Bonhoeffer and the Conspiracy

Bonhoeffer and the Conspiracy November 1, 2013

A standard reading of Bonhoeffer, one I have believed most of my academic life, is that Bonhoeffer shifted from a kind of traditional socially conservative, fairly nationalistic approach to church-state relations to a pacifist-Sermon-on-the-Mount stance but that, once he returned to Hitler’s Germany after a brief spell at Union Theological Seminary, he shifted to a kind of (Niebuhrian) realism and abandoned his former pacifist stance.

But a new book is out, by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, called Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking (BakerAcademic, 2013), and this book challenges front to center this standard reading of Bonhoeffer. There’s already a bit of a dustup about the proposals in that Roger Olson thinks Nation et al have overcooked their theory, and already Mark Nation has responded back (on Roger Olson’s blog’s comments).

I want to summarize their theories in brief compass and not drag this post on and on.

1. There is no evidence from Bonhoeffer himself — in writing — that he was involved in any conspiracy to kill Hitler. Yes, his brother in law and friends were conspirators, but there’s nothing from Bonhoeffer’s own hand that proves it.

2. Yes, Bonhoeffer was involved in the Third Reich’s Abwehr, their military intelligence agency, and this could have had as its purpose participation in the conspiracy against Hitler, since a fraction there were conspirators, but the evidence we have suggests Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the Abwehr was prompted in order to prevent him from having to serve in the military on the front lines and in the killing in the name of Hitler. The evidence further suggests he used his Abwehr work to further his ecumenical work and to pass on insider information about the atrocities of Hitler to outsiders and foreigners.

3. The evidence that Bonhoeffer was involved in the conspiracy comes exclusively from his biographer, Eberhard Bethge (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography), by far the best biography and done by one who personally worked with and knew well Bonhoeffer himself. Bethge says Bonhoeffer was a conspirator and that his conspiracy work involved him in “boundary work” — that is in doing things that were on the border of his ethical beliefs. The evidence, then, is based on Bethge’s memory. Roger Olson presses this point hard to argue that he trusts Bethge.

4. But Nation et al are arguing their case on a profoundly informed basis: they have mapped carefully the development of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics from his early period (Barcelona in the late 1920s), the most influential Discipleship book in the late 30s when he was leading the underground seminary, and then in the later Ethics where we encounter his “worldliness.” What this book does in the middle chapters, chapters harder to read than the others, is to demonstrate that there is a decisive break between Barcelona and Discipleship, one in which Bonhoeffer shifts from anti-pacifism to pacifism on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teachings. What the book also demonstrates is that there is no such break or significant shift between Discipleship and Ethics, but that once one understands the role both Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being (his dissertation and habilitation) plays in his development, one sees much more continuity — a Jesus based and christologically shaped ethic — than discontinuity. To argue that Bonhoeffer changed his mind requires that he significantly changed his mind and abandoned his Discipleship themes. Bonhoeffer himself denies this and affirms that he stands by his Discipleship. Without that evidence of shift between Discipleship and Ethics, the argument about Bonhoeffer shifting just doesn’t gain traction.

Put differently, the issue can’t be reduced to Bethge’s words but the pro-conspiracy folks must also show that there is evidence for a clear diminishment of the ethical theories at work Discipleship in the later Ethics. So, to argue Bethge got it right one must prove that Bonhoeffer changed his mind on how to do Christian ethics. Bonhoeffer himself says he stood by Discipleship late in his life.

Put yet one more way: the memory of Bethge is being challenged by the concrete evidence of the texts themselves. This is methodologically reasonable.

My own response:

1. I no longer place Bethge’s words at the level I would have placed them; I don’t know what to think of Bethge’s claims. Nation et al have, so I think, made a good case for testing Bethge’s statements over against the documentary evidence and, more importantly, the themes and their development in Bonhoeffer’s ethics.

2. The case for seeing continuity at a deep structural level — christology, incarnation, new context — between Discipleship and Ethics is very hard to disprove. I think Nation et al have done their work here; for me to counter this would mean some very careful reading of Ethics and a comparison with Discipleship. I do not know Ethics well enough to do this nor will my schedule likely permit such work right now. (Though I’d love to do that.) All in all, then, I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to see a crisis of change in Bonhoeffer’s thinking for us to accept the fairly standard realist shift in Bonhoeffer’s WW2 thinking.

3. In summary, I consider this book a successful challenge to the ruling paradigm that sees a major shift in Bonhoeffer from his idealism of Discipleship to a realist posture in Ethics. In other words, if you remember my first post on this (28 Oct), I’m glad I removed that section. I no longer think Bonhoeffer made a tragic mistake in entering into the conspiracy and so shifted from his pacifism because I’m not convinced he entered into the conspiracy. Bonhoeffer may well have sustained his pacifism.

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  • Ken Schenck

    It would be interesting to know how positions on pacifism line up with the reception of Nation et al. Will we find that individuals who are pacifist more line up with Nation and individuals who are not more line up with Olson?

  • scotmcknight

    Or that folks who line up with Niebuhr line up with Bethge’s claims that Bonhoeffer was implicated in the assassination attempts?!

  • MMattM

    I’m not sure what you think of Eric Metaxes’ Bonhoeffer biography, but after reading that I already wasn’t convinced there was enough evidence to connect Bonhoeffer to the assassination plot. Once I heard about Nation’s book I was already halfway convinced. It makes sense that not much was said about Bonhoeffer’s connection, even if it were true, but it does leave a lot of room for doubt. Oddly enough, Metaxes didn’t address this.

  • scotmcknight

    You will notice that Nation et al, and they are not alone among Bonhoeffer scholars, are critical of Metaxas’ avoidance of more left-ish views of Bonhoeffer, eg, his pacifism. The word “deceit” was left dangling.

  • “To argue that Bonhoeffer changed his mind requires that he significantly changed his mind and abandoned his Discipleship themes.”

    This to me seems a strong, maybe too strong, a statement, as it seems to absolutize an interpretation of Bonhoeffer then insists a textual trail justifies such a shift in such interpretive terms. It’s a very textual way of analysis but not one that always matches up with the nuances and complexities of a person’s life, especially one that has such profound shifts as Bonhoeffer experienced.

    Again, I point to the example of Moltmann, whose own emphasis on Life is seemingly absolute yet he too would admit a willingness to killing a tyrant.

    One can hold onto an ideal yet be realistic in a context. Is this inconsistency or abandoning a position? I don’t think so. It’s honest assessment in times in which there is only sin on every side.

    Maybe it is objectively inconsistent, but even still it would not be outside human nature for a person to rationalize their own shifts as staying
    consistent. That’s fairly common in theology and church traditions,
    after all.

    This discussion also seems to prioritize the textual over other elements of historical inquiry, which makes sense when we have no other access, but is a curious move when it relativizes direct testimony, and adds more curiousness when the context of Bonhoeffer’s experiences would give strong reason for not making his involvement clear in his written works.

    Interpretation in times of persecution has to leave room for the author’s indirectness. Those who live in such experiences may seem inconsistent or cloudy to those who can debate the texts in situations of safety and peace.

    There’s indeed a way to argue for Bonhoeffer’s absolute pacifism, but it seems that it really insists that a person begins with this conclusion and works their way back to confirm it.

    Of course, I’ve not read the book and am just going by the posts here, so these are initial reactions and potential critiques.

  • Richie

    Thank you for this Scot. It is certainly an interesting historical question. In an absolute historical sense it is, of course, an unresolvable issue. One can only go with studying the evidence on both sides and then go – tentatively – with what seems most convincing. It seems to me that to doubt the eye witness testimony of Bethge one would almost certainly have to impute an “attempt to deceive” on Bethge’s part in the reporting of the situation rather than just “faulty memory” given his closeness to Bonhoeffer and his overall knowledge of the historical situation. For anyone like myself who has read, at least, the pertinent portion of his biography the idea that he would actually be attempting to deceive or that his memory was that faulty on such a major issue seems highly, highly unlikely. The greater difficulty by far, however, is simply in thinking that Bonhoeffer was somehow less committed to Christ if he was in fact involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler – whether because he broke down under totalitarian pressure; or, whether he remained a pacifist but considered this to be an “exception” as Richard Hays speaks of; or, whether he actually changed his views about pacifism upon further reflection that the meaning of “do not resist an evil person” in the Sermon on the Mount was not an absolute but was instead qualified by other biblical principles in the light of the variety of real life situations.

  • There is a short section in Ethics where Bonhoeffer talks about the ethics of killing in this specific scenario: If you are on a lengthy ocean going voyage and someone has a fast contracting illness that causes death it may then, and only then, be better to effectively kill that person rather than doom all onboard…

    In Glen Stassen’s lectures on Bonhoeffer and Ethics he mentioned that, while there is no way to prove this with any certainty, this may offer some insight into Bonhoeffer’s view of Hitler. I agree that this is by no means a tacit approval of any of the conspirator’s actions however we can’t discount that Bonhoeffer was obviously wrestling with the impact of the national socialist reality on his ethical principles when he was writing Ethics.

    Regarding the issue of consistency between Discipleship and Ethics there is a thread of consistency and that is mainly (and from my own memory here) a consistent Christological focus built upon dependence on God’s grace provided through the son and rooted in Christ’s suffering.

  • Thanks for engaging this topic, Scot, and for your perspectives. Some pushback comments (through I still need to read the book!):

    1. I don’t think that participation in the conspiracy would mean that Bonhoeffer abandoned his ethics or his pacifism. He never really was an ‘anabaptist’ kind of pacifist. He did not hold pacifism as an absolute principle ethic (he tended to reject absolute principles). It was a kind of pacifism without the “ism”. The concrete call of Christ could trump normal ethical patterns and commitments (in rare circumstances). Similar to Kierkegaard (and perhaps Barth at the time, who had a kind of ‘practical’ but not absolute pacifism), there could be a so-called teleological suspension of the ethical.

    2. In the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Bonhoeffer scholars often point out allusions to the conspiracy, including coded language in the prison letters. Does this new book deal with those? I wonder how the Bonhoeffer scholars editing the works will respond.

    3. Similar to point 2, Bonhoeffer writes a fair bit about responsibility and the taking on of guilt (esp. in the ethics). He argues that in circumstances like his own context, Christians cannot simply avoid the decision and elect to keep their hands clean for sake of a principle. They must act responsibly and sometimes get their hands dirty so to speak. NOTE: such behaviour is not justified; it’s just necessary. It is not “just” or “righteous” involvement, but involves taking on guilt and will require repentance and restitution. Scholars normally understand his writing here to reflect his involvement with the conspiracy and when you read these passages that makes a lot of sense. In my view, methodologically, the new perspective will succeed only if it provides a better overall model for reading Bonhoeffer (especially in these kinds of passages), not simply by appealing to silences in Bonhoeffer’s texts or with unexplained anomalies associated with the existing predominate model of reading him.

    4. Having said all this, whatever the final judgment on this book with relation to the history, it certainly puts an important perspective forward. As we’ve seen many times before (first with the ‘death of God’ people, now with Metaxes), many seek to bend Bonhoeffer to their cause. The present book, whatever the details, does I think honour Bonhoeffer’s heart and vision. IF he participated in the conspiracy, he did so extremely reluctantly and soberly. Because of this, and because of Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics as cited above in (1 and 3), it would be extremely inappropriate to appeal to him in order to justify our involvement in violence or use him in support of a general just war theory. I’m convinced (for now) that he doesn’t neatly fit into any systematic ethic.

  • scotmcknight

    The issue here is that I do think the Bonhoeffer of Discipleship was thoroughly pacifist (what you mean by Anabaptist is probably a pure typology and I doubt that works for most), and further the other issue is not that the options are a pacifist vs. a pacifist with exceptions. The issue is that the “realist” view claims DB abandoned his pacifism entirely for a new orientation in his ethics.
    Yes, Nation et al deal with allusions. But not at length, but adequately for me at least.
    The responsibility issue is a good one and, again, can go in two directions: the Niebuhrian type of realism or a DB kind of responsibility and there Nation et al have some golden contributions: responsibility meant participation in the cross of Christ, following Jesus, etc.. You’ll have to see this part to see how clear headed they are.
    Yes, I agree: this will force some clearer thinking.

  • Rory Tyer

    Does it not make more sense to assume that someone’s written & well-thought teachings are probably, on the whole, going to be more consistent than their personal thoughts, feelings, doubts about those teachings, applications of their teachings, and actions throughout their life? Taking someone’s textual output and using that as a map to exclude someone else’s real memories of that person seems, in my mind, a mistaken way to weight evidence about someone.

  • scotmcknight

    Agreed to much of what you say. The issue is that many argue that DB simply and radically changed his ethical mind.

  • scotmcknight

    Fine, but Moltmann has nothing to do with it. He’s at best an analogy; this is about DB’s posture alone. To use an analogy, it would be wiser to use the example of Moltke that Nation et al use.
    Again, to repeat what I said above in a reply: the issue is not pacifism vs. pacifism with exceptions, but a revolutionary change in his ethics.
    Yes, methodology is important here: how does Bethge’s stuff match up to the textual evidence from DB himself? That, in my view, is a solid posture of methodology.
    Yes, disagreeing with Bethge is a serious move. Olson thought it was unjustified.

  • Thanks Scot – good comments. What I meant by not being an “anabaptist” kind of pacifist, I meant historically and philosophically. Bonhoeffer was and remained thoroughly Lutheran. And philosophically, there is a Kierkegaardian bent. Actually, ironically, I think that many contemporary “anabaptists” are so ‘typologically’ rather than historically (following Yoder more than the original anabaptists) . . . but that’s another discussion.

  • scotmcknight

    Perhaps your intuition is right, but I’d want to see some studies of this very issue to see what we can know. So to your question I’d say “Perhaps, perhaps not, I don’t know, it depends.”

  • scotmcknight

    I don’t think now it does much good — typologically — to classify pacifism as anabaptist and then call DB that (though I think I’ve done that myself). There are plenty of kinds of pacifists, and what DB said about it in 1939 is not without some very serious rigor behind it and with considerable courage in his day. Nation et al are very good at this point, too.

  • But do any anabaptists reject pacifism as an absolute? My point is that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist that rejected pacifism as an absolute. (Which is open for debate, of course). I don’t dispute Bonhoeffer’s unique, robust, and courageous stance in this regard (I totally agree), but that doesn’t make it absolute. Again, if Bonhoeffer, isn’t talking about the conspiracy in his discussion of responsibility and taking on guilt, one wonders what he was talking about.

  • mwkruse

    This is not a topic I have studied in any depth and I haven’t read the book. As an outsider to the academic conversation, I’m a skeptical but open to learn more.

    As understand it, Eberhard Bethge is considered a credible scholar. Surely Bethge knew what a seeming contradiction it would be for Bonhoeffer to be involved in the plot in light of his theology. I wouldn’t think Bethge would make such a scholarly claim lightly. Did Bethge have something to gain by representing Bonhoeffer in this way? I’m not familiar enough with him to know.

    Again, I haven’t read Nation, so I’m just giving you my gut response based on what I’ve read here and elsewhere. To show that Bonhoeffer was not conflicted on this issue significantly lessens the discord pacifists feel in talking about Bonhoeffer and it takes away a “thorn in the side” that realists use. That is to say, there is sufficient motive for revision of the once agreed upon narrative. (I’m not talking about willful deceit here, but rather the tendency we all have to see what we want to see.) It feels a little too convenient. That Bonhoeffer may have been consistent in his writings but behaving in contradictory ways is not a big stretch for me. Again, I haven’t read the book but that is my gut response.

  • AHH

    I haven’t read the book, but it seems from Scot’s summary like it only offers two options:
    1) DB maintained his pacifism and did not participate in the plot.
    2) DB shifted his ethics away from pacifism and participated in the plot.
    As a couple others here have alluded, there is a 3rd option:
    3) DB was human. Not shifting much, if at all, from his pacifism when stating his ethical beliefs, but either making an “exception” or for other reasons acting in a way at odds with his stated ethics.
    I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I wrote down my ethical beliefs there would be occasions when my actions did not match. This could be because my writing would be too idealistic, or just because of my human weaknesses. We tend to hold up DB as a saint (and rightly so in many respects), but it may be too much to insist that his actions and his “official” ethics be 100% consistent.

    I think Bonhoeffer and CS Lewis are alike in a couple of respects.
    Many try to make them into modern conservative Evangelicals, conveniently ignoring the parts that don’t fit.
    And many hold them up as though they were perfect in their Christianity rather than letting them be human.

  • But Scot, the issue IS pacifism vs. pacifism with exceptions, because if Bonhoeffer always endorsed the latter then his involvement with the conspiracy would be consistent with this ethics. Bonhoeffer was interested in Gandhi even before Discipleship was written. I’m not suggesting that Bonhoeffer does not undergo change, but I’m not convinced of a revolutionary transformation of this ethics.

  • I think Moltmann is a bit more relevant than you suggest. He’s a Bonhoeffer scholar whose earliest work focused on Bonhoeffer. His experiences are, at least, overlapping Bonhoeffer’s. Of course he has something to do with it, as much as any scholar who suggests an interpretation of someone they have studied and whose context they share. Not only study directly but also how that study affects their own developing theology.

    It’s not a direct example but his theological move here can certainly be said to have Bonhoeffer’s influence. If we can look to Bonhoeffer’s writing certainly we can look to how he directly influenced those in the next generation of German theologians, and how one particular important one reads Bonhoeffer, lest we think that 21st century Americans have a better insight into the context and interpretation. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong but it seems to knock their credibility a bit simply to dismiss other interpreters out of hand.

    And yes the key is if it points to a revolutionary change in his ethics. Which is the complicated part. I don’t see that must insist on a change at all. He argued for a use of violence that is consistent with his pacifism. Moltmann, in talking about Bonhoeffer, has said that this can’t necessarily be reconciled. It’s not excusing it at all, and it’s coming from an independent direction than Niebuhr so can’t be equated to that approach.

    Bonhoeffer said, consistently, violence is wrong. This is a way to become guilty, but that we should take up guilt for the sake of our neighbor. Responding to this from Bonhoeffer, Moltmann adds, “Innocence is not the promise of Christians, but forgiveness of sin.” Which is the key element of reading Bonhoeffer as staying consistent theologically within his adaptive experiences.

    Again, I think it’s a worthwhile book to read for its own insights and especially look forward to seeing how they develop the theme of responsibility.

  • scotmcknight

    Thanks Michael. This is not a claim about being inconsistent; the scholarly “story” is that Bonhoeffer abandoned his former pacifism and adopted a new ethical orientation. In many ways, the debate is about his intellectual development and not an inconsistency from his pacifism. Was he a pacifist who became a realist or not? If not, then that “story” has to be revised at least; if he not, perhaps the whole story is wrong. What is at issue here is the story we tell of Bonhoeffer.

  • Tiago de Oliveira Cavaco

    ” The greater difficulty by far, however, is simply in thinking that
    Bonhoeffer was somehow less committed to Christ if he was in fact
    involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler” – great!

  • I should also add, for context, that Moltmann’s comment about being himself willing to kill a tyrant despite his otherwise pacifism was included in his response to a question about Bonhoeffer’s theology of responsibility. He used himself as an analogy/example of Bonhoeffer’s views.

  • scotmcknight

    But major shift is the DB story, not consistency.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes he rejected absolutes because it cut against grace and became law, but his posture on pacifism almost sounds absolute. See the book’s discussion.

  • Or, one could argue that both the pacifist stance and the decision to become involved in the conspiracy resulted from the absolute call of Christ, which is the only absolute.

    Yes, I really need to read this book and will do so.

    I repeat: I think it’s a really important discussion calling us to be very careful about citing (and assimilating) Bonhoeffer to support supposed “just causes” for violence!

    Thanks for the gracious and thoughtful conversation.

  • Adam Szabados

    Dear Dr. McKnight,

    Thank you for this interesting post. I think you touch on an important point, but I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion.

    I have studied the question of continuity vs. discontinuity in Bonhoeffer’s later theology and came to a different conclusion than Nation et al. I believe one can make a strong case from Ethics and the Letters that Bonhoeffer did shift his theology, especially in the area of immanence-transcendence, and left behind some important ideas of Discipleship (e.g. the spacial understanding of the Church). There is continuity in his theology, but there is also discontinuity, and the real discontinuity happened in the middle period (in Finkenwalde – Life Together and Discipleship). Bonhoeffer’s mind worked like a pendulum. My understanding is that in his later period (Ethics and Letters) his mind gradually moved backward and reconnected with his pre-Discipleship christology. It didn’t entirely leave Discipleship behind, but there is a clear shift.

    So I’m not yet convinced that Nation’s challenge of Bethge’s interpretation is indeed successful.

    You can read my full essay here: The most relevant section is on p. 30-31.


    Ádám Szabados

  • Patrick as an aside I think you are correct that neo-Anabaptists often bear little semblance to historical Anabaptism. That is a worthwhile topic for a different post although non-resistance is consistent between the two (although historical Anabaptist non-resistance is typically of a far less activist nature than neo-Anabaptist pacifism)

  • scotmcknight

    Thanks …

  • attytjj466

    Interesting posts, and I am including Olson’s in the mix. Couple thoughts:
    Whatever the developments or progression of DB’s ethics or theology as it relates to pacifism might have been, that does not preclude or decide how he might have acted in regard to Hitler in the specific context of the conspiracy that he clearly knew about and was so close to. That to me is not determinative one way or another. Second, the fact that Nation and friends clearly come to the research and book project with the pacifist bias and slant does not strike great confidence in the objectivity of either. Third, Bethge’s perpective on this subject specifically is of the kind we often don’t have in biography. A very close relationship, intimate knowledge of the subject and the times and the context. Exact words of conversations are not the issue. It is very difficult to believe Bethge could get wrong one of the most seminal actions and decisions in DB’s life. And no other voice from others who knew DB well ever spoke or wrote to dispute or contradict what Bethge wrote and often discussed. Much more is needed from Nation and friends than essentially an argument from silence, and they do not have it.

  • Julie Sweeney

    Thanks for this post. I did my MA thesis on Letters and Papers and came to a similar conclusion to what you offer here.

  • Julie Sweeney

    Well said! Loved reading this. I agree.

  • elcalebo

    Very well put.

    Prior to hearing about this book, I followed the #3 interpretation. It looks like the book might make a pretty good case for #1 – an option I didn’t know existed. But if this commenter’s suspicions are correct, the book makes the case for #1 over against #2, rather than #3. If it’s true that the book doesn’t really consider option #3, that makes me lose respect for it.

    So – is this commenter right? Do Nation et al do much justice to option #3?

  • Bill Johnson


    I will preface my comment by saying it has been a while since I worked on all this in any depth and I will not try to source my impressions at this point. Perhaps this discussion, and those surrounding it, will inspire more diligent work. I am only responding to your article as I have not read the Nation book, though I will order it today.

    First, I can’t tell you how ludicrous the premise that Bonhoeffer was not a conspirator is to me. As Olson pointed out, you really have to question Bethge in a fundamental way to go down this path. Bethge, though he presented himself as a humble pastor, was a fine and careful scholar in his own right, even beyond his work on Bonhoeffer. While he holds a unique position within Bonhoeffer’s life, closer than what most of us think of as “friend,” he well understood the need for careful scholarship concerning Bonhoeffer and was deeply respectful of the various theological opinions. He was extraordinarily open to various unanswered questions within the biography, and I personally saw that openness in action in various forums. There are some key areas within the life of Bonhoeffer that Bethge was a primary witness to the events that were taking place. Bethge’s role as Bonhoeffer’s “confessor” cannot be underestimated. Indeed, I would go further. Bethge was himself a participant in a number of these events. For Bethge to “get it right” on the question of conspiracy is not the same as some remote biographer taking on a subject, but fundamental to Bethge’s own story. While the memory of specific conversations might be questioned of anyone after a number of years, something as fundamental to the life of Bonhoeffer as to whether he was involved in the conspiracy against Hitler is to question either the basic mental cognition or the integrity of Bethge. This seems impossible to me.

    Taking your reading of Nation as a starting point, it will be interesting to read their take on the continuity between Discipleship and Ethics. That seems to me always a valid question in the theology of Bonhoeffer. My reading of continuity has nothing to do with pacifism to realism but the roots-deep Theology of the Cross in Bonhoeffer (Moltmann shares this and learned from Bonhoeffer). In very brief terms, my reading of Bonhoeffer says that he did not justify his participation in the conspiracy by realism, certainly not Niebuhrian realism, but saw it as something like taking the sins and suffering of the world and the German people upon himself. I believe this is discussed in some depth is Ethics. To typical American theological ears, either liberal or conservative, this all sounds too un-realistic as a way to shape life in the world. But we are concerned with Bonhoeffer’s theology and continuity here and that is shaped largely in the Theology of the Cross, whether one is speaking of pacifism or conspiracy. I do not want to overstate Theology of the Cross. Bonhoeffer has other influences shaping his thinking, including Barth and the reality of the Holocaust, etc.

    This discussion fascinates me in another sense. As the generation of people who actually knew Bonhoeffer passes away, there seems to be a reshaping of the narrative of his life with a force not seen before. This was true in Metaxas’ book and appears to be true in the Nation book from a different perspective. When this kind of thing happened before, as with The God Is Dead theology, there was always an authoritative voice in Bethge to help separate creative theological musing with reality. There’s nothing inherently wrong with theological musing, but doing so based on a flawed premise seems to present a whole new level of “creativity.” We no longer have Bethge to give us at a moment’s notice the big picture core of Bonhoeffer’s thinking, but thankfully we have his fine biography, and I will go with that over the radically reshaped versions any day.

  • Fascinating. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Julie Sweeney

    Well articulated. Part of my reticence to even read Nation’s take is that he says LPP reaffirmed The Cost of Discipleship when it’s clear in the very words that Bonhoeffer is giving a qualified affirmation. He is concerned about the rigid application of a set of standards to make oneself a “saint” or to make oneself “holy.” His discovery in prison—that faith is built from risk, not from the safety of ideology or doctrine.

    This idea that Bonhoeffer’s pacifism was so absolute that he never wavered or that he was not a part of the conspiracy feels like an extension of Discipleship without that nuanced supple reading offered by Bonhoeffer himself in LPP. The following passage is about the French pastor Jean Laserre, the one who taught Bonhoeffer about pacifism.

    See 21 July 1944, written the day after the failed assassination attempt: “I remember a conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with out lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it’s quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn’t realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.

    “I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make seomthing of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, as sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ as Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf Jer 45!).”

    Bethge, in the documentary interview, says that this letter is his favorite of Bonhoeffer’s because it came the day after the failed conspiracy and expressed so much of what Bonhoeffer’s theology was about.

    So, this is the context. Seems worth considering Bethge’s feelings about it, since the letter was in fact directed to him.

  • Daniel Umbel

    As one of the co-authors of the book being discussed here, I thought I might add one corrective. It’s interesting to me to note how some of the comments posted below have framed their arguments in terms of absolute pacifism vs. a pacifism with exceptions. Please be aware that this is not at all Bonhoeffer’s moral framework. It is an interpretive lens some use to describe Bonhoeffer’s life and thought, but it is not at all helpful in understanding either his moral theology or his life decisions. The truth is that Bonhoeffer never thought in terms of moral absolutes. He was just as opposed to them when he rejected pacifism as he was after he embraced pacifism. What this means is that it is not appropriate to interpret the development of his thought from Discipleship to Ethics in terms of a progressive abandonment and/or qualification of a previously articulated ethical ideal.

  • J Kameron Carter

    I’m a late comer to this conversation and appreciate that it’s happening. A course on Bonhoeffer is part of my regular course offerings at Duke (last 4 yrs now). I appreciate Bill’s comments, for you pick up a crucial thread in the Ethics—a thread I seize on with acute interest when I teach Bonhoeffer’s *Ethics*—when you say, “In very brief terms, my reading of Bonhoeffer says that he did not justify his participation in the conspiracy by realism, certainly not Niebuhrian realism, but saw it as something like taking the sins and suffering of the world and the German people upon himself. I believe this is discussed in some depth is Ethics. To typical American theological ears, either liberal or conservative, this all sounds too
    un-realistic as a way to shape life in the world. But we are concerned
    with Bonhoeffer’s theology and continuity here and that is shaped
    largely in the Theology of the Cross, whether one is speaking of
    pacifism or conspiracy.”

    I think you’re absolutely right, realism and “un-realisim” (btw, a cool way to describe our americanist reactions!) are inadequate categories to wrestle with Bonhoeffer wrestling with what he’s wrestling with. And on the complementary side, Daniel Umbel (one of the editors with Mark Nation of the volume under discussion; see his remarks below) is also absolutely right that “pacificism vs. a pacificism with exceptions” are categories lacking, to put it in my terms, the robustness necessary for wrestling with Bonhoeffer as he wrestles with what he’s wrestling with. (This all begs the question, What finally is Bonhoeffer wrestling with? Maybe we can get to this . . .) When you say (with my slight emendation to what you say) that you see Bonhoeffer in his Abwehr activity in some sense “taking the sins and suffering of the world [by taking the sins and sufferings of] the German people upon himself”, I think you hit on something vital. Bonhoeffer, in effect, casts himself as a sacrificial Christian subject, one sacrificing himself, one engaged in a self-sacrifice, a kind of burden bearing for/of the world. In this sense, he casts himself (in good Lutheran fashion as ‘cruciform’), as doing what Christ did in sacrificing himself. Is there a certain God-consciousness at work here?

    There’s a category not brought up in this thread that I think this quote given to us by Bill licenses us to bring up and that can perhaps open up another line of inquiry for wrestling with Bonhoeffer as he wrestles with what he’s wrestling with. That category is nationalism. If nothing else, this quotation suggests a commitment on Bonhoeffer part to bear the sufferings of Germany so as to bear the sufferings of the world, or the sufferings being inflected on the due to Germany’s/Hitler’s actions. This would align Bonhoeffer with a certain kind of nationalism. To be sure, it isn’t Hiter’s kind of nationalism. Bonhoeffer’s nationalism is one inflected by an internationalism. It’s a nationalism founded upon a sensibility of the unity of the (Western) inter-nations, the collaborative unity between the European and U.S. powers, but it is a nationalism nonetheless. And one more thing: Bonhoeffer’s Western nationalism/internationalism is tied to his “orientalism”—Yes, Orientalism, precisely of the kind Edward Said and postcolonial and race theorists rightly criticize. His is a benevolent orientalism and thus imperialism, but it is an orientalism for the sake of the spread of the gospel. This whole side of Bonhoeffer has not been investigated, but it’s in *Ethics*.

    For Bonhoeffer of the Ethics, the sufferings meted out on the world because of what Germany/Hitler was inflicting on the other western nations was preventing, as B saw it, the missionary spread of the gospel to the rest of the (benighted?) planet. For Bonhoeffer of the Ethics, this is why he feels the needs to “[take] the sins and suffering of the world and the German people upon himself” and to shape that taking of those sins and sufferings upon himself using a Lutheran language of a theology of the Cross.

    In short then, as I see it in light of the Ethics, especially those opening christology chapters, Bonhoeffer grounds his involvement in the abwehr (to whatever extend) in terms of a globalist/(inter)nationalist and alas a colonist-like (and it goes without saying, a problematic) argument of christian missions rooted in a certain interpretation of Western/Christian history (one that’s eerily similarly to Hegel’s—all of bonhoeffer’s important critiques of hegel, as in the christology lectures, notwithstanding).

    These are the textual issues and christological theological issues, it seems to be that B’s Ethics force us to contend with. And Bill, your remarks, for this reason, about B “taking the sins and suffering of the world and the German people upon himself” are of vital importance. They cut (open) the pacificism/pacificism with exceptions/realsim framing of Bonhoeffer.

    What if what Bonhoeffer is wrestling with (and what we need to be wrestling with in wrestling with him) is the legacy of Christianity’s having become tethered to a global, Western imperialist project—a project that he’s inside of (as was Hitler and the other western powers; it was afterall for lebensraum that the then [Western] world was on the brink of World War), a project that he doesn’t even know how to name but whose effects he’s inside of and he’s a product of? What if what Bonhoeffer is finally trying to do is escape this unnameable problem as the problem at the root of Hitlerism and indeed at the root of Westernism (of which Aryanism is a part, as Aimé Césaire, the Négritude intellectual and contemporary of Bonhoeffer teaches us in Discourse on Colonialism)? And what if what’s important about the Ethics is not that it theologically enacts the escape (for in fact, it doesn’t), but that it displays the problematic so that we can see it? What if Ethics is then an object lesson, a (failed) theological (but no less important, indeed important precisely for this reason) object lesson?

    If this is the case, how might this change the discussion about Bonhoeffer and thus about us as we wrestle with Bonhoeffer wrestling with this unnameable problem which he himself can’t name but is fighting against even in his being captured/captivated by it? What if what we see in Bonh at the moment of the *Ethics* is the theological (!) display of a captive Christian identity, which is no less captured whether we read him as a pacifist (with or without exception, doesn’t matter) or a realist? What if he’s a mirror back to us—a mimetic figure, a speculum—in this regard? What if we’re just as captured as he was at that moment?

  • Mark Thiessen Nation

    I have just posted a longish blog post on Eberhard Bethge’s way of framing our understanding of Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy. See my blog, Anabaptist Nation,

  • Kaitlyn Dugan

    Hi Dr. Carter,

    Your questions touch on another, perhaps more fundamental question, with which I’ve been wrestling. Do you think that Paul the Apostle had imperialistic tendencies in his writings? I ask because Paul seems to have language of taking on the sufferings of others, even the world, throughout his letters. Moreover, Paul speaks about the redemption of the world, even the cosmos, throughout his letters echoing a universal type of salvation enacted in the cross and resurrection of the Crucified Nazarene, Jesus Christ.

    I guess I’m wondering if speaking exclusively in local and non-universal linguistic categories isn’t equally problematic if we are talking about Paul. If Paul’s language was directed exclusively to those churches to which he was ministering and did not render cosmic implications, would this not be a sort of privileging? If universal categories and language is problematic, what would it mean to say something different? I guess I tend to think that other categories of salvation or whatever else enacted exclusively has more problems so that God chooses some and not others, some are elect and some are damned, and then those who have a certain experience, language, or whatever else are “the chosen.” I find that Paul’s cosmic language (his vision of salvation enacted *for the world*) is perhaps the better option for these reasons listed. Thoughts?

    Many thanks in advance.

    – Kait Dugan

  • J Kameron Carter

    Greetings Kait.

    Thanks for your question. I do think that there’s a way to read Paul in the way you’re talking about. and in fact an argument, i think, can be made that there’s a strand in the complex history of Paul reception (especially in the 19th century) that enacts what you’re talking about.

    With that said though, I don’t think this is the only way to read Paul. I’ve just started reading a book (in fact, there are two books that come immediately to mind) that read Paul otherwise. The first is called *Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul* by Professor Theodore W. Jennings, which is really a commentary on Romans that shows I think quite authoritatively that Paul’s Romans letter contains a stunning vision for imagining a mode of social life outside of the demands of sovereignty, the sovereign self-possessed subject. This I think is the fundamental problem Bonh is contending with–albeit unsuccessfully in the *Ethics*.

    The other book is this recent commentary on Galatians by Professor Brigitte Kahl titled *Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished*. Kahl argues that “themes of imperial propaganda— order vs. lawlessness, civilization vs. barbarity, harmony vs. anarchy—echo in Paul’s letter and highlight the deeper issues at stake in the Galatian crisis. Paul’s struggle is motivated not by Jewish antagonists but by Gentile anxiety about status on a landscape where withdrawal from the civic celebrations of Rome’s glory was held in the gravest suspicion” (taken from the description). This would suggest that Galatians too is very much making a certain kind of political intervention into Roman imperial pretensions to sovereignty and what this would mean for followers of Jesus.

    Jennings’ and Kahl’s book on Paul’s letters suggest another way to read him, to break Paul away from being religious mouth-piece for sovereign or political theology.

    Take care,