Andy at Think Christian recently posted about the International Day of Non-Violence. In his post, he referenced a 2004 article by Ronald Osborne of the Adventist Peace Fellowship on Bonhoeffer’s Pacifism.
Osborne’s article addresses the disconnect between Bonhoeffer’s pacifism in the 1930’s and his active participation in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler in the 1940’s. There are many who would like to retain Bonhoeffer in the canon of pacifist martyrs but struggle to explain his part in an act of intentional, lethal (and in my opinion, justified) violence.
I am certainly not a Bonhoeffer scholar. I’ve only read the major works available to English speaking audiences – in English, I should add. Perhaps others have access to his private thoughts or unpublished writings. I’ll venture, however, to address Mr. Osborne’s arguments and wrestle a bit with Bonhoeffer’s own writings.
Bonhoeffer’s role in the plot against Hitler must be something of an embarrassment to those who published his works. I read The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison while still in high school. The forwards and introductory sections of those books make scant mention of exactly why Bonhoeffer was arrested and subsequently executed. It was much later that I learned the full extent of Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the German resistance movement.
To avoid being drafted into the regular Army, Bonhoeffer took a position with German military intelligence (Abwehr). In this role, Bonhoeffer was able to travel outside Germany, ostensibly to gather intelligence for the Nazis. Instead, he provided the Allies with information about the activities of the German resistance. In spy novels, that’s known as being a “double agent.” If being a spy and helping combatants prosecute a war is “non-violent resistance” then that term has no meaning at all. Spies are combatants (but, interestingly, they are not protected by the Geneva Conventions.) Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis in April 1943 after it was discovered that he used his government position to help a number of Jews to escape to Switzerland.
Bonhoeffer was also a part of the resistance circle that attempted to assassinate Hitler and take over the German government by force. The conspiracy came to a head on July 20, 1944 when German Army officer Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg planted a bomb in Hitler’s staff meeting. The bomb failed to kill Hitler, but it did kill or injure nine others.
Bonhoeffer was already in jail when the bombing took place, but the coup had been in planning for years. Bonhoeffer’s role in the plot was eventually discovered, leading to Bonhoeffer’s execution by hanging at Flossenburg in April 1945.
Osborne argues that Bonhoeffer didn’t think of himself as a “just warrior.” Even if that were the case, Bonhoeffer’s subjective self-understanding wouldn’t change his objective status. By his actions, Bonhoeffer made himself an irregular combatant in the war that engulfed Europe.
It is hard to reconcile Bonhoeffer’s actions with his speaking and writing in the 1930’s.
In August 1933, Bonhoeffer spoke to the World Alliance, Universal Christian Council (a predecessor to the World Council of Churches) in Fanö, Denmark. His text was Psalm 85.
Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won where the way leads to the Cross. Which of us can say he knows what it might mean for the world if one nation should meet the aggressor, not with weapons in hand, but praying, defenseless, and for that very reason protected by “a bulwark never failing.” …
Once again, how will peace come? Who will call us to peace so that the world will hear, will have to hears, so that all peoples may rejoice? The individual Christian cannot do it. When all around are silent, he can indeed raise his voice and bear witness, but the powers of the world stride over him without a word. The individual too can witness and suffer – oh, if only he would – but he also is suffocated by the power of hate. …
Only the one great Ecumenical Council of the holy church of Christ over all the world can speak out so that the world, though it gnash its teeth, will have to hears, so that the peoples will rejoice because the church of Christ in the name of Christ has taken the weapons from the hands of their sons, forbidden war, proclaimed the peace of Christ against the raging world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Meditations on Psalms, Edwin Robertson, Zondervan, 2002, pp. 29-30
In chapter 12 (Revenge) of The Cost of Discipleship (German: Nachfolge), Bonhoeffer comments on Matthew 5:38-42:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
The followers of Jesus for his sake renounce every personal right. p. 140
This saying of Christ removes the Church from the sphere of politics and the law. The Church is not to be a national community like the Old Israel, but a community of believers without political or national ties. The old Israel had been both – the chosen people of God and a national community, and it was therefore his will that they should meet force with force. But with the Church it is different. p. 141
The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. p. 141
There is no deed on earth so outrageous as to justify a different attitude. p. 142
Jesus, however, tells us that because we live in the world, and because the world is evil, that the precept of non-resistance must be put into practice. p 144
The passion of Christ is the victory of divine love over the powers of evil, and therefore it is the only supportable basis for Christian obedience. Once again Jesus calls those who follow him to share his passion. How can we convince the world by our preaching of the passion when we shrink from the passion in our own lives? On the cross Jesus fulfilled the law he himself established and thus graciously keeps disciples in the fellowship of his suffering. The cross is the only power in the world which proves that suffering love can avenge and vanquish evil. But it was just this participation in the cross which the disciples were granted when Jesus called them to him. They are called blessed because of their visible participation in the cross. pp. 144-145
The Cost of Discipleship was published in 1937. In it, as we have seen, Bonhoeffer calls for:
- Participation in the cross of Christ
- Renunciation of all personal rights
- Absolute non-resistance to evil
- Repudiation of any exceptions, regardless of circumstances
- Separation from the realm of politics and the law
It is this last point with which Bonhoeffer wrestles most in chapter 12. Traditional Lutheran thinking about the tension between the Sermon on the Mount and the requirements of civil society identifies “Two Kingdoms” in which a Christian lives simultaneously.
The Reformers offered a decisively new interpretation of this passage and contributed a new idea of paramount importance. They distinguished between personal sufferings and those incurred by Christians in the performance of duty as bearers of an office ordained by God, maintaining that the precept of non-violence applies to the first but not to the second. In the second case we are not only freed from obligation to eschew violence, but if we want to act in a genuine spirit of love we must do the very opposite, and meet force with force in order to check the assault of evil. It was along these lines that the Reformers justified war and other legal sanctions against evil. But this distinction between person and office is wholly alien to the teaching of Jesus. He says nothing about that. He addresses his disciples as men who have left all to follow him, and the precept of non-violence applies equally to private life and official duty. He is the Lord of all life, and demands undivided allegiance. Furthermore, when it comes to practice, this distinction raises insoluble difficulties. Am I ever acting only as a private person or only in an official capacity? p. 143
Bonhoeffer appears to completely reject “two kingdoms” thinking, and it is not a theory without problems.
He is correct that the “distinction between person and office is wholly alien to the teaching of Jesus.” Jesus’ teaching only touched on the coming kingdom already present in his Galilean and Judean ministry. His teachings reflect the sacrificial love and radical grace that are at the heart of that kingdom. The disciples who followed Jesus in Galilee and Judea in obedience to those teachings participated in Jesus’ own redemptive life. Insofar as it applies to the Galilean disciples, Bonhoeffer is spot on when he says, “it was just this participation in the cross which the disciples were granted when Jesus called them to him. They are called blessed because of their visible participation in the cross.”
Bonhoeffer is wrong, however, to identify contemporary discipleship with imitation of the Galilean disciples. Post-Easter Christians are called primarily to witness to Christ’s completed work of redemption on the cross, not to add to it by their own sufferings. Can this lead to the “cheap grace” which Bonhoeffer abhors? Possibly, but not necessarily. The New Testament church saw itself more as a community of witness than as a community of redemptive suffering, but it certainly didn’t practice cheap grace.
Bonhoeffer is also right to assert that Jesus “is the Lord of all life and demands undivided allegiance.” Even within the New Testament, however, you find that the post-Easter community struggling to live in a world redeemed by grace, yet still requiring the force of law.
Bonhoeffer is off the mark a bit when he describes the two realms in which we are called to obedience as “private life” and “official capacity.” It’s not the fact that I wear two hats that places me in two kingdoms at once. Rather, I live with one foot in the coming kingdom of pure grace that Jesus made real – that will someday come in power and transform all creation – and with another foot in this present age, which is characterized by law, constraint and necessity.
The unity of my obedience is found in love. The principle of grace, for example, tells me to love the perpetrator and seek his good. The principle of law, however, tells me to love those threatened by the perpetrator by restraining him from doing evil and to love the community by punishing his misdeeds to uphold the rule of law.
Before he finishes, Bonhoeffer raises an important objection to his own theory along these same lines.
How then can the precept of Jesus be justified in the light of experience? It is obvious that weakness and defenselessness only invite aggression? If we took the precept of non-resistance as an ethical blueprint for general application, we should indeed be indulging in idealistic dreams: we should be dreaming of a utopia with laws which the world would never obey. To make non-resistance a principle for secular life is to deny God, by undermining his gracious ordinance for the preservation of this world. pp. 143-144
Government and the rule of law is God’s “gracious ordinance for the preservation of this world,” and force is a necessary component of the rule of law. What, then, of the Christian and the institutions of this world? May they participate in government, commerce or any other institution in which the gospel of pure grace is not the only principle at work? The Bonhoeffer of 1937 living in the nightmare of Nazi Germany doesn’t offer a real answer.
Non-Resistance as a Strategy
The Bonhoeffer of 1933-1937 clearly writes and speaks like a pacifist. The Bonhoeffer of 1943 does not act like one. If a person joins military intelligence, acts as a spy, collaborates with military powers engaging in war, and conspires to overthrow his government by lethal force, you might think that it would be hard to claim him as a pacifist. Nevertheless, Osborne claims that Bonhoeffer remained a doctrinal pacifist and that his actions were consistent with his earlier speaking and writing on the issue.
For some reason, Osborne begins his argument with the claim that non-violent resistance was an effective means of overcoming the fascist death machine during the Second World War. Like many pacifists, Osborne vastly overstates the results of “non-violent resistance” against Hitler. Osborne cites the example of one French village and the nation of Denmark in Nazi occupied Europe. He paints an especially misleading picture of “the entire nation of Denmark” non-violently resisting Nazi power and protecting Jews with labor strikes and wearing Stars of David. By the end of the war, however, the Danish resistance was directly attacking Nazi equipment and infrastructure. It received supplies from Allied air drops and coordinated its activities with Allied war efforts. The evolution of the Danish resistance had more to do with political, military and social developments than with the principles of non-violence.
This idea of “non-violent” resistance as a practical means of defeating evil is not found in the Sermon on the Mount and does not appear to be a major concern of Bonhoeffer. Jesus did not make a distinction among throwing insults, eggs, rocks or spears at an enemy.
But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:39-41)
Jesus’ standard is absolute: do not resist the one who is evil. In fact, cooperate! If a soldier drafts you to carry his gear for one mile, carry it for two. Jesus’ absolute standard applied absolutely – to the itinerant disciples who participated in his Galilean and Judean ministry, who imitated the father’s costly, self-giving love and who in their sacrifice anticipated Jesus’ crucifixion. If modern pacifists want to equate the Christian faith with emulation of Jesus’ Galilean disciples, they’ll find that there’s a lot more involved than not wearing uniforms or carrying weapons.
In this case, I find it strange to argue that non-violent resistance is an effective tool against evil. If “Bonhoeffer’s hope of a Christian nonviolent resistance to fascism was not unrealistic,” as Osborne says, why did Bonhoeffer participate in a lethal conspiracy? If the non-violent approach was working so well, why resort to violence at all?
The claim that “non-violent resistance was effective” would actually undermine Osborne’s argument if effectiveness were an ethical criterion. Remember, however, that Osborne claims that Bonhoeffer “did not act with any expectation of success.” Obedience to God’s call is the only measure of what is right.
The same essay that Osborne cites (“After Ten Years”), however, appears to refute Osborne’s claim about the irrelevance of success to Bonhoeffer’s thinking at the beginning of 1943.
Although it is certainly not true that success justifies an evil deed and shady means, it is impossible to regard success as something that is ethically quite neutral. “After Ten Years,” Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 6
The heart of Osborne’s attempt to defend Bonhoeffer’s continuing pacifism is the theory of the “exceptional case.”
Bonhoeffer, he says, did not understand his act a just use of force and would have denied that it had any relevance to theoretical discussions of the matter. Rather, Osborne interprets Bonhoeffer’s actions in the light of Karl Barth’s teaching about the ethics of the Grenzfall (literally “border”) or “exceptional case.”
Pacifism, Barth taught, is the rule of the Christian life; the Kingdom of God, of necessity, stands over and against all human pretensions to power and control by force. And yet, Barth maintained, no word of God can be made absolute by humans in a way that limits the freedom of God to speak a new word in “an exceptional case”. Hence, the Christian must be a pacifist and yet at the same time cannot be an “absolute” pacifist since this would amount to a denial of God’s freedom to be God.
… neither secular realism nor natural law categories of “just war” were what Barth had in mind when he spoke of God’s freedom to speak a new word. Rather, Richard Hays writes, his account of the moral life demands “a constant reliance on prayer and listening for the guidance of God, believing that God can and does address individuals specifically with particular instructions.” Hence, “we read Scripture thoroughly with the intent of obeying exactly what is commanded there, while always listening prayerfully for the unlikely revelation that in a particular case we may be commanded to do something contrary to the rule given by Scripture.”
Bonhoeffer’s own words in “After Ten Years” suggest that his subjective experience was very much that of an exceptional summons. His spiritual and moral breakthrough came not as a reasoned move in the direction of universal ethics, but as a sudden inner awareness of God’s Real Presence and the divine call to action in his life. Examined closely, “After Ten Years” is in fact the very antithesis of every rationalization for violence, not least those offered by Bonhoeffer’s fellow clergymen in support of Hitler. Bonhoeffer was, by his own account, engaged not in an act of just warfare but in an existential “venture of faith”. Significantly, he did not act with any expectation of success (a central requirement in just war thinking). Nor did he see his actions as presenting a model for others to imitate. Rather, like Abraham binding Isaac to the altar, he saw his complicity in the plot against Hitler as the peculiar and terrible cross he was called to bear.
So, if I understand this correctly, Christians should always obey Jesus’ pacifist teaching, except when God tells them to kill somebody, in which case the teaching is irrelevant. Assassination is a “venture in faith.” While I believe that might in fact be the case, this hardly sounds like pacifist language. There would be no end to the religious left’s ridicule for a pastor who claimed that assassination was God’s will.
Where did Bonhoeffer obtain this “divine call” to the work of assassination? He does not seem to have seen visions or heard voices in direct revelation (unlike Abraham, to whom Osborne alludes). Osborne says that it was a “subjective experience.” It seems to me that this idea of exceptionalism – and killing based solely on subjective feelings about God’s will – is a pretty dangerous path to tread. Osborne says that it was not “reasoned” or based on “rationalization.” If Bonhoeffer didn’t think about what he was doing – if he didn’t apply reason – he should have. Only sociopaths kill people because they heard God tell them to.
What Osborne envisions in comparing Bonhoeffer’s actions to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is a lone, heroic man of faith – a one-against-the-world sort of fellow. But Bonhoeffer did not act alone. He was part of a conspiracy. Were they all acting in obedience to a direct revelation of God? Or perhaps, even though they were all part of the same conspiracy, Bonhoeffer was the only who acted in the justice that belongs to faith. And what about those warmongering Allied military powers with whom Bonhoeffer shared information? Did their lack of pacifist commitment render their efforts damnable, or is it possible that they in their own way were fulfilling the will of God? Does God only speak to pacifists? Osborne says that Bonhoeffer didn’t see his actions as a model for others to emulate, but his actions say he did. He was not a lone gunman on a grassy knoll. He was part of a substantial conspiracy with international ties that would have brought everyone in Germany under its power if it had succeeded.
The bottom line is that Bonhoeffer decided to participate in the plot to overthrow Hitler, a conspiracy that would have eventually taken many lives after Hitler’s death. For whatever reason, Bonhoeffer acted in a manner that was inconsistent with his earlier writing and speaking. At the very least, here was an exception to a rule that he previously said had no exceptions. Once you make an exception for yourself, you cannot deny its possibility to others – as if you alone had been chosen by God.
After Ten Years
From my perspective, what separated Bonhoeffer and the conspirators from the Sturmabteilung and the Schutzstaffel was not that latter used violence while the former did not, but the ends they sought, the targets they chose and the manner in which they conducted themselves. While Bonhoeffer was not acting on behalf of a state (and thus falls outside the normal discussions on the just use of force by states), these are still the sort of matters with which jus ad bellum and jus in bello are concerned.
I can’t find a developed ethical theory in Bonhoeffer’s later published works that can account for his actions. In Bonhoeffer’s situation, that is not surprising. His world was coming apart at the seams. Ethical reasoning was pushed beyond the limits of its ability to address the extreme situation which Bonhoeffer faced. In “After Ten Years,” Bonhoeffer writes:
The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. p. 4
Did Bonhoeffer think of his actions as an exception to the universal law of Christian pacifism, or did he no longer confine his thinking to pacifist language? Near the end of “After Ten Years,” in a section entitled “Immanent Righteousness,” Bonhoeffer writes:
It is true that all historically important action is constantly overstepping the limits set by these these laws [i.e., either divine law or the permanent laws of human social life] . But it makes all the difference whether such overstepping of the appointed limits is regarded in principle as the superseding of them, and therefore given out to be a law of a special kind, or whether the overstepping is deliberately regarded as a fault which is perhaps unavoidable, justified only if the law and the limit are re-established and respected as soon as possible. It is not necessarily hypocrisy if the declared aim of the political action is the restoration of the law, and not mere self-preservation. p. 11
While Bonhoeffer may never have articulated a theory on the just use of force, the final sentence this excerpt captures one aspect of just-use-of-force thinking. “It is not necessarily hypocrisy if the declared aim of the political action is the restoration of law, and not mere self-preservation.” Pacifists tend to describe warriors as fighting their own enemies and defending their own lives. This is not an accurate description of the just use of force. When the use of force is justified, it is directed at the enemy of the common good and in defense of the innocent. Combatants in war do in fact attack the enemy and defend themselves, but they did not enter the conflict in order to fight personal battles or protect their own lives. If pacifists want to attack the just-war thinking honestly, they cannot attack the straw man of personal self-defense and private vengeance.
In the first sentence of the previous quotation, it is unclear whether the antecedents to “these laws” are the permanent laws of human social life (in the sentence immediately preceding this paragraph) or the divine law (half-way up the previous page). In the latter case, Bonhoeffer might be describing his actions an exception to the universal divine law of pacifism. It seems more natural, however, to understand his words as referring to the ordinary rule of civil order and obedience to authorities.
In fact, Bonhoeffer appears to suggest exact opposite of what Osborne describes as Bonhoeffer’s world view.
We can understand from this why Aristotelean-Thomist ethics made wisdom one of the cardinal virtues. Wisdom and folly are not ethically indifferent, as Neo-protestant motive-ethics would have it. In the fullness of the concrete situation and the possibilities which it offer, the wise man at the same time recognizes the impassable limits that are set to all actions by the permanent laws of human social life; and in this knowledge the wise man acts well and the good man wisely. p. 10
Here, Bonhoeffer appeals to classical ethical reasoning. He recognizes the ethical significance of law in human social life and sees wisdom acting with regard to possibilities and consequences. It does not match the picture which Osborne draws of the later Bonhoeffer.
Pecca Fortiter and the Venture of Faith
Living in Nazi dominated Europe in the midst of a World War, it would be difficult to refine a comprehensive ethical system. Osborne is correct that in this situation believers must simply choose what to do in faith, not relying on one’s own ability to reason correctly and not seeking to preserve one’s own innocence before God. Bonhoeffer again writes:
Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God. p. 5
Civil courage, in fact, can grow only out of the free responsibility of free men. Only now are the Germans beginning to discover the meaning of free responsibility. It depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture. p. 6
What Osborne fails to grasp, however, is that those of us who do not start with pacifist assumptions also face the same types of existential choices. We think about our choices. We talk about them with other Christians. We pray about them. In the end, however, we choose to act trusting in God and not in our own righteousness.
We never expect the institutions in which we participate to be perfect – in either ends or means. When we associate ourselves with temporal institutions, we do so with the expectation that we can love our neighbor as ourselves within them. There will be times in which circumstances dictate that we will abandon or even oppose the institutions of which we are a part, but we don’t do so at the drop of a hat. To put God’s kingdom first does not imply that we walk through life without any secondary loyalties.
When we serve God within the context of our human affiliations, we do so trusting in God and not our own righteousness. We’ve seen just how messed up the institutions (family, business, government, education, church, and so forth) to which we belong can be. We know we can’t accomplish the perfect will of God within them; we can attempt to accomplish what we understand to be the proximate will of God in the circumstances we face. Our righteousness before God depends solely on God’s grace in Jesus.
When we decide to oppose the institutions to which we belong – or to resist the forces of evil which exist on the earth – we find ourselves in the same place before God: unable to accomplish his ultimate will, limited in our ability to accomplish his penultimate will, and dependent solely on the grace of God.
Let me put this as clearly as I can. I put on this uniform and serve as a Soldier – I believe – as an act of obedience to Jesus Christ. My decision to serve in the military forces of my country required me to think about the just use of force in this world, but ultimately I chose to serve in the Army because I believe God wants me to be here. (And, I should note, the United Methodist Church believes God wants me to be here as well. I am endorsed for this ministry and serve under the appointment of my bishop). I believe the Army in which I serve has an overall positive impact on the world, but I am fully aware of how far we fall short of God’s perfect will. We are limited in our ability to do good, not only by the circumstances in which we work, but by human ignorance and sinfulness. For the sake of others, I am willing to stand before God bearing the full weight of responsibility for the innumerable things that go (sometimes horribly) wrong. Like Bonhoeffer, I see myself as a man from whom “God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture.”
In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer not only rejected Luther’s doctrine of the “Two Kingdoms” (chapter 12), he qualified the Lutheran teaching of “pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo (‘Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still’)”.
If we make Luther’s formula a premise for our doctrine of grace, we are conjuring up the specter of cheap grace. But Luther’s formula is meant to be taken, not as the premise, but as the conclusion, the answer to the sum, the coping-stone, his very last word on the subject. Taken as the premise, pecca fortiter acquires the character of an ethical principle, a principle of grace to which the principle of pecca fortiter must correspond. That means the justification of sin, and it turns Luther’s formula into its very opposite. For Luther ‘sin boldly’ could only be his very last refuge, the consolation for one whose attempts to follow Christ had taught him that he can never become sinless, who in his fear of sin despairs of the grace of God. As Luther saw it, ‘sin boldly’ did not happen to be a fundamental acknowledgment of his disobedient life; it was the gospel of the grace of God before which we are always and in every circumstance sinners. Yet that grace seeks us and justifies us, sinners though we are. Take courage and confess your sin, says Luther, do not try to run away from it, but believe more boldly still. You are a sinner, so be a sinner, and don’t try to become what you are not. Yes, and become a sinner again and again every day, and be bold about it. But to whom can such words be addressed, except to those who from the bottom of their hearts make a daily renunciation of sin and of every barrier which hinders them from following Christ, but who nevertheless are troubled by their daily faithlessness and sin? Who can hear these words without endangering his faith but he who hears their consolation as a renewed summons to follow Christ? Interpreted in this way, these words of Luther become a testimony to the costliness of grace, the only genuine kind of grace there is. p. 52
I’m not sure what Bonhoeffer came to think of his pacifist teachings of the 1930s. I’m relatively certain, however, that the Bonhoeffer of “After Ten Years,” came to cast himself on the grace of God in pecca fortiter style. So do I, every day.