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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Lessons Twisted by Fox News

German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a too-much-ignored hero of the 20th century whom Pastor Steve Hickey and I respect immensely. Bonhoeffer's story is at least as educationally and morally valuable as Gandhi's or King's. Bonhoeffer's story goes underpublished perhaps because it doesn't make as good Hollywood copy: where Gandhi and King each experienced identifiable public victories, Bonhoeffer's resistance produced arguably little in the way of tangible success against the regime he opposed. He was imprisoned, stripped naked, and hung by the Nazis 65 years ago yesterday. Not exactly a Hollywood ending.

Pastor Hickey notes Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, a new book by Eric Metaxas. Perhaps inadvertently, Pastor Hickey alerts us to some things Eric Metaxas gets wrong about Bonhoeffer... some things conveniently tailored to Fox News viewers' preferred narrative about America 2010:

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" [Lauren Green, "New Bio of Executed WWII Pastor/Spy Reveals U.S. Influence," Fox News, 2010.04.09].

We all know pacifist is a synonym for sissy on Fox News. So for the Right to claim this mainline Protestant as their own icon, they have to repackage him. Metaxas obliges—he apparently knows his audience—but he gets Bonhoeffer wrong.

Pastor Steve, help me out here:

As a Sermon on the Mount junkie, I’ve always been quite dialed in on how Bonhoeffer held to the high pacifist ideal in his writings (turn the other cheek, love enemies), but compromised (and justifiably so in my view) that ideal by participating in a secret assassination plot on Hitler [Pastor Steve Hickey, "I sat in Bonhoeffer’s chair, but walking in his shoes is far more difficult," Gate Post, 2009.07.29].

Bonhoeffer was a big pacifist. He denounced Hitler from the moment the Nazis took power. But his main weapons were words, ideas, and theology. Bonhoeffer didn't rush straight to Berghof with a Luger in his hand. Even as he spoke out against Hitler's evil, Bonhoeffer struggled to reach the point where he could justify committing the evil of violence. And even when he finally agreed to participate in violence, he still called it evil.

Coming to a hard decision like that takes some hard thinking. Metaxas appears to dismiss hard thinking in his Fox interview, suggesting that a visit to America somehow transformed Bonhoeffer's faith into something more than "just theology in his head." That a man purporting sufficient expertise to write a biography of Bonhoeffer would append the adjective just to theology suggests the author missed the point. Bonhoeffer's resistance was very much grounded in theological and moral reasoning, not to mention a keen understanding of political and global context.

Metaxas and Fox News also offer a rather narrow summary of the message in Bonhoeffer's life and martyrdom:

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" [Green, 2010]

Bonhoeffer's legacy is somewhat broader than that. His legacy is much more about "an active response to Christ's Sermon on the Mount." Christians (and the rest of us) must challenge earthly evil in any form, political or personal. Bonhoeffer says that rather than secluding ourselves in safe chapels and gated communities, we must engage with the world, speak up for and work toward (dare I say it?) social justice.

I won't deny that Bonhoeffer's thinking would agree with Fox/Metaxas's statement about idolizing politicians. I would just hope that readers will recognize the need to apply that specific caution equally to President Barack Obama and politician-turned-celebrity Sarah Palin... and that they would then turn to the rest of Bonhoeffer's theology and history for lessons that go well beyond the spin either Fox or I would apply.

Update 2010.04.11: Do read Dr. Blanchard's response on this topic. Thoughtful reading all around the blogosphere this weekend.


  1. Something is so warped here. On one hand we have a man with sincere beliefs who died for calling out true fascism. On the other we have Glenn Beck who screams Nazis and Communists (whatever it takes to agitate) and he becomes a multimillionaire at the expense of reality. It's time to call out Glenn Beck and see him for what he really is: a shock jock (but a dangerous one): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-cesca/exposing-glenn-beck-as-a_b_528966.html

  2. Speaking as a spiritual follower of Gandhi and MKL and a former employee and assistant to Cesar Chavez, many of us prefer the term "non-violent activist" to "pacifist" mainly because there is nothing non-confrontational or passive about our non-violent resistance to — and/or advocay of — various human rights issues. On the contrary, there are lots more effective ways than violence to fight. Semantics, I know, but there it is.

  3. Fox News seems to believe that Americans exist to go to war or to go shopping. Any entity that wants to cheapen American ideals to that degree would certainly seek to lessen and co-opt the reputation of the man who warned all of us about the effects of cheapening grace.

    Preach it, Brother Cory

  4. Also moving and worth reading is a link off Bonhoeffer's Wik. page, on Wilhelm Canaris. These people entirely put their beliefs and lives on the line.


  5. Amazing, John. Canaris followed a completely different path from Bonhoeffer—military career, head of military intelligence for most of the Nazi period, working against Hitler from his position of power within the regime... only to end up being hung alongside Bonhoeffer.

    And it's a complicated story: Canaris supported Hitler at first, saw him as Germany's best defense against communism. Much to think about... and much to shame the Fox News shouters who would presume to claim they now live under "tyranny."

    Leo's point is sharp, too: Fox tries to co-opt Bonhoeffer to justify warlike behavior. Dangerous.

    Bill: worthwhile parsing! At the very least, we mustn't confuse pacifist with passive.

  6. Cory: One thing you and I certainly share is an admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

    I haven't read Metaxas' biography and I am guessing you haven't either.

    Saying that what Bonhoeffer came back from America with wasn't "just theology in his head" is to make a very important distinction between abstract ideas and concrete commitment in political situations. To say that Bonhoeffer was deeply influenced by the civil rights movement (such as it was) and by a Jewish sermon hardly sounds like "repackaging".

    You say, contradicting Metaxas, that "Bonhoeffer was a big pacifist." I am sorry, but Metaxas is clearly right as a matter of simple logic. A pacifist, by definition, is absolutely opposed to violence as a means. There is NO wiggle room in that.

    Bonhoeffer decided that violence was in order against Hitler. Bonhoeffer may have been a pacifist in his head, but in his actions he ultimately wasn't any kind of pacifist big or otherwise.

    Just because the book was reviewed favorably on Fox doesn't mean the biography is wrong. I think this is worth a post on its own.

  7. No, Ken, I think you dismiss Bonhoeffer's pacifism much more lightly than he did. Bonhoeffer did not dismiss his pacifism. He remained absolutely opposed to violence throughout his life. Only in extremis was he willing to compromise and perform an action that he still said was evil but was a necessary last resort. Metaxas jumps to an easy conclusion that Fox viewers want without going through the lengthy and difficult debate that produced that uncomfortable compromise. Bonhoeffer's pacifism was not just a figment in his head; it remained his guiding principle. Participation in the assassination plot was the exception.

    "just theology in his head"—I'm sorry, but I hear in that "just" the anti-intellectualism that also stokes the Palin voters watching Fox. Bonhoeffer did not make a distinction between abstract ideas and concrete commitment; the latter sprang very coherently from the former. He did not live in dualism.

  8. Bonhoeffer was absolutely a pacifist--even AS he was in the middle of the assassination plot. He knew that what he was doing was a sin. This is the great paradox that must be acknowledged and, accordingly, rejected. One cannot read Ethics, Cost of Discipleship, and Act and Being and derive any kind of 'realist' perspective in the vein of Rhinhold Neibuhr. Bonhoeffer's theological gift to the church will not allow it.

  9. All in all, I'm excited Bonhoeffer was brought up at all. So many young people have no idea who he was or have read his writings. The only reason I know him is because I to Augustana and our honors program (Civitas) is based off concepts in Bonhoeffer's essay "The Structure of Responsible Life." When I first read Bonhoeffer, I too just thought he was just feeling guilty about his decision to cooperate in the plot to assassinate Hitler, but when I read deeper and really wrestled with his writings, I realized he was talking about so much more! Thanks, Cory, for bringing this story to our attention. I hope people will look him up and be better for it.

  10. Begin with Fox News as part of Murdoch's growing empire of organizations devoted to ingesting anti-liberal propaganda into news. The extreme right wing has been in a dither about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. On one hand, it must honor Bonhoeffer's principled stance against the Holocaust, mostly to deny any that any of its political inclinations have parallels with Naziism. On the other hand it dismisses Bonhoeffer's theological position with statements such as, he was "in reality a practical atheist and a religious humanist who denied virtually every cardinal doctrine of the historic Christian faith." While Fox News has gained immense popularity by processing all news and discussion to conform to its rigid set of biases and its mission to inflame the anti-everything-left, everything presented on Fox News must be suspect and any conclusions it presents must be skeptically examined. In order to display a somewhat respectable attitude toward Bonhoeffer, the right has contrived a false parsing between theology and social activism. They way they can dismiss his theology while maintaining a posture of moral assent to his political stance.

    Like Anna, my grounding in Bonhoeffer came about because the college I attended and later taught at (the other Augustana in Rock Island, Ill.) offered courses in its religion-philosophy departments where professors from the Lutheran School of Theology, which was located on the campus at the time, participated in the courses. This was during the time that the Vietnam War escalated from a foreign policy action to a great, personal moral dilemma for many Americans. Bonhoeffer became the central subject for these courses.

    I am among those students of African-American thought and expression who have found the black liturgy the most accurate and compelling expressions of the theology of Christ. It placated the ears of the white man while feeding the soul of the black. In this fused duality, Bonhoeffer found a unity in theology and course of action in which the two were inseparable.

    The right wing has enlisted Bonhoeffer's warnings about the dangers of the huge Nazi government as applicable to their program of condemnation of Obama.

    I have, too, have not read Metaxas' account, but would note that any attempt to suggest that Bonhoeffer's decision to act with violence if necessary is an automatic disqualification of his pacific stance would have to ignore the prevailing concern of his own work.
    Politics, he says, is not the concern of the Christian. Taking responsibility for the evil forces which afflict humankind is the concern. Theology and action cannot be divorced. The thrust of Bonhoeffer's work is in determining when action which may seem to refute a pacifist stance is necessary to putting evil behind one.

  11. "in reality a practical atheist and a religious humanist who denied virtually every cardinal doctrine of the historic Christian faith"?!?! One would have to be mad or evil to speak such a lie about one of the most profound Christian leaders of the 20th Century. Who would be so foolish as to say such...

    ...oh. This guy from "Biblical Discernment Ministries," quoted in this book. See discussion here.

    It's good to hear that Bonhoeffer has not been ignored—has actually been pretty significant!—in the education of a number of readers here.

  12. Thanks for providing links to sources I tend to disdain. Here is a fine link which explores the influence of the American black church on Bonhoeffer:http://www.bonhoeffer.com/art4.pdf

  13. I suddenly seem to be surrounded by the logically challenged.

    "Pacifism" means a categorical opposition to violence or war, not just an opposition to violence most of the time and in most circumstances. "Absolute" means without exception or qualification. You can't be an absolute pacifist and be in favor of violence at any time, for any purpose. Am I going too fast for anyone?

    Yet Cory insists on saying that Bonhoeffer was "absolutely opposed to violence throughout his life" AND that Bonhoeffer was in favor of violence against Hitler. Dave says that Bonhoeffer was "absolutely a pacifist." Yeah, and circles have corners.

    Perhaps Bonhoeffer was a mere hypocrite, believing and saying one thing while doing another. That's what Cory and Dave's view really amounts to. In that case the pacifism was "just in his head." I think that does the man no great favor.

    Or: to his credit, he gave up his pacifism when faced with a special case of evil. That is what Metaxas thinks and what I think. Pacifism is a nice idea. Hitler proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it is not tenable.

  14. Hitler proved is ultimately "untenable"? Jesus found pacifism pretty tenable.

    I'm sticking by my words. Bonhoeffer did not try to justify his own participation in plots to assassinate Hitler (and recall, in a world at war, this specific violent act, against one specific man, was the only violence Bonhoeffer would be a part of). Quoted from the global mind at Wikipedia:

    "[Bonhoeffer] did not justify his action but accepted that he was taking guilt upon himself as he wrote 'when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it...Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace'" [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p244].

    That's not exactly a denunciation of pacifism and a call to arms.

    Bonhoeffer would likely concede to you, Ken, the logical point. His above statement seems to say, "Yes, I failed as a pacifist. I failed to carry out that calling from God. I sought to kill a man. But my failure is not a repudiation of pacifism, but an indictment of my sin. Only grace can save me."

    Again, no one gets to read Bonhoeffer and take an easy justification for violence. Far from it. Fox News emphasized the wrong sliver of Bonhoeffer's life.

  15. Cory has it right, don't you think, Ken. Failure to live up to a principle does not invalidate the principle.

  16. Cory, do you mean to tell me that Fox News actually twisted something?

  17. Gandhi strugged with the same issues:

    "The German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history. The tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone. And he is doing it with religious zeal. For he is propounding a new religion of exclusive and militant nationalism in the name of which any inhumanity becomes an act of humanity to be rewarded here and hereafter. The crime of an obviously mad but intrepid youth is being visited upon his whole race with unbelievable ferocity. If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war. A discussion of the pros and cons of such a war is therefore outside my horizon or province. But if there can be no war against Germany, even for such a crime as is being committed against the Jews, surely there can be no alliance with Germany. How can there be alliance between a nation which claims to stand for justice and democracy and one which is the declared enemy of both?"

    "I do believe, that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence."

    "At every meeting I repeated the warning that unless they felt that in non-violence they had come into possession of a force infinitely superior to the one they had and in the use of which they were adept, they should have nothing to do with non-violence and resume the arms they possessed before."

  18. Folks, this is a great exchange!

    Bill and Cory: the fact that Bonhoeffer chose to abandon pacifism in the last great act of his life does not invalidate pacifism, unless you think that B. was right to do so. I haven't noticed anyone making that argument.

    The Nazis threw children alive into incinerators. Using force to stop the Nazis strikes me as not only permissible, but morally obligatory. For that reason, pacifism is untenable. If Jesus would say otherwise, then all I can say is that His Kingdom is indeed not of this earth. At least not yet.

    One could say that Nazism represents a special case. That, I gather was the force of the Gandhi quote. Gandhi wrote before the Rwandan genocide, which, like the Nazi one, was halted only by force of arms. I suppose that one would have to act in both cases, or neither. The difference then between someone like B. and someone like, say Churchill, is not whether to go to war but when.

    Once that is the question, B.'s anti-war thinking looks a great deal worse. Anti-war sentiment in Europe and America is part of the reason Hitler was allowed rearm his country and set the world aflame.

    Bonhoeffer's principle of only taking forceful action as the very last resort meant that Hitler got to murder six million Jews, and cause the death of tens of millions more (at least!). He could have been stopped at a very low cost much earlier if anti-war sentiment had not prevented that. It was not, then, B.'s eventual abandonment of pacifism that discredited the latter; it was his application of it for so long.

    I admire "non-violent activism" in many contexts. MLK Jr.'s use of it was certainly a stroke of genius. I recognize that pacifism requires great courage. But it is silly to think that it will work in all cases. There just weren't any other effective ways to counter the Nazis than war. Sorry.

  19. It's difficult, if not impossible and foolhardy to attempt to prescribe alternate solutions to the Nazi problem ex post facto. But Gandhi did make the point that had the people themselves been better organized and more firmly resolved to the tenants of non-violent resistance, the situation might well have played out differently on the world stage.

    In either case, Ken's point advocating early action is well taken. The question remains, what are the most moral actions? Our situation in Iraq is perhaps a good example of the ethics discussion around the wisdom of a violent, preemptive strike.

  20. Good point on hindsight and preëmption, Bill. Given history books and a time machine, we could find no end of instances of evil that we could go back and nip in the bud. We could go back to April 1995 and shoot Timothy McVeigh at the gas station... or at least pop his tires. But if a 1995 policeman saw me, I'd expect him to arrest me, not McVeigh.

    Again, notice how limited Bonhoeffer's use of force was. He didn't lash out at his Nazi guards in his year and a half in prison: he wrote letters, ministered, etc. He focused his one violent exception on one man, based on years of moral struggle and reasoning and in the context of a developed consensus of many fellow citizens and the global community that Hitler himself was evil.

    Perhaps we can appeal to Kant: which position is better as a universal principle applied to everyone: commitment to resolving diagreements through peaceful means, or constant readiness to take swift, even preëmptive violent action to stem the spread of evil? I'm worried that the universalization of the latter maxim creates a lot more harm than universalization of the former. Pacifism remains the preferable principle, the core lesson to take from Bonhoeffer's life. Yes, there are monsters like Hitler who will be able to seize power in certain social contexts where a pacifist resposne will be futile. But that doesn't mean we should adopt and teach our children to assume a perpetually belligerent posture that assumes everyone around us is Hitler.

    Consider this analogy: Democracy produces occasional bad results (even the Nazis won elections). There are situations where a benevolent monarch could save us some grief (suppose the Kaiser had still been around to declare Hitler a doofus, nullify the 1932 election, and outlaw the Nazi party by fiat). But that doesn't invalidate democracy as a guiding principle or justify benevolent dictatorship.

    Pacifism may have limits at the extremes. But pacifism remains the preferable principle.

  21. Yes, good thoughts. And I'll stick with Gandhi, Cory, because I think he makes the most succinct final argument:

    "When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it--always." — Gandhi

  22. I don't think we disagree on very much. As Churchill said, jaw jaw is almost always better than war war, so in most cases jaw as long as possible.

    In a republic like ours, with constitutional limits on the powers of government and the office holders always on probation, political violence is never justified. So I think Bill and Cory and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi and I can agree for all practical purposes.

    In the case of Germany between the wars, the situation was different. No, we could not have shot Hitler's mother, or Adolf when he was painting and paper hanging. But once he had made his intentions clear (and that was pretty early) and had assumed dictatorial powers, then I think the situation called for whatever action would have stopped him.

    Bonhoeffer was right to try to kill Hitler. Perhaps one cannot blame him for waiting so long, but waiting does no credit to his pacifist principles. It makes them look like a bad idea.

    Likewise, the United States was altogether right to go to war against the Nazi regime and kill it dead, something no genuine pacifist could agree to. It was a scandal that we and our allies did not act sooner. If you want to redefine pacifism to include American action in World War II, well, there's nobody on this thread except us pacifists.

  23. I suppose the next stage of this discussion would involve personal theology/philosophy/ethics.

    Certainly Ken's rationale for going to war here is not unlike the counsel Krishna gives to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Gandhi, being a Hindu would of course have been familiar with it, and I believe said as much.

    Clearly, millions were bound to die in the struggle either way.

    In the final analysis, it most likely comes down to a decision as to what kind of world we want to live in. And conversely how and whether we as individuals want to live in the one we have.

  24. Maybe you folks need to read Bonhoeffer's book "Ethics", as I have. After reading his other seminal book "The Cost of Discipleship" I was quite stunned to see him beginning to shift gears in Ethics, laying a theological groundwork for resistance to the Nazi regime. There was, without question, a re-thinking of his pacifist position during the war years.


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