Adam Ash

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

What Bonhoeffer tells us today

Bonhoeffer was wrong -- by RAYMOND A. SCHROTH

Why Bonhoeffer now? Six years ago, in June 2000, PBS presented the docudrama “Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace,” which, in my opinion ( NCR, June 16, 2000), was particularly relevant then because it fit in with our turn-of-the-millennium concentration on World War II as both a historical and moral event.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the German Lutheran theologian who was author of The Cost of Discipleship ,Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison . He studied briefly at New York’s Union Theological Seminary in 1930, and developed a theory of “religionless Christianity.” He taught that we should not use the concept of God to “fill in the gaps” in our understanding of the world, helped rescue some Jews and, along with several members of his large family, participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, was arrested and hanged in 1945. With the help of liberal Protestant theologians like Harvey Cox, Bonhoeffer’s ideas were rediscovered and became influential in the 1960s.

In 2000 I compared Bonhoeffer’s story to that of Sergeant York, the World War I hero whose 1941 film biography helped us put aside our natural resistance to even a just war. Both Alvin York and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were peace-loving religious men, “pacifists” who overcame their scruples in order to kill when duty seemed to require it.

But why might we turn to him now?

For two reasons: First, Feb. 4 is the 100th anniversary of his birth, and anniversaries are always occasions to rethink basic ideas that the man, woman or moment seems to represent. Second, the Bonhoeffer cult is growing. Every day we read the news from Washington and Iraq -- both denials of and justifications for torture from the same administration, condemnations of nations that would be nuclear powers while we ourselves develop more deadly weapons, all without a peep from our so-called religious guides. We ask ourselves, who will speak for Christians? Bonhoeffer?

PBS will broadcast a 2003 documentary by Martin Doblmeier, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister,” on Feb. 6 at 10 p.m. EST. Mr. Doblmeier cites Bonhoeffer’s influence on Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel and Martin Luther King Jr. as evidence that his life speaks “to anyone who struggles with how to respond to evil and to understand at a deeper level the ‘cost’ of following God.”

I recently came upon an essay by Stanley Hauerwas, “Bonhoeffer on Truth and Politics,” in which he enlists Bonhoeffer as a theoretical ally. Like Bonhoeffer, Dr. Hauerwas says, he believes that “the character of a society and state is to be judged by the willingness to have the Gospel preached truthfully and freely.” But truth telling, they agree, is a skill that allows us to hide secrets we have a right to keep and a virtue that grants the courage to confront lies, such as those of the Nazis, that threaten Christian civilization. In the Jan. 2-9 America , journalism professor David L. Martinson employs Bonhoeffer’s theory of truth to criticize journalists who fail to report “what is really going on” in Iraq.

Mr. Doblemier combines archival footage of Hitler’s rise, still photos of Bonhoeffer and his family and interviews with former students and scholars, particularly Bonhoeffer’s friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge, to present a portrait of a young man of conscience who loved both Germany and the Sermon on the Mount. He either had to serve one and not the other or find a way to make the two loves coincide.

Because he saw himself as a pacifist, Bonhoeffer avoided military service by joining the Abwehr, Germany’s counterintelligence service, where an inner circle was part of the conspiracy against Hitler. He was, says the documentary, a “double agent,” posing as a government loyalist while secretly contacting underground movements throughout Europe. Meanwhile, as a sort of pastor to the conspirators, several of whom were devout Christians, he helped them overcome scruples about lying, betraying their country and killing.

How does this film help us rethink the mess we are in today? We can’t help noticing that the Gestapo taps citizens’ phone lines, tortures its prisoners and slaps suspects into jail without lawyers or trials for years. Hitler describes himself as a prophet: He is the savior who will rescue his people from an insidious worldwide menace. His “menace” is Bolsheviks and Jews. Germany is at war -- a war Germany started -- and the Führer has the right to do anything he wants to protect the Fatherland, he says. And to watch first Hitler surrounded by men in uniform goose-stepping and “Heiling” and then to see our own Field Marshall Bush in his military leather jacket propped up against a photo-staged background of cheering GIs is creepy indeed.

Is Bonhoeffer a pastor for our own time? In courage, yes. In moral judgment, no.

In no way does the Sermon on the Mount make wiggle room for political assassination. Look at the record -- from Brutus to Pat Robertson suggesting the CIA “take out” Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Four years ago in the Czech Republic, I stood in the cell where the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, who shot the archduke of Austria and started World War I, had been chained to the wall, and I knew I was in the presence of madness.

Consider the traumas our nation endured when Lincoln, two Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. were blown away. The argument against assassination is the basic Kantian principle that underlies the Geneva Conventions against torture: For us to kill Saddam Hussein or any world leader, particularly because the leader is the embodiment of his society, is a moral invitation to our enemies to do the same to us. Furthermore, assassinations almost always fail to achieve their purpose and they kill the innocent as well. The Israeli-targeted killings of Hamas leaders with rockets fired from helicopters kill everyone else in the car and bystanders as well. Our targeted bombings in Iraq aimed at Saddam and his generals missed Saddam and the generals and killed hundreds of civilians in the neighborhood. The July 10, 1944, plot, a bomb planted in a meeting room, missed Hitler and killed four others. In retaliation, Hitler purged and executed 5,000 opponents of his regime. Some were tortured to death.

Except in civil disobedience, where one protests an unjust law and takes public responsibility, whenever anyone with power -- president or priest -- starts to go above, outside or around the law and gives himself a license to kill, beware.

(Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City. His e-mail address is


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