“Dietrich Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging a Myth, Recovering Costly Grace” Mark Thiessen Nation

Dr. Mark Thiessen Nation, professor of Theology presents the monthly Colloquium lecture, focusing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The thesis of this lecture is two-fold. First, contrary to the prevailing assumptions, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not arrested, imprisoned or executed because of involvement in plots to kill Hitler. Second, it is more accurate to say that he was arrested, imprisoned and executed because of the grace-filled, costly discipleship about which he wrote and which he consistently lived from 1932 to his death on April 9, 1945.

This lecture is a summary of a book in which Mark and two of his former students, Anthony Siegrist and Dan Umbel, are writing, to be published next year by Baker Academic Press. Of the many books published on Bonhoeffer, this is the first one to make the argument stated above. If its argument is convincing, this book will call for a re-examination of the received wisdom regarding the ongoing legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

View the news release.

3 comments on ““Dietrich Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging a Myth, Recovering Costly Grace” Mark Thiessen Nation”

  1. Mark Currie says:

    1. Mark Currie March 4th, 2011
    Dr. Nation’s arguments are correct, but his final conclusion, that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist committed to pacifism as Mennonites understand non-resistance is not proven.
    Yes, Bonhoeffer evidently experienced a conversion experience as a young adult. Yes, Bonhoeffer was not arrested and imprisoned for efforts to assassinate Hitler. Yes, Bonhoeffer strenuously worked to avoid military service and began to work against Nazi militarism. Yes, Bonhoeffer should be remembered as a champion of biblical discipleship shaped by the Sermon on the Mount and not for any association with violent, militant Christianity.
    But Eric Metaxas presents arguments in his biography of Bonhoeffer that seem to present him as opposing military service in Nazi Germany not on grounds of Christian pacifism, but on grounds that it did not meet the criteria of just war.
    Moreover, Metaxas presents a strong allegation based on a comment attributed to Bonhoeffer in late September 1941 after he returned to Germany from Switzerland while serving the Abwehr. “At the Dohnanyis’ house that September, Bonhoeffer famously said that, if necessary, he would be willing to kill Hitler. It would not come to that, but Bonhoeffer had to be clear that he was not assisting in the fulfillment of a deed he was unwilling to do.” [Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; (Thomas Nelson, 2010), p.388 “Operation 7”]
    Metaxas is convincing. Dr. Nation is not. The ultimate ethical question for Bonhoeffer became how far does the Christian disciple go in his or her opposition to evil? If Metaxas is correct, Bonhoeffer recognizes circumstances in which violent resistance, even assassination, can be justified. This does not prove that Bonhoeffer admits just war patriotism as a key element in his understanding of Christian discipleship, but it does prove that he is not a pacifist in the traditional sense of Mennonite non-resistance. Like Christ before him, Bonhoeffer suffers the sword to be drawn in Gethsemane.
    Mark Currie

  2. Gilberto Flores says:

    2. Gilberto Flores March 4th, 2011
    I always welcome a book concerning Dietriech Bonhofer, his life was of great inspiration for people like me when I was facing persecution from goverment. As my experience teachs me, there is times when a person has to decide in which ways will respond to the evil base his or her Christian principles. My choice was different from Dietriech based in my Anabaptist faith, but the tempation to retaliate was huge and overwhelming.

  3. Mark Thiessen Nation says:

    3. Mark Thiessen Nation March 14th, 2011
    Mr. Currie, thanks for your comments. I will only respond briefly. There are a number of things I like about the Metaxis biography. There are some things that he gets wrong. There are places where he misleads. There is at least one point where he seems to be deceptive. On pages 123-4 he quotes almost the whole of an extensive excerpt from a letter Bonhoeffer wrote to Elizabeth Zinn, his fiance, on Jan. 1, 1936. This is the letter in which Bonhoeffer speaks of his “great liberation,” or conversion. As I say, Metaxis quotes almost the whole of the excerpt. There is one substantive, short paragraph he leaves out. This is where Bonhoeffer says, “I suddenly saw as self-evident the Christian pacifism that I had recently passionately opposed–a disputation at which Gerhard [Jacobi] was also present. And so it went on step by step. I no longer saw or thought anything else. . . .” Why does he leave this out? (The excerpt in Metaxis is taken from the collection of excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s writings entitled, A Testament of Freedom, edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and Burton Nelson, pp. 424-5; this is the same version I am referencing.)
    Bonhoeffer went on to give a number of lectures in which he articulated views which would have been considered pacifist views (occasionally using the word). He then included these same sorts of convictions within his book, The Cost of Discipleship (or Discipleship in the new translation).
    I do not try to make Bonhoeffer into a Mennonite. I rather attempt to allow his words, his thought and life to shape my reflections. In fact, especially in the book, I/we work very hard to work through all of the evidence in a careful way. (I deal at length, e.g. with decades-old memories of what Bonhoeffer supposedly said in informal conversations about assassinating Hitler.)
    My memory is that Bonhoeffer is virtually silent on the just war theory. There is no evidence, as far as I recall, that anything like the jwt is animating his opposition to serving in the German army on the front lines.
    I call Bonhoeffer a pacifist because that’s what he called himself after his “grand liberation.” So, it is quite fair to do so. Then I/we (in our book) proceed to use this specific word (i.e. pacifism) sparingly, as did Bonhoeffer. However, we do allow Bonhoeffer’s specific language, in various lectures and in Discipleship especially, to guide the ways in which we refer to his life and teachings (esp. since he himself reaffirmed what he taught in Discipleship very specifically in at least a couple of letters from prison).
    However, we also deal with all the evidence that has been perceived to challenge our claims. (The book will be approximately 300pp. with nine chapters.) I could not deal with many of these issues, however, in a one hour lecture.

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