« Prodigal Planet | Main | SDP @ the Movies: Departures »

Sunday, April 11, 2010



Thank you, KB, for your clear appreciation of the seriousness and value of Bonhoeffer's life and thought.

My concern with the Fox turn at the story is that it tries to make too much of a distinction between Bonhoeffer's theology ("just theology," all that whacky book-learning) and his lifetime of engagement with the world. That phrasing smells of anti-intellectualism, which is all too common in the Fox worldview. Bonhoeffer's actions were deeply grounded in his theology. His actions make little sense and have no moral force without that theology.

I think it is very significant that in all of his life, he turned to violent action only in extremis, after more than a decade of fighting Hitler by other means. That struggle matters; it took much more than "simple logic" to lead Bonhoeffer to the conclusion that this assassination plot against this tyrant in this context was an acceptable compromise. His lifetime of pacifism provides much more of a lesson for future generations than that final, extreme, and contextually specific exception.

My concern, quite honestly, is that readers might over-simplify Bonhoeffer's story. They may read the Fox News article (indeed, reading the full Metaxas book may produce a richer and different conclusion, but I'm critiquing the Fox text and Metaxas quotes therein specifically) and jump to conclusions like, "Ah! Bonhoeffer gave up pacifism to fight Hitler, so pacifism is obviously wrong," or, worse, "Bonhoeffer thought he was called by God to kill Hitler, so I must be called by God to shoot _____ [substitute perceived tyrant of the day]." Perhaps I imagine future straw men... but worse arguments arise from thin logic and incomplete stories like the Fox summary of Bonhoeffer's life.


Cory: I do not agree that "anti-intellectualism" is common at Fox. At any rate, as I point out in the piece, Bonhoeffer may much the same distinction himself. Was he anti-intellectual?

I agree that Bonhoeffer's lifetime of work provides a lesson. So do the events leading up to his death. One of those lessons is that pacifism is untenable in the face of an evil such as Hitler. Precisely because Bonhoeffer was so committed to pacifism, his decision to abandon it in the final turn is pretty good evidence that pacifism is wrong. It is sometimes right to use deadly force to stop evil men.

Moreover, Bonhoeffer's hesitance, which you cite in his favor, looks very bad in this context. If you are going to use force against Hitler sooner or later, wouldn't it have been better to do it sooner, and not wait until Hitler murdered six million Jews and started a war that killed tens of millions more? If that is what pacifism amounts to, waiting until the damage is done to act, then Bonhoeffer indeed proved that pacifism is a bad idea.


"waiting until the damage is done to act"...well, that's what the American criminal justice system does... thank goodness.

Bonhoeffer's hesitance does not make him look bad. His hesitance to shoot Hitler is exactly what recommends him to a sinful mankind. Fallible man is a little too quick to ascribe evil to those who trespass against him. "Don't dink around like Bonhoeffer: shoot evil people now!" is a dangerous lesson when we have nothing but our personal conviction that the people we feel like shooting are evil. There are plenty of folks comparing President Obama to Hitler; it makes me nervous to grant them any example that might tickle their trigger fingers with a perceived call from God.


Cory: I suspect that there were far more people comparing George W. to Hitler than there are people now making that comparison with Barack Obama. I know that there were a lot of people calling for the execution of President Bush. You can see a collection of images below. Did you feel or express the same nervousness then? I didn't think so.

Whatever may be true of extremists in the anti-war movement or the Tea Party movement, serious people have to distinguish between the faux Hitlers and the real Hitlers. Are you really suggesting that the standards of American police investigations should have been used to decide when to move against the real Hitler?

From the beginning Hitler made no secret of his intentions. He wrote a damned book. The Allies could have stopped Hitler in his tracks early on just by enforcing the Versailles Treaty. Yet they sat by and watched him build his war machine and did nothing. We, including the United States, not only failed to act, we didn't even prepare for the fight that was coming. Meanwhile, within Germany, those who saw Hitler for what he was kept waiting for what? An arrest warrant?

Maybe Bonhoeffer's hesitancy to act makes him look good to a "sinful mankind." I defer to you on the question of sin. How does it make him look to the Jewish mother who had to decide which of her children would be killed right then and which later? How does it make him look to the millions who were huddled together in the gas chambers? How does it make him look to the millions who walked away from the ruins of war without their mothers or fathers, or grandmothers and grandmothers, or brothers, sisters, and children?

There are difficult questions in history, but for Heaven's sake, we know how this one came out! Waiting to kill Hitler was a dreadful mistake. Whatever Bonhoeffer's virtues may have been, this wasn't one of them.


You know, so many seem to look at Bonhoeffer as an important proof of the necessity of violence or as a modern day example of pacifism. I say he is neither. He is a modern day example of a christian who failed to listen to Christ's words in Matthew 24. "See that ye be not troubled, for all these things must come to pass". We Christians are in a NEW kingdom now.

On the question of how does a Christian look to those who suffer because of their nonresistance I would refer you to Betsie Ten Boom who upon seeing a woman being beaten by a Nazi guard, gave pity to the guard... for it is the guard who will suffer God's judgment for eternity. Worldly people will look at Christians and judge them for their nonresistance. They do not have eternal perspective. We do not pity those who are persecuted. That sounds harsh but, Jesus said "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Surely we must aid those who suffer in this world but sending someone who persecutes to their eternity in hell is not consistent with New Testament teaching.

How far we've strayed from the pillars of the 1st generation church! Not only do we have very direct teaching for pacifism in the New Testament.... (Matthew 26:51-54, Matthew 5:38-39, Luke 3:14, my favourite... John 18:36, Titus 1:7-9, James 4:1-4) but we have incredible silence in scripture which says even more. There was SO much suffering in the early church while the apostles were yet with us and were writing the gospels. Entire Christian families were slaughtered. Where did the apostles ever say anything like "No. It is your Christian duty to defend your family!" There were conversions of hundreds and thousands of Christians at a time. Where was the Christian resistance? When did they take up arms to defend their homes? Silence. Not only historical silence but the apostles are silent in condemning their nonresistance!

And so, today, we have people lifting up one man from the 1940's as an example of failed pacifism. What spirit is behind this?


Eric! I had no idea of your sentiments on this matter. I would add only this: the early Christians didn't fight for the simple reason that fighting would have done them no good. Killing Hitler at any point in time, better earlier rather than later, would have done a great good. That is the question.

The comments to this entry are closed.