Bonhoeffer the Assassin?
Here’s the first part of a post that will appear on the Baker Academic blog in a couple of weeks:
“I’d be a pacifist if it wasn’t for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” This isn’t an uncommon line, and we’ve heard similar sentiments expressed quite frequently. The assumption is, of course, that Bonhoeffer’s life and thought trace an arc upward from the nationalism of his youth, through the fluffy pacifism of his early work, then–checked by the harsh realities of the church struggle and the horrors of Nazism–it comes to rest in the Niebuhrian realism of his mature work. In this common perspective his lectures on peace and his famous book Discipleship fit the middle period, while his prison letters and the Ethics manuscripts are folded into the latter.
Mark, Dan and I wrote Bonhoeffer the Assassin? because we don’t think that narrative works. Notice the question mark at the end of our book’s title. That narrative doesn’t work with the historical possibilities and it doesn’t work with his literary legacy. We’re well aware that our re-telling of Bonhoeffer’s biography and our re-reading of some of his prominent texts swims against a powerful current. However, that current isn’t formidable because it has overwhelming scholarly support. It’s powerful and popular because, well, it’s popular–it’s a comforting story. The Bonhoeffer who winds up a so-called ‘moral realist’ is comforting because that ‘Bonhoeffer’ takes us back to the way we set things up in the first place.
The problem is this popular biographical arc doesn’t fit Bonhoeffer’s life. It doesn’t fit because Bonhoeffer never was a pacifist in an absolute sense. It doesn’t fit because he doesn’t abandon his peace ethic. And it doesn’t fit because the event that marked the assumed turning point probably never happened. That is, in our analysis it is highly implausible that Bonhoeffer was involved in attempts on Hitler’s life at all.