Bonhoeffer Was Wrong

By Schroth, Raymond A. | National Catholic Reporter, January 27, 2006 | Go to article overview

Bonhoeffer Was Wrong


Schroth, Raymond A., National Catholic Reporter


Why Bonhoeffer now? Six years ago, in June 2000, PBS presented the docudrama "Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace," which, in my opinion (NCR, June 16, 2000), was particularly relevant then because it fit in with our turn-of-the-millennium concentration on World War II as both a historical and moral event.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the German Lutheran theologian who was author of The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison. He studied briefly at New York's Union Theological Seminary in 1930, and developed a theory of "religionless Christianity." He taught that we should not use the concept of God to "fill in the gaps" in our understanding of the world, helped rescue some Jews and, along with several members of his large family, participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, was arrested and hanged in 1945. With the help of liberal Protestant theologians like Harvey Cox, Bonhoeffer's ideas were rediscovered and became influential in the 1960s.

In 2000 I compared Bonhoeffer's story to that of Sergeant York, the World War I hero whose 1941 film biography helped us put aside our natural resistance to even a just war. Both Alvin York and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were peace-loving religious men, "pacifists" who overcame their scruples in order to kill when duty seemed to require it. But why might we turn to him now? For two reasons: First, Feb. 4 is the 100th anniversary of his birth, and anniversaries are always occasions to rethink basic ideas that the man, woman or moment seems to represent. Second, the Bonhoeffer cult is growing. Every day we read the news from Washington and Iraq--both denials of and justifications for torture from the same administration, condemnations of nations that would be nuclear powers while we ourselves develop more deadly weapons, all without a peep from our so-called religious guides. We ask ourselves, who will speak for Christians? Bonhoeffer?

PBS will broadcast a 2003 documentary by Martin Doblmeier, "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister," on Feb. 6 at 10 p.m. EST. Mr. Doblmeier cites Bonhoeffer's influence on Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel and Martin Luther King Jr. as evidence that his life speaks "to anyone who struggles with how to respond to evil and to understand at a deeper level the 'cost' of following God."

I recently came upon an essay by Stanley Hauerwas, "Bonhoeffer on Truth and Politics," in which he enlists Bonhoeffer as a theoretical ally. Like Bonhoeffer, Dr. Hauerwas says, he believes that "the character of a society and state is to be judged by the willingness to have the Gospel preached truthfully and freely." But truth telling, they agree, is a skill that allows us to hide secrets we have a right to keep and a virtue that grants the courage to confront lies, such as those of the Nazis, that threaten Christian civilization. In the Jan. 2-9 America, journalism professor David L. Martinson employs Bonhoeffer's theory of truth to criticize journalists who fail to report "what is really going on" in Iraq.

Mr. Doblemier combines archival footage of Hitler's rise, still photos of Bonhoeffer and his family and interviews with former students and scholars, particularly Bonhoeffer's friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge, to present a portrait of a young man of conscience who loved both Germany and the Sermon on the Mount. He either had to serve one and not the other or find a way to make the two loves coincide.

Because he saw himself as a pacifist, Bonhoeffer avoided military service by joining the Abwehr, Germany's counterintelligence service, where an inner circle was part of the conspiracy against Hitler. He was, says the documentary, a "double agent," posing as a government loyalist while secretly contacting underground movements throughout Europe. Meanwhile, as a sort of pastor to the conspirators, several of whom were devout Christians, he helped them overcome scruples about lying, betraying their country and killing. …

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