Claims on Bonhoeffer

The misuse of a theologian

In a 2002 speech in Berlin thanking Germany for its support of the war on terrorism, President George W. Bush invoked none other than the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He compared the fight against terrorism to Bonhoeffer’s “stand against Nazi rule,” thereby aligning his stance with that of one of Christianity’s most beloved modern martyrs.

Bush was hardly the first and certainly not the last to claim Bonhoeffer for his cause. In July 1993, pro-life advocate and abortion clinic bomber Paul Hill cited Bonhoeffer’s involvement in “plotting the death of Hitler” to justify Hill’s actions. For Hill, murdering abortion providers was the only way to stop what he regarded as America’s own holocaust of innocent life.

In 2005, Christian televangelist Pat Robertson invoked Bonhoeffer, “who lived under the hellish conditions of Nazi Germany,” in calling for the United States to assassinate Venezuela president Hugo Chávez and Iraq leader Saddam Hussein.

Even more bizarrely, a journalist at an online magazine recently referred to “the dissident anti-Nazi” Bonhoeffer in arguing that had Syrian rebels perpetrated the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria, in August 2013, their act would have been justified as an effort to elicit international intervention.

If the evidence were limited to the George W. Bushes, Pat Robertsons, and Paul Hills of the world, the religious left could dismiss these appeals as misguided or condemn them as the product of twisted logic. But in her 2003 book Just War against Terror, Jean Bethke Elshtain, a respected scholar at the University of Chicago, also invokes Bonhoeffer, “the anti-Nazi martyr,” to make a case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Although Elshtain’s brief references to Bonhoeffer certainly reveal a more sophisticated understanding of Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought, she too trades on his moral authority to bolster her cause.

Appealing to Bonhoeffer to justify such a range of moral choices is deeply ironic, for it is at odds with Bonhoeffer’s own ethical reasoning. Clifford Green has rightly argued that such approaches reduce Bonhoeffer’s rich reflection on Christian discipleship, the christological foundation of community, and the church’s vocation in the world “to a sound bite or a principle either supporting or opposing the use of violence.”



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