What do we make of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Ted Grimsrud—February 27, 2011

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in 1945, might be the most famous theologian of the 20th century. On the surface, based strictly on his written output, this may be a bit surprising. He wrote well, and was prolific given his short and amazingly eventful life—but his writings on their own don’t explain the extent of his fame. It was also his life, or, maybe more specifically, the events surrounding his death.

Bonhoeffer was put to death by his own government, executed by the Nazis in Germany just weeks before the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer’s fame owes itself partly, for sure, to his wonderful books, especially Cost of Discipleship, to his witness to Christian faithfulness in his active resistance to the Nazi regime from the time of Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, and to his remarkable courage and witness in the years of his imprisonment leading up to his execution.

However, it could be that what puts Bonhoeffer at or near the top of the list of famous theologians may be a misunderstanding concerning why the Nazis killed him. Bonhoeffer was well known as a pacifist in the years leading up to his arrest, based in part on his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount in Discipleship. But then, the story goes, he had a change of heart given the exigencies of Nazi tyranny and joined with the conspiracy that sought to assassinate Hitler. The attempt on Hitler’s life failed, the conspirators were arrested, and most—including Bonhoeffer—put to death.

Bonhoeffer, then, has become kind of a poster boy for “Christian realism,” a recognition that pacifism is a fine ideal but at times in the real world one must, of necessity, turn to the sword and use “evil” methods to defeat a greater evil.

Now, this use of Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom may be, and of course has, been vigorously debated for years. But maybe one of the premises that all sides to the debates have generally accepted—that Bonhoeffer indeed did take part in the effort to kill Hitler—is not actually true. This is the thesis argued by my Eastern Mennonite University colleague Mark Thiessen Nation in a book he co-wrote with Anthony Siegrist and Daniel Umble (Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering the Call to Peacemakingpublished by Baker Academic in 2013). Mark gave an excellent summary of his argument in a lecture at EMU on February 23, 2011 (a podcast of this highly recommended lecture may be heard here ).

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The Long Shadow—World War II’s Moral Legacy (09. Social Transformation)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

9. Social Transformation

Ted Grimsrud—February 25, 2011

The first phase of the 1950s Civil Rights movement

If we would capture the moral impact of World War II in just a few words, perhaps we could say it like this: as never before, the War simply obliterated the basic human belief in the preciousness of life. It simply boggles the mind to list the countries where at least one million people were killed: Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, Germany, perhaps others.

Many would have said that one of the pillars of authentic human civilization is organizing society in light of the belief in the preciousness of life. That is why we put so many resources into, for example, healthcare, education, sanitation, and agriculture. We seek to make it possible for human life to thrive. Even our criminal justice systems in some sense could be seen as founded on the belief that life is precious.

Powerfully countering all this momentum toward enhancing life, the wars of the twentieth-century treated human life as shockingly expendable. The best and most creative resources of western civilization focused on killing, not on enhancing life. And, as we have seen in the present book, certainly at least in the United States, the moral legacy of World War II underscores that transforming our nation’s priorities from death toward life seems impossible.

At least some of those who have recognized this problem have tried to overcome it. For these people, in the words of historian Joseph Kip Kosek, “the problem of the twentieth century…was the problem of violence. It was not, as such, Fascism, Communism, economic inequality, or the color line, though all of these were deeply implicated. It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness.”[1]

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World War II and America’s Soul: Christian Reflections

Ted Grimsrud—February 20, 2011

I try to notice positive references to World War II in the American media. One that did not surprise me (though it disappointed me) came in the July 13, 2010 Christian Century in a column from editor John M. Buchanan. In this short piece, entitled “Sacrifices” (or here), Buchanan writes of his irritation at British thinker Terry Eagleton’s “relentless cynicism” concerning the United States in his recent book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution (a book Buchanan seems otherwise to like).

In contrast to Eagleton’s “cynicism” about the U.S., “in particular its use of military power,” Buchanan poses his gratitude for the American soldiers who died during World War II (stemming partly from his concurrent reading of Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944). Two of those who died were Buchanan’s uncles, including his namesake John Calvin McCormick.

I was struck with an interesting thought as I read Buchanan’s piece. He seems to want to valorize World War II in part to make his uncles’ deaths meaningful. I also was named after an American soldier who died in the war (a close friend of my soldier father). As well, I had an uncle die in combat. In contrast to Buchanan, though, as I have learned more about my uncle, an Air Force pilot who died in combat in Greece in the late 1940s, I have become increasingly angry about the government that sent him into harm’s way and took away his future when he was in his early 20s. I am struck more with the meaninglessness of American military actions, including “the war in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944.”

One move Buchanan makes here, extraordinarily common and devastating in our society’s history over the past 65 years, is to start with the obvious evils of the Nazis, then move to the U.S. involvement in the war against the Nazis, and then (the breathtaking step) to imply that “sarcasm and cynicism” about American “use of military power” since World War II is out of line.

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Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder (addendum)

In an earlier post, I reflected on my struggle to make sense of the tension between my teacher John Howard Yoder’s profound theology and his sexual misconduct. In 1992, a five-part series of investigative articles about the allegations of Yoder’s sexual misconduct were published in Yoder’s hometown newspaper, The Elkhart Truth. The articles are posted here.

The articles were based on extensive interviews with several of the women Yoder harassed who detailed their allegations of his behavior—which included major boundary violations involving both inappropriate touching and speech/personal writings. The journalist, Tom Price, also interviewed numerous prominent theologians and provides fascinating quotes from people such as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University and Jim McClendon of Fuller Theological Seminary (like Yoder, one of my grad school profs).

Maybe the most interesting of the articles summarizes one of Yoder’s unpublished papers (“What is adultery of the heart?”) that seems to provide an intellectual rationale for some of his behavior. Based on Price’s summary, it does not seem clear to me that Yoder’s ideas (admittedly a bit idiosyncratic) would necessarily have made one suspect he would be a serial sexual harasser. However, in light of his behavior, the ideas in the article take a new light. Basically, he seems to argue for the appropriateness of close physical intimacy between men and women in the church that would not cross the line into actual sexual intercourse.

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