Bonhoeffer, the Church, the Resistance, and What We Must Learn from It

Geoff Holsclaw blogged today on “The Forgotten Lesson of Bonhoeffer, and the American Church.” (

He fears that in the rising tide of acclaim and acceptance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in American Christianity we are perhaps forgetting that more than an inspirational story Bonhoeffer’s is a cautionary tale.  And the moral of that tale is “not that we should all strive to be more like (Bonhoeffer), but that we should strive to be a church that wouldn’t need him!”  Further, Holsclaw writes:  So I’m worried that everyone interested in Bonhoeffer might not be learning the real lesson: that we in America might be the type of church that, in a time of crisis, will capitulate to preserving the American Dream rather than living as a Kingdom Reality.”

He’s exactly right, of course.  But I think we can put an even sharper point on it (though Holsclaw might not agree with my expansion of his point).  A great deal of Bonhoeffer’s appeal in the church is his “heroic” stand against Hitler in the resistance movement during World War II including his putative involvement in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  The latter claim has been powerfully queried recently in Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, Daniel P. Umbel (Oct 1, 2013).  Bonhoeffer may well have been unaware of the plot to kill Hitler and the most we can say is that he was at best on the periphery of such a plot. Whatever the case may be on that score, instead of valorizing Bonhoeffer’s resistance activities, it may be the case that his participation on this score is a failure (not of his own sense of duty, courage, or resolve, of course) rising from the very concern Holsclaw highlighted above:  a church that capitulated to the German “Dream” rather than God’s Kingdom Dream.

James McClendon has made the case for this most forcefully.  He writes in his Ethics,

My Thesis, then, is that Bonhoeffer’s grisly death [He was sent to the gallows] was part and parcel of the tragic dimension of his life, and that in turn but an element in the greater tragedy of the Christian Community in Germany….they had no effective communal moral structure in the church that was adequate to the crucial need of church and German people (to say nothing of the need of the Jewish people; to say nothing of the world’s people). No structures, no practices, no skills of political life existed that were capable of resisting, christianly resisting, the totalitarianism of the times” (211).

The ecclesial resistance to Nazism that there was all melted away very quickly and this left Bonhoeffer isolated and insulated from the community context that he knew was alone sufficient and supple to nurture a genuinely Christian resistance.  His remaining community was his family and their networks which drew him into the resistance movement that eventually cost him his life (and from which has accrued much of the interest in him).  If that involvement, whether or not he was involved in the assassination plot, is indeed morally tragic and ethically problematic (as McClendon argues), then we have a powerful example of how one man’s witness is problematized by the failure of the German Church as a whole.

And that, I take it, is the sharp point of the challenge Bonhoeffer poses for American appropriation of him. 



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