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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 action for the sake of justice? Some would-be followers deny that there is any ambiguity in his example. They make him a pacifist and only a pacifist, or a model just warrior who rejected his earlier idealism. To step out of line with either position is a step that demands correction.

When John Buchanan, editor of The Christian Century, wrote that Bonhoeffer "move[d] to the Niebuhrian conclusion that the evil of Nazism should be opposed on Christian ethical grounds,"1 he was upbraided by a reader who responded that "there is no hint that Bonhoeffer ever justified this choice on the grounds of Niebuhrian 'Christian realism' or denied that pacifism was the most faithful Christian commitment."2 In the same vein, Walter Wink wrote a short piece in Sojourners reminding readers that "American thinkers who have used Bonhoeffer as a way of justifying the just war theory overlook his clear statement that he does not regard this as a justifiable action—that it's a sin—and that he throws himself on the mercy of God."3

The divided witness of Bonhoeffer is represented in a more nuanced way by Jean Bethke Elshtain and Stanley Hauerwas. Both Elshtain and Hauerwas have been theologically engaged with the "war on terror," and both have drawn on Bonhoeffer, yet they arrive at very different positions.

Elshtain has sought to frame the current "war on terror" in terms of classical just-war theory. Her argument has centered on the need to act decisively against those who target the innocent. In Just War Against Terror, she writes that "to do nothing as people are slaughtered makes one complicit in injustice." She goes on to appeal to Bonhoeffer, saying that he "judged harshly those who retreated into the 'sanctuary of private virtuousness' when confronted with hideous injustice," and she rejects standards of moral purity that would cripple the ability to respond to rampant evil. " 'Responsible action,' " she says, "involves contamination—one cannot altogether avoid getting 'dirty hands' when acting in the political world in a responsible way."

Toward the end of Just War on Terror, Elshtain argues that "Unless America proposes to close itself up behind its borders … we can and we must become the leading guarantor of a structure of stability and order in a violent world." For Elshtain, responsible action lies with the United States and other democracies guided by the rule of law. But for Bonhoeffer such action rests on faith and allegiance to God; any state involvement is placed under this allegiance. Against "private virtuousness" Bonhoeffer does not offer the responsible nation state but the Church. In the passage that Elshtain quotes above, Bonhoeffer goes on to say, "Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God."4

Furthermore, security was not among the goals of Bonhoeffer's actions against Hitler. Writing before his involvement in the Abwehr plot, Bonhoeffer addressed "a world which feverishly arms to guarantee peace through arming, a world whose idol has become the word security." He asks, "How could one think that these demons could be driven out, these powers annihilated with a bit of education and international understanding, with a bit of goodwill?" But against these humanist attempts at peace, Bonhoeffer does not offer a theory of just war. "The crucified Christ is our peace," he writes, "The world trembles only before the cross, not before us."5

In a 1996 article in First Things, Elshtain wrote, "Some of Bonhoeffer's later readers have looked to his writings for a general rationale for opposing tyrannical power even to the point of violence. But they have been disappointed, for Bonhoeffer never penned a full-fledged justification of his determination to resist." She goes on to say, "Bonhoeffer refrained from writing such a justification because he feared that it might be taken as grounds for resistance to situations less dire than his own."6 We are left to ask, is our time so dire?

In The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Geoffrey Kelley and F. Burton Nelson argue that "The recent war against terrorism elides well with Bonhoeffer's own decision to join a violent conspiracy, not as a virtuous decision in keeping with the gospel, but as a sinful, albeit tragic necessity in order to protect the lives of the innocent." However, they add, "Bonhoeffer's spirituality that challenges us to 'dare peace' stands as a bracing reminder to America's gung-ho 'patriots' that war … is still a denial of the gospel teachings of Jesus Christ." And if we were to ask what Bonhoeffer might look like in our time, Kelly and Nelson suggest, the answer would be Stanley Hauerwas. "Hauerwas's critique of militarism and of the churches' failure to emphasize the teachings of Jesus Christ in assessing moral issues," they write, "is uncannily reminiscent of Bonhoeffer's own unpopular, lonely struggle for a restoration of gospel values in the Hitler era."

Hauerwas has engaged with Bonhoeffer in Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence. While Hauerwas admits that Bonhoeffer's involvement in the Abwehr plot "seemed to make him an unlikely candidate to support a pacifist position," he argues that Bonhoeffer's "attempt to reclaim the visibility of the Church as the necessary condition for the proclamation of the gospel" creates a framework from which to reclaim the Church as peaceable community.

Rather than approaching Bonhoeffer as a moral exemplar, Hauerwas appeals to Bonhoeffer as a theologian in service of the Church. For Hauerwas, what Bonhoeffer gives us is a vision of how the Church should act responsibly in a nation state. While Bonhoeffer sees the state as an ordained "restrainer" that establishes and maintains order, it is the Church that must remind the state of its obligations. It is the Church's existence as a truth-telling community that gives it this role. "The failure of the church to oppose Hitler," Hauerwas writes, "was but the outcome of the failure of Christians to speak the truth to one another and to the world." And it was in the context of this failure that Bonhoeffer took action at the risk of incurring guilt through violence.

On the imperative of truth-telling Elshtain and Hauerwas agree, and it is here that they are closest to Bonhoeffer. But how can we begin to speak truthfully? Elshtain calls us to the task of describing things as they are. The attacks of September 11 were clearly murder, an act of evil that we must respond to. But Hauerwas is more cautious; with Bonhoeffer, he reminds us that telling the truth sometimes requires more silence than the world would like. "No good at all can come from acting before the world and one's self as though we knew the truth, when in reality we do not," Bonhoeffer once said. "Qualified silence might perhaps be more appropriate for the church today than talk which is very unqualified."7

In the world after September 11, we are faced with the question of when to speak. It is a terrifying question, but we are not without direction. With all the speaking of his name, we can still turn to Bonhoeffer, wrapped in the silence of his contradictions, as our guide.

Ragan Sutterfield is a farmer and teacher living in Arkansas.

1. John M. Buchanan, "In Adversity," The Christian Century, April 6, 2004, p. 6.

2. Ted Grimsrud, "Letters," The Christian Century, May 18, 2004, p. 53.

3. Walter Wink, "The Bonhoeffer Assumption," Sojourners, January/ February 2002, p. 33.

4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, enlarged ed. (Touchstone, 1997), p. 5.

5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom, ed. Geoffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), p. 104.

6. Jean Bethke Elshtain, "Bonhoeffer and the Sovereign State," First Things, August/September 1996, p. 27-8.

7. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords (Harper & Row, 1965), p. 159.

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