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Bonhoeffer the Assassin?
Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call the Peacemaking 

by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist
and Daniel P. Umbel

Foreword By Stanley Hauerwas

A Book Review

By Steve Hickey, University of Aberdeen

An intentionally controversial book, as the subtitle suggests, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? by Nation, Siegrist and Umbel is an attempt to challenge what the authors view as an unfortunate but pervasive myth; that by the end of his life Dietrich Bonhoeffer had retreated from his earlier held pacifist convictions in participating directly in plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler. As Bonhoeffer scholars from within the Mennonite tradition, and each deeply committed to pacifism, it could be assumed this book is another biased attempt by yet another group to hijack the Bonhoeffer legacy and turn him into an endorser of their own ideals. Though there is the uncomfortable suspicion of such a subjective vantage point, and some truth to it, the book does challenge long-assumed claims of a compromised Bonhoeffer with some measure of good reason and scholarship.

Siegrist and Umbel are former students of Mark Nation and have each contributed two chapters in the second half of the book devoted to development of Bonhoeffer’s ethic. Nation begins the book himself with three biographical chapters providing a general orientation to the movements, associations and involvements of Bonhoeffer in the Church Struggle. Even more importantly this biographical section provides a closer look at what we actually know and do not know about Bonhoeffer’s time working for the Abwehr, and his remote connections to any conspiracies to stop Hitler, or assassinate him.

The more ill-informed of Bonhoeffer fans today may think any and all working for the Abwehr were resisters however Nation documents that of the 13,000 who worked at the Abwehr, only fifty were known to be connected to the resistance, barely four percent (p. 74). And of the known forty-two separate plots to kill Hitler, only five could have had any possible connection to Bonhoeffer. In taking time to review those five, Nation documents that there were only two of which Bonhoeffer may have been even aware. Drawing from Dramm’s Bonhoeffer and the Resistance, anyone who includes Bonhoeffer in these efforts “greatly exaggerates Bonhoeffer’s role and importance in the resistance.” Nation says “I believe this is Dramm’s way of saying there is not a shred of evidence that Bonhoeffer was linked in any way to these attempts of Hitler’s life” (p. 86).

Bonhoeffer is presented as a chaplain of sorts to the resistance, a spiritual advisor and pastoral counselor providing mental support, not so much moral support or justification (p. 82). In other words, he was in no way an assassin or even an accomplice of one. We are reminded his arrest was because of the role he played in the rescue of fourteen Jews, not because of any connection to assassination attempts. Regardless of the position one takes on the bias of this book, it importantly underscores the point that we are not as sure as we thought we were how directly Bonhoeffer was involved.

Perhaps it could be said that a person who only reads one book on a subject knows only a dangerous little about it. If this is the only book one reads on the matter of Bonhoeffer and pacifism, at least know that what is contained therein is contested strongly by Bonhoeffer scholars who are much closer to Bonhoeffer’s associations, students and his friends than the authors here. Particularly Clifford Green reviews this book expressing obvious agitation over what is conveniently left out of the book. But more so his angst is fuelled by how Nation builds his thesis by dismissing Bethge’s decades-later memories of informal conversations as unreliable, and even perhaps a deliberate attempt to give the world a Bonhoeffer different than the one he actually knew:

Perhaps Bethge desperately wanted his close friend to be perceived as a “Political” activist in the midst of the worst years of the Hitler regime. Bonhoeffer, so Bethge wants us to believe, was one of the Germans who directly tried to stop the massive slaughter that became the Holocaust of the Jews… (p.94)

For Nation, stunningly, Bethge is an unreliable source. Understandably, Green, who knew Bethge personally over several decades finds these insinuations outrageous. All that having been said, the first three chapters remain a generally informative and succinct, though a selective summary of the biographical unfolding of what transpired.

The second half of the book offers an helpful overview of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethic and development. The thesis of the book is that from 1932-1945, Bonhoeffer held a consistent pacifist ethic and did not (as others suggest) repudiate Discipleship by the time he wrote Ethics. There is really no debate that in his 1929 Barcelona lectures, Bonhoeffer was solidly an advocate of just war theory. And there is no debate that around 1932, through his friendship at Union Seminary with Jean Lassarre – a French Tolstoyian pacifist committed to the simple obedience of the Sermon on the Mount –  that Bonhoeffer’s thinking on the matter dramatically changed and was the catalyst behind the later writing of Discipleship. The claim of this book is that between Discipleship (1937) and Ethics (1943) there is no repudiation of a strong pacifist ethic for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This rather than being a repudiation of Discipleship either in its parts or as a whole, Ethics is a confirmation, as it is its continuation, amendment, clarification and culmination (p. 158).

Using JW for just war, P for pacifist, and upper and lower case for a soft or strong ethic, the basic claims in this book can be depicted as following. The pervasive “myth” in the development of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought could be pictured as:

       JW    –    p     –   jw
1929      1937      1943
  Barcelona               Ethics

Nation, Siegrist and Umbel challenge this and propose a more accurate reading would be:

JW    –    P     –   p
1929    1937     1943

The four chapters in the second section of the book hit the major themes we find in Discipleship and Ethics; cheap grace, simple and paradoxical obedience, the ultimate and penultimate, the this-worldliness of Christianity and, guilt and responsibility. The analysis of the writings of Bonhoeffer show “that Bonhoeffer in no way checked his rigorous ethics at the door of World War II or his involvement in the resistance. Bonhoeffer held to an ethic centered on Christ– uncompromised, though not unaffected, by his circumstances” (p. 209). Readers are encouraged to consider how, to date, Bonhoeffer’s development of thought has been viewed primarily through a Niebuhrian-tainted lens in that loving enemies is an impossibility– “unrealistic and, in a vicious world, is even harmful” (p. 218). The contention is this, in part, is what has been driving significant misreadings of Bonhoeffer’s later work.

Book titles are intended to be catchy and provocative enough to sell books and start conversations but one wonders how Bonhoeffer would react to the use of the term assassin here in the title?  Perhaps this important book might be better titled A Pacifist Rereading of Bonhoeffer or A Pacifists Guide to Bonhoeffer. In his conclusion Nation recites Larry Rasmussen’s standard work on the subject, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance, to bolster his own thesis: “All the twisting possible cannot make the author of The Cost of Discipleship a volunteer for even assassinating Adolf Hitler” (p. 222).

Sixty-five years ago today (April 9, 1945), German pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung in the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp for his participation in an assassination plot against Hitler. With this anniversary in mind today, Thomas Nelson Publishers released the first new biography of Bonhoeffer in forty years — Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.

(((If you missed it, click here for my earlier post/pics on my recent visit to the Bonhoeffer home in Berlin.)))

Fox News did a story today on this newest Bonhoeffer book:

“There were many German churchgoers, whether they were Christians or not I don’t know, but they went to church and somehow they made peace with the Nazis,” Metaxas says. “They thought there was nothing wrong. Bonhoeffer had such a devoted faith he knew without any question that the Nazis were anti-Christian and they were evil, and if he didn’t stand against them he would have to answer to God.”  Bonhoeffer believed he was called by God to help those who wanted to assassinate Hitler. “Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist,” Metaxas says. “And that will be news to a lot of people who think of Bonhoeffer as their hero, as some kind of pacifist.” He was willing to be involved in a plot to kill Hitler. “He wasn’t helpful as a gunman; he was helpful with contacts all around Europe,” Metaxas says. “He had the ability because he had ecumenical church contacts to work as a double agent, and that is what he was, he was a double agent.”

Read that first sentence again, the part about church-going “Christians” making peace with evil. Bonhoeffer was a prophetic voice to a church paralyzed by false grace, cheap grace.  Metaxas writes:

What was left in its wake was the murder of 6 million Jews and a legacy that has tarnished the Christian faith in Europe. But the legacy that Bonhoeffer leaves future generations is of the untold dangers of idolizing politicians as messianic figures. Not just in the 1930s and ’40s, but today as well. “It’s a deep temptation within us,” says Metaxas. “We need to guard against it and we need to know that it can lead to our ruin. Germany was led over the cliff, and there were many good people who were totally deluded.” Bonhoeffer, says Metaxas, was a prophet. He was a voice crying in the wilderness. He was God’s voice at a time when almost no one was speaking out against the evil of the Nazis.

Good church-going people in Germany were deluded and led over a cliff,,,, by four hundred years of a Lutheran theology of non-engagement with society. As I say in my earlier post:

Bonhoeffer criticized Luther for two things; 1) focusing the Reformation only on the church (whereas Zwingli sought to influence – salt and light – all of society). Bonhoeffer believed Luther’s views on this set the stage for the German Church of the 1930’s to stay out of Hitler’s business. In the 1000+ plus pages of Reformation history I’ve read this month, I’ve had the sense that had Zwingli been in Germany and not in Switzerland, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened. Bonhoeffer also was one of the earliest voices in the German Lutheran Church to renounce 2) the anti-Semitism and treatment of the Jews.

At lunch today I dove into my latest issue of Mission Frontiers – Mission Frontiers comes every other month from the US Center for World Mission.  I’ve read it cover to cover since the 80’s.  Today my attention was drawn to an article called “His Kingdom Come: An Integrated Approach to Discipling the Nations and Fulfilling the Great Commission.”

The article reviews a book by the same title – the book is a collection of 30 articles written by YWAM’s senior leadership team.  I LOVE reading how the 30 senior leaders of YWAM are saying the great commission is bigger than individual conversions.  After all, Jesus said “GO and make disciples of nations…” Sadly we have conveniently read that to only mean we are to disciple individuals in all the nations.  The late Dr. Ralph Winter was “ecstatic” about this current thinking at YWAM and he commented:

I am very excited about this book. It is important evidence of a major organization turning very gradually and definitely into a nation-building kingdom type of mission, in addition, of course to the ongoing stress on personal conversion.

No one is advocating downplaying personal conversion, only that we return to the mandate to disciple nations. Discipling nations is the mission of the church. It’s what the Founders of our nation did – 27 of the 56 signers of the Declaration had seminary degrees, many were ordained ministers.  These men laid a righteous foundation under our nation that we have since shifted away from. Today the nation is being discipled  by (called to follow) those who don’t know God and in fact, are hostile to him.

How do you disciple a nation with a nation of churches convinced they should stay separate from state? The leaders of YWAM are spot on – being salt isn’t about just about getting someone to say a sinner’s prayer, it’s about influencing culture and coming alongside those who shape society, including those who make laws.

I contend it’s impossible to disciple a nation and not be political. The leaven of the Kingdom must permeate every sphere of society (the loaf); media and entertainment, education, medicine, law, government, family, charity, agriculture, environment, and business.

On Sunday I shared out loud some of my latest thoughts on this… Would I rather have 700 people sitting there staring at me each weekend taking in my latest inspirational idea that will help their private faith in Christ? Or, would I rather have seven people from our church occupying seats at our state legislature or school board or city council? I know it doesn’t have to be either/or, but right now it is one and not the other – the church is disengaged.  So, how about you— in terms of discipling nations– those seven seats in the state legislature just may bring more kingdom transformation in a region than all the seats in our largest church auditoriums.

2010 will be a good year for the righteous to win elections – pastors should encourage key people in their congregations to run for office. “When the righteous rule, the people rejoice.” (Prov. 29:2) I’m sharing this not out of anger or frustration but rather out of vision. My sense is what lies ahead will require Kingdom-minded people at the table where decisions are made.  We can continue to curse the darkness or we can embody the light in our nation.

The Muslims have the momentum on the dominion of the earth right now and we don’t want that for our kids future. Some say its too late because Christianity for most amounts to not much more than sitting in church each weekend looking at the back of the head of the guy in front of you. The salt has lost it’s saltiness and we wonder why we are getting trampled.

Great article in the Birmingham News this week about Church of the Highlands and my friend Pastor Chris Hodges. In talking about his church’s remarkable growth and success in reaching people he says, “We’re discovering it’s more who you are, not what you’re doing.” There is definitely a contagious life-giving DNA in ARC churches and Chris personifies it!

And, for altogether different reasons, there is a lengthy article today in the Colorado Springs Independant on my friend Pastor Ted Haggard.  Check it out — “The Resurrection of Pastor Ted.” It’s a lengthy interview where Ted talks about “the year and a half [of his life] when the sun didn’t come up… [when] no grass was green, the birds never sang, the sky was never blue.

The article quotes a recent Twitter update of Ted’s where he commented about a thought he had reading the Bible that morning… “Judas and Peter both sinned and repented. Judas’ suicide served the religious leaders well, Peter’s recovery exposed them.”

I really look forward to his wife Gayle’s new book which is coming out in December – Why I Stayed. Gayle embodies the faithfulness of God and mature love.

A few things in me have been settled this past month or so on this sabbatical– one of which is that it’s time to release my Sermon on the Mount book. It’s been over twenty years in the making, sits at 350 pages right now, and it’s time. My plan is to teach it one more time this year – probably as an elective this fall – putting the final tweaks on each chapter as I go – and release it in 2010. It’s really a life work but even the release of this book would be no finish line for me in terms of my life-long journey with the  Sermon on the Mount.

Living in the Second Mile

Here’s a pdf link to the first 25 pages. Let me know what you think. The working title for the past five or six years has been “Obtainable Expectations: Timely Exposition of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount” and that, in terms of Biblical studies, is the angle in which I approach the Sermon on the Mount. The original plan was to release four books in an “Obtainable” series.  My first was Obtainable Destiny which came out in 2004 (1/2 Timothy, Titus), then was to come Obtainable Expectations (Sermon on the Mount), then Obtainable Greatness (Hebrews), and finally Obtainable Victory (Revelation). Dr. C. Peter Wagner, a seminary prof for forty years at Fuller, says what I’m doing here is the “new wineskins in Biblical Studies.” He did a similar style commentary on Acts.

Yet the latest counsel from my publisher is go with my other title suggestion which is “Living in the Second Mile” as that too captures what I see as the main thread running through the Sermon on the Mount. The thought is that more books will sell under that title. Some of you will recognize the artwork I’ve used here on this post as it was done the last time I preached through the Sermon on the Mount at Church at the Gate. There has been cover artwork done for “Obtainable Expectations” title but I can’t find that file on this computer. It matches the fonts/look of my Obtainable Destiny book only it’s in red tones not blue.

I’d be honored if you did read these first twenty-five pages and I particularly welcome a conversation or comments from you on what I say about the difference between magnificence and the miraculous, the first mile and the second mile and the importance of the Sermon on the Mount lifestyle today. Which title do you like more and why?

Little did I know that this year, 2009, marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth – in fact his birthday was yesterday July 10 (1509). During our days in Geneva earlier this week we discovered much activity underway to commemorate the occasion. Theologians from around the world have come here for conferences and symposiums (a big one ends today, Calvin500) on Calvin’s enormous influence on the entire western world. Calvin is even getting credit for capitalism as we know it, I look forward to reading this new book on that topic soon. (You’ll note on the book cover this book is one of several in a Calvin500 commemoration series.)  If you are interested, this blog will fill you in on all the Calvin Quincentenary happenings here in July.

To go along with Thomas’ blog series – What should we get Pastor Dennis? – I thought Pastor Dennis might like this commemorative John Calvin bobblehead they were selling at the conference. HA!  (Actually, what I REALLY want to get him costs $22,000.)

Anyhoo, I chalk it up to more providence that I happen to be here at this time. I commented in the last post something to the effect that it’s as if God is saying to me – Come here (to Europe) and when you are here I will put you within earshot of the testimony of these cloud of witnesses. Listen to them with fresh ears.

Even the mention of Calvin’s name instantly conjures up rigid religious categories and boxes of theological thought and controversy. But I’ve been able to break out of all of that for a few days thanks to a little phrase that caught my attention on a Calvin500 banner outside St. Pierre’s Church in Geneva. The banner stated that one of the goals of Calvin500 is to “surpass the overly simplistic representations of the Reformer.”

Here’s my thought there… I personally know how frustrating and miserable it is to have people pigeonhole me unfairly, inaccurately and intentionally inoculating others to me by spreading a bad report that my doctrine falls short and ALL WITHOUT EVER HAVING READ FIRST HAND even one of my books, sat through even one of my messages live or even CD, or without having ever spoken to me personally. 

Reading that statement on that banner made me think, to a great degree, I’ve kind of done that with Calvin. Yes, I waded ankle deep into Calvin in seminary (beyond the standard history/theology requirements I took an elective on the Theology of the Reformers, had to read a couple books, write a few papers, etc…) but I didn’t really “listen” to him or sit at his feet for any length of time. And it’s been my loss.

Thinking back it wasn’t that I didn’t like him, I just didn’t like his followers. It’s often said that Calvin wasn’t a “Calvinist” and that his followers took his ideas to places he did not venture. So, I’m saying we’d all do well to ignore what people say and go straight to the source.

847 pages of commentary on the parables of Jesus. I encourage every teacher and preacher to get a copy before they preach again from the parables. You can buy it here. Here you can read a brief interview with author/scholar Dr. Klyne Snodgrass about his parables book.

This post has been sitting in my “drafts” folder for a nearly a year here on the blog. I thought I posted it way back when but apparently I wanted to add more and so I just saved it as a draft and got sidetracked. I’ve been in conversation this week with Klyne and thought afterwards to do a search of my blog here to see what I wrote about his parables book. Nothing came up which I thought odd and after searching I found just this simple post announcing it’s publication saved as a draft.

Dr. Klyne Snodgrass is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars whom I had the privilege of studying under in seminary. I took his course on the parables in 1992 and at that time this book had already been in the works for years. This is really a life work and will be THE standard in parable studies for the next generation. I told him this week that his parables book is one of my most cherished books on the shelf and that it is an enormous and lasting gift to the Body of Christ! I love to preach from the parables and his imprint is evident each time.

You can read a short bio on him here.  Or, check out his blog – a good place to start is here with this stir-the-pot post titled Asking Jesus Into Your Heart.  He has written many things but his commentary on Ephesians is another book that ought to be on every pastors shelf.  His book Between Two Truths: Living with Biblical Tensions is his easiest read and is perfect for small group use. If Klyne writes it, I read it and I’m better for it.

The reason I refer to him as Klyne instead of Dr. Snodgrass as the rest of the world does is because he encouraged the first name basis thing with his students. Kristen worked with his wife Phyllis during our time there and time in their home is as memorable to me as time in his classroom – they were an important model of humility and transparency for us – real people, genuine followers of Christ. In the classroom, Klyne was the toughest prof in the seminary and those who wanted the easy road didn’t take his electives. Their loss. When he’d preach in chapel he read straight out of his worn out Greek New Testament like it was his first language. If anyone is wondering, there are still some guys like him out there in academia keeping seminaries from becoming cemetaries.

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