Kevin writes: Diane, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for attempting to bring peace through treachery and murder. In my opinion, the lesson he has to teach us is that even compassionate and deeply sensitive people can be led astray when they decide they know better than God what it is he wants from us.
I agree and am grieved that Bonhoeffer chose the path of violence in responding to Hitler, in essence becoming the mirror of the thing he hated.
I don't think Bonhoeffer ever truly became clear on pacifism. He was strongly influenced in that direction while at Union Theological Seminary, but when the crisis came, I don't think the small plant of peace growing in him was big enough to withstand his need to "do" something.
He makes a strong argument for "exceptionalism"--Hitler was an exception to the normal rules--but pacficism lives or dies on our ability to love all our enemies, even in exceptional circumstances (And aren't "our" circumstances always exceptional?) On the other hand, I believe the mature Bonhoeffer was groping away from blanket, universalist laws, maxims and principles in favor of a lived particularity centered on the reality of the suffering of Jesus. How this turned into killing Hitler--which I believe is not what Jesus would have done--is an interesting set of arguments. He wanted to stand with the suffering people--with Christ--which was right, but he couldn't quite bring himself to stand with the suffering in weakness and powerlessness--he felt compelled to try to act from a position of worldly power.
Bonhoeffer knew he was participating in activities that were less than pristine. He accepted that he would possibly be disowned by the church after the war when his role in the various plots and subterfuges were uncovered. He ultimately justified himself as willing to get his hands dirty --to look bad--to do the right thing. How much of this was self-deceptive romantic posturing? I don't know. Bonhoeffer had a strong sense of his own importance--but he WAS important. He was a privileged person from a privileged family with options unavailable to many desperate souls. If we had wanted to stay in the U.S., he was welcome with open arms and had several job options at a time when many U.S. citizens would have been thrilled beyond measure to have even one job offer. One doesn't even need to imagine how many German Jews would have given anything for the visa he was handed to come the U.S. Further, his sister, who married a man with some Jewish ancestry, was able to ride out the war with her husband and their children in England. Again, how many German Jews would have given anything--their right arms- to change places with his sister? Finally, in Germany, it seems fairly clear that the Nazis were, to some extent, trying to avoid entanglements with families like the Bonhoeffers, those upper and upper-middle class Aryans who were, after all, the people they courted. He was treated relatively gently, even in prison.
I think, however, all this privilege did weigh on Bonhoeffer, and that he believed "to whom much has been given, much is expected." A case can be made that his sense of Self and Destiny led him to know better than God what the answers were. On the other hand, he was aware of--and fought--his own self-aggrandizing tendencies as far as he could. Perhaps his mistake, if it was one, was his tortured desire to "do" something rather than "just" "be" something?
I can't help but think that if he had sidestepped the plot to assassinate Hitler and other overheated machinations to unseat the Nazis--which were actually not welcomed with open arms by Allied governments--he could have survived the war. Yet on the other hand, I am acutely aware of whom am I to judge--would I even had done an iota of what he did?
Thanks, Kevin ... I'm taking this opportunity to think aloud. Bonhoeffer is compelling and frustrating, a fully human person who was trying to live in obedience to Christ. Bonhoeffer's life makes us think. I can't help but be awed at him and yet wish he had followed a different path ... but I wasn't, thank goodness, in his shoes. As a Quaker, I'm impressed that he tried to enact his faith--that it wasn't divorced from his everyday life, that he took a stand.
I wonder, is it better to take the somewhat wrong stand, with passion, or no stand?