In November I participated in a panel discussion on Bonhoeffer and pacifism at the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Diego. Though our book Bonhoeffer the Assassin? was not the subject of the discussion per se, it served as a reference point for much of the discussion. My paper for the panel was entitled “Eberhard Bethge & the Myth of Bonhoeffer the Assassin: Recovering a Persistently Christ-centered Ethic in a ‘World Full of Nazis.’” (For those who are interested, I am presenting an expanded version of this lecture at the Young Center for Anabaptist & Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College, in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania on Thursday, January 29, 7PM.) Clifford Green, the executive director of the seventeen volume “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition” was given the task on the panel of responding to all the papers. He has expanded his comments on our book so that they have become a review essay (Modern Theology January 2015, Vol. 31/1: 201-8). Below I offer a response to Green’s review.
Let me state the core of my response directly: there is a profound misunderstanding that is rather centrally distorting in Green’s review. Though present from the opening line, the claim is most clearly stated later: “The heart of the book is about non-killing, i.e. nonviolence, i.e. pacifism as so defined.” (205) Well, no, that is importantly not the heart of the book. Ironically, a few years ago in a lecture summarizing our book I quoted the following wonderful passage from Green’s essay on Bonhoeffer’s peace ethic:
Bonhoeffer’s Christian peace ethic is intrinsic to his whole theology. It cannot be separated from his Christology, his understanding of discipleship and the Sermon on the Mount, his way of reading the Bible, and his understanding of the gospel and of the church. It belongs to the heart of his faith. Accordingly, it cannot be reduced to a principle. It is not a discrete option on a menu of ethical ‘positions.’ It is not a separate interchangeable part that can be removed from his theology and replaced by something else called, perhaps, ‘realism,’ or even ‘responsibility’. His peace ethic is woven throughout his theology and discipleship as a whole. It can’t be removed without shredding the whole cloth.[i]
The reason I quoted these sentences is that I cannot imagine a clearer summary of the purpose of our book than this one. I specifically chose Dan Umbel and Anthony Siegrist to write their more theological chapters of the book for two reasons. First, I knew they would not make pacifism central to their chapters. And second, they both have fine theological minds and have written chapters that clearly display exactly what Green has named in the passage I just quoted. That is, they have made Bonhoeffer’s theology—especially the centrality of Jesus Christ—the subject of their chapters. I am grateful that Green affirms that the four chapters by these two men “are the strongest parts of the book” (202). And I am pleased that he says that two of my three biographical chapters provide “a generally reliable overview in concise compass” of Bonhoeffers life (201). However, then I would say that it makes no sense for Green to affirm these theological chapters and then go on to say that “the problem is that they presuppose the book’s conceptual frame, and are designed to reinforce it” (202). Of course they do. For the book is specifically intended to establish the theological coherence that Green names concisely in the passage I quoted from him. Therefore there should be a fit between the biographical sections of the book and the theological sections. This is precisely because, to quote Green again, “Bonhoeffer’s Christian peace ethic is intrinsic to his whole theology.” (more…)