Monday, March 1, 2010

Bonhoeffer and Peace

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?


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Diane,

Thanks for the thoughtful meditation on violence and Bonhoeffer. I was a big fan of him as a young adult after reading The Cost of Discipleship.
I too was devastated when later I read of his change from Cost. His book Letters and Papers from Prison, while interesting, lacked the deep Christ-centered passion of Cost. Instead of focusing on living for Jesus as Light, he seemed preoccupied with reading secular literature, etc.
However, as you point out, living in Nazi Germany was such a terrible time, and we have no experiential idea how terrible even for those of us who have read extensively of the Holocaust.
Look how quickly so many Christians changed their view of lethal violence after 9-11.
We can truly be thankful that Bonhoeffer was a witness to the transformative power of the cross even though he failed (like all of us do).

In the Light,

Diane said...

Thanks Daniel. Too much else to say in a comment!


Ted M. Gossard said...

Diane (and others), Interesting take on Bonhoeffer. This was a good program, worth either the read or listen. In Letters and Papers he does say as I recall that he had not changed his position from Discipleship. I too do not agree with his stand to assassinate Hitler. I don't agree with his assertion that the church can break the state when all else fails. But I too share a high regard for him and his writings. One will be better for reading him and reflecting on his life.

forrest said...

I think the only reasonable way to look at a man like Hitler-- is as a person who would have been institutionalized in any reasonable society, but who instead was used as the most prominent enabler of a vast mass delusion. Killing such a person... as if he personally had possessed the power to corrupt a whole nation into brutality-- would be to give him far too much importance.

Bonhoeffer may have been well aware of this... but felt he must take the full risks of the most unmistakable, uncompromising opposition to the Nazi regime. Possible?

kevin roberts said...

Diane, I thank God that I haven't been tested as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was. The fundamental question raised by this aspect of Bonheffer's life was one addressed in Quakerism very early. Is it in God's will to do wrong in order to achieve a right that transcends the instructions of God?

Remember Ollie North, who from his plush Washington office financed murder and terror overseas with American money? He did it with the best of intentions and noble goals.

His system of morality was ably articulated by Fawn Hall from her influential position as his receptionist:

"Sometimes you have to go above the written law."

Bobhoeffer was a tragic figure, caught in a moral dilemma from which his faith was ultimately insufficient to deliver him.

kevin roberts said...

Please don't get the idea that I have all this worked out myself. I am a reasonably good shot with a semiautomatic handgun and frankly don't know myself what I might do with it, were I placed in a situation where its use would save somebody's life.

I try to live in the power and life that makes it unnecessary, and trust God not to lead me into temptation, and to deliver me from evil.