Bonhoeffer Says

In 1934, at an ecumenical conference, on a beach in Denmark, at Farö, a Swede asked Bonhoeffer: “What you do, sir, if war broke out?”

Reflectively, he allowed the sand to trickle through his fingers, then turned calmly toward the questioner and replied:

I pray that God will give me the strength not to take up arms.

From E. Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, 389.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Tim

    Perhaps he could have expanded his statement to say:

    “I pray that God will give me the strength not to take up arms in the defense of innocent lives, such that when I see the blood of children stain the ground, and mothers pulled from their little ones, that I will remain steadfast in my principled commitment not to take up arms in their defense, because that is what I think Jesus would want me to do.”

    So what effect, what real effect would this have had on the lives of innocents if Hitler had no one to oppose him? Or perhaps for the next egomaniacal tyrant wanting to decide who dies, who lives, and how? There will always be aggressors in positions of power – despite any moral influence pacifists think they might eventually have if given sufficient numbers. And those with the power to destroy, whether it’s Hitleresque or just plain old terrorism, absolutely require some capability for armed response, a response that the like of Bonhoeffer apparently find morally repugnant.

    But for me, a man or woman who stands by and paralyzes themselves from preventing the slaughter of innocents just so they can feel that the stuck by their principles carries it’s own vulnerability to a charge of morally repugnant behavior. Take the stain on your soul if you feel there will be one, lose your sleep at night and what you thought ought to have been your pristine character, but save another human being and quell the anguish a child or their mother, by protecting them from pain no human being should have to bear.

  • Larry S

    Tim @ 1 I’m wondering if this Bonheoffer story has him as a German citizen in 1934 thinking about being part of the German army.

    In my view your comments assume that Empire is always right in determining how to respond. And that Christians should get into lock-step behind whatever political power happens to be in power.

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, you need to read more of Bonhoeffer. Your posture here is remarkably uninformed and therefore judgmental in insinuating Bonhoeffer’s motives.

  • Steve Sherwood

    Tim, didn’t Bonhoeffer do exactly what you suggest? Literally, believing that he put his soul in jeopardy by joining in a plot to kill Hitler.

  • Mark Nieweg

    Two thoughts came to mind with this post: one from the post; the other from Tim’s comment. First, last February (2011), there was a lecture by Mark Thiessen Nation about a book written by him and his colleagues that was to be published challenging the wide-spread belief that Bonhoeffer did betray his ideals. Has anyone who frequents Scot’s blog listened to this podcast?
    http://emu.edu/now/podcast/2011/02/23/dietrich-bonhoeffer-the-assassin-challenging-a-myth-recovering-costly-grace-mark-thiessen-nation/
    I’ve been waiting for the book to come out, especially as Nation responds to a commenter and mentions Eric Metaxas’ publication on Bonhoeffer.

    Second, there is a book entitled “What About Hitler” by Robert W. Brimlow that I read concerning the kind of challenge this question of the title presents to Pacifists (I don’t like the name Pacifist simply because it has all kinds of connotations associated with it, least of which in most minds is cross-shaped obedience to Jesus for the sake of witness – marching orders! – to a God who was willing to do for us that which we are unwilling to represent to others). Brimlow opened my eyes to how most people think Hitler just “fell from the skies” one day without taking into account how a faithless and disobedient church (and not just Lutheran) allowed his rise. I find when I bring this up, those who justify disobedience to Jesus just don’t want to process it. And while there can always be some tyrant waiting in the wings regardless, conventional wisdom seems to always think the way history is always prosecuted has to be “the way.” Not much chance for a person to tease out the implications of following a crucified Messiah with this kind of thinking. No wonder John the Baptist, in prison under Herod (when was the “threshing floor” going to be swept?), asked Jesus if he had been mistaken as to His identity. Jesus response? “Blessed is he who is not offended by me.” A calling to the same kind of shame and humiliation that Jesus endured is not for the faint-hearted, and not easily done anywhere, but especially not easily done in America.

  • Tom K

    Mark,
    Thank you for a clear and measured responce. I have also brought up the fact that Hitler came to power due in great part to the support of the church and that even after he began exterminating people, the great majority of church folks closed their eyes to the issues. We don’t like to look at things that may be a little close to home. The church was and continues to be a political institution run by people who have fears, hatred and predjudicial views. We need to own that.
    The church also loves, cares and influences the world in a positive way but we can’t continue to see ourselves as “all good” and not see our flaws. We need to be constantly examining the church and making sure we stay on the right track.

  • Diane

    Tim,
    Bonhoeffer did take on the stain of violence when he chose to participate in the plot to assassinate Hilter. He was a risk taker, a person of courage and insight. We make a mistake when we equate pacifism with cowardice. Bonhoeffer wrote to his sister Sabine in 1934, while he was pastoring a church in London and didn’’t like the idea of leaving (a recurrent theme among people of that time was the ever-present sense of anxiety that went with living in Nazi Germany) that he feared that his desire to stay in England, as he put it, “arises “from certain feelings of security that are very bourgeois and these must certainly not be allowed to become a major factor, otherwise life will no longer have any real value at all and there will no longer be any joy in it either.”

    He was willing to risk his security and literally walk into the lion’s den. He knew he was risking his life to return to Germany. He was willing to risk his life for his beliefs.

    Further, in the context of German militarism in the 1930s, Bonhoeffer’s pacifist statement was more radical than it sounds to us–Bonhoeffer’s close friend Bethge recounts how stunned the seminarians were at the illegal seminary in Finkenwalde in 1935 when Bonhoeffer brought up the idea of pacifism as a response to Nazi sword rattling–it was simply an unheard of position, even among seminarians opposed to Nazi ideology.

  • Alan K

    For everyone’s information: if you want to know the story of Bonhoeffer then please read the biography by Eberhard Bethge that Scot has referred to above. Nothing against the biography by Eric Metaxas, but Bethge tells Bonhoeffer’s story in a non-romantic manner that reflect the realities of trying to believe in an unbelieving world: dreams, growth, joys, sorrows, shifts in belief, duplicity, hope.

  • Tim

    To everyone who commented on my response, I’d say that yes, I am not very informed on the life and theology of Bonhoeffer. Rather, I was responding to Scot’s quote and nothing more. Bonhoeffer may or may not have betrayed his ideals expressed in this 1934 quote in his later assistance to attempt to assassinate Hitler. I couldn’t say. But it is the ideal, or ideal, expressed in the above quote that I was responding to. Not Bonhoeffer as an entire person.

  • Tim

    …should be “idea, or ideal…”

  • http://www.seekingfaithfulnessblog.blogspot.com Holly

    Another fascinating book to help with understanding the build up to Hitler (and yes, I know that’s not exactly what this brief post is about, but in order to understand Bonhoeffer you need to understand exactly *what* he was wrestling with. It wasn’t just Hitler, as he did not rise to power in a vacuum – it was underlying philosophies, financial devastation, national humiliation and a desire to restore purity and pride. It was a widely accepted philosophy of class stratification – of eugenics, of sterilization, of institutionalization of lower classes, and yes, of a church that did not speak up against any of these things which allowed, actually, which embraced, Hitler’s rise to power) and is:

    “Better for all the World – the History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity” by Harry Bruinius.

    http://www.amazon.com/Better-All-World-Sterilization-Americas/dp/0375713050/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1338215905&sr=8-1

    Bonhoeffer wasn’t a flippant pacifist – and anyone who thinks so need to read more widely. His was an intense struggle with prevailing ideologies of his day – and – how, exactly, should he respond as a Christian. We have so much to learn!

  • Kurt I. Johanson

    A biography on Bonhoeffer – released the same time as the Thomas Nelson bio – brings Betghe up to date. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen – released the same month as the above mentioned bio – in 2010 – is an incredible read. It is published by T&T Clark International/Continuum. I used it for my dissertation titled A Homiletic of Courage: Preaching With A Complete Absence of Fear – A Study of 9 Sermons and 1 Critical Essay by D. Bonhoeffer (2012).

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    I think even Bonhoeffer was wrong. There’s an interview with Hitler’s secretary in a movie called Blind Spot, and she tells about when the assassination attempt failed, and Hitler was very interestingly protected from the bomb, he was convinced at that point, more than ever before, that God was protecting him and his mission, and he went forward with renewed vigilence like ever before. So I would say on the day that Bonhoeffer did that, the cross lost, and that violence just perpetuated. ~Shane Claiborne

  • Patrick

    If he took up arms against Hitler, he wasn’t a pacifist at all was he? He just chose when to use violence and when not to, right? I think that’s how all of us should think.

    BTW, while I don’t accept pacifism as a valid teaching personally, I have no doubt those who do are just exhibiting an affinity/loyalty for what they perceive God wants them to do just like all other views, whether accurate or not.

  • Fish

    Given the choice between “God wants me to go to war” and “God doesn’t want me to go to war,” it’s hard for me to blame someone for choosing the latter.

    But that position is clearly in conflict with our genetic predisposition toward war. Humans who possessed the instinct to band together and then act in concert against a common enemy, say a pride of predatory lions, survived. Now we align ourselves by nations or states and act in concert against common enemies, and everyone feels they are on the right side, God’s side.

    The example of how good German people followed Hitler tells me that when it comes to war, it’s a crapshoot whether you are truly doing good or bad. Most people choose to play the game, but who can blame the few who won’t — since their odds of doing God’s work are probably higher.

  • Diane

    I would second Kurt on Schlingensiepen’s bio of Bonhoeffer. It’s much better than Metaxas’s.


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