeffer's life and work. Perhaps because of his earlier words, the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has on repeated occasions since the mid-1980s refused to include Bonhoeffer on its list of righteous Gentiles, despite his role as a rescuer of Jews in Operation Seven. …