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Ragan Sutterfield


No Easy Saint

Bonhoeffer and just war.

"'I believe,' said Bonhoeffer, 'that God can and wants to create good out of everything, even evil.' … In America, very recently, we have also seen the horror of evil and the power of good."
—George W. Bush, speaking to the German Bundestag, May 23, 2002

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not a comfortable saint; his is a sainthood of contradictions. Since September 11, 2001 no Christian figure has been appealed to so much or so broadly as Bonhoeffer. But Bonhoeffer has not been a single saint. He is now the pacifist Bonhoeffer, the just-war Bonhoeffer, the resistant Bonhoeffer, even the terrorist Bonhoeffer. We are left to ask, where is Bonhoeffer the man in all of the invocations of his name?

The reasons for Bonhoeffer's appeal are varied, but they rest on the "impressive unity" formed by Bonhoeffer's life and thought. As Stephen Haynes has written in The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon: Portraits of a Protestant Saint, "Bonhoeffer's life reveals a symbiosis between thought and existence that sets him apart from most public figures in his time and our own." Bonhoeffer is relevant now because he was an incarnation of the incarnation, not just a guide along the way. But because we are appealing to a life rather than a principle, we must reckon with ambiguity, with uncertainty, with unresolved tensions.

Bonhoeffer spent much of his life articulating a theology of peacemaking based on the Sermon on the Mount, even as Germany grew ever darker under the Nazi regime. But when he was unable to engage the German church to speak truth to the Nazis, he became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, "to cut off the head of the snake." When this plot was uncovered, Bonhoeffer was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually executed, hung naked with a piano wire.

Bonhoeffer's life is wrapped in the dilemma of faithfulness. And we who come after him are left with that dilemma no more clearly resolved. Are we to follow Bonhoeffer in his calls toward peacemaking, or are we to go his way of drastic ...

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