Bonhoeffer and Resistance to Evil

[1] “Who are you, Christ?” In her paper, “A Spoke in the Wheel,” Dr. Renate Wind has presented a compelling glimpse of a Christian whose probing of that question, that prayer, over the course of some of the most perilous years in human history can provide insight for us in our own potentially “perilous praxis.” Building on Dr. Wind’s paper, I would like to suggest specific means by which I see Bonhoeffer’s resistance to evil having taken shape for his own time, in concrete strategies stimulating new conversation and action today.[1] Note: I am treating Bonhoeffer’s response primarily to political evil, not to more specifically interpersonal or intrapsychic dynamics that might be experienced as destructive; by “political evil” I understand those systems, institutions, or events (crystallized here quite concretely in Hitler’s Nazi regime from 1933 on) whose actions or effects violate the revealed and discerned will of God for creation. [2]

Strategies of Resistance

[2] As Dr. Wind notes, Bonhoeffer’s resistance is grounded not in theories of social ethics, but in Christology – meaning not disembodied Christological abstractions, but a living connection to Jesus Christ, the One who for Bonhoeffer is the very unity of God and world. Bonhoeffer’s becoming a Christian in 1931 or thereabouts was truly a life-changing event, as he discovered in Jesus Christ a love that broke through his elitism and loneliness and drew him into the heart of the Scriptures, the church, and the world. [3]His conversion to Christ slowly led him out of the relative safety of privilege and into the love of brothers and sisters in increasingly radical and risky discipleship. And his experience of prayer and community provided a touchstone of reality, centered in Scripture, discernment, and friendship, in a frightening, disorienting world of lies, suspicion, brutality, and hatred. For Bonhoeffer, “discipleship is joy”[4] because it draws the disciple into intimate connection with Christ, the very reality of God and the deepest reality of the world[5]. The Christian can thus avoid the twin pitfalls of despair, rage and cynicism, on the one hand, or pious withdrawal from the world on the other.

[3] I have drawn from Bonhoeffer’s biography ten strategies I see him using in resisting the public evil manifested in Hitler’s totalitarian Nazi dictatorship, war, and “final solution.” I have laid out these strategies in a somewhat chronological order, not ranked according to importance. Some are more obvious means of resistance in his context, while others may seem counter-intuitive.

[4] 1) Use of the gifts of privilege. This includes, at perhaps the most primal level of all, the emotional perks flowing from birth as an upper-class male in his society: the capacity to be cared for, being “worth” investing in, the preconscious assumption of one’s own inherent value nourishing a strong, healthy self and voice and body and life to be risked and offered. Bonhoeffer’s privilege made possible not only “the good life” of fine food and clothing, spacious housing (with the requisite staff of servants), leisure and music and books and vacations, but also a first-class theological education, extensive international travel and contacts, and a host of connections within government, culture, and church – all resources that proved crucial to his later role in the conspiracy. Of course the gifts of privilege are helpful for resistance to evil only if risked, i.e., used, as such, rather than being seen as means of “buying” one’s escape, in some form or another, from the necessity of such risk. But certainly it is clear that Bonhoeffer did use the gifts of his birth and station both consciously and unconsciously in the service of his resistance. And it is clear that the necessity of just such use of his status was itself a central value of this very upbringing.

[5] Along with his trust in Jesus Christ (#3), I believe Bonhoeffer’s use of the gifts of privilege ranks among the most significant – and radical – of these ten strategies for a North American audience. This way of life challenges us in two directions. First, it gives pause to those, including many Christians, who instinctively insist that remedial or healthy self-care is “bad” and “selfish” since the true Christian stance is always one of “selflessness” – this is manifestly untrue of Bonhoeffer’s life as a whole. Simultaneously, however, he challenges the apparently rampant and ever more crippling belief within the current U.S. political climate that resources once attained are most defiantly not meant to be poured out for others, but to be accumulated and tightly guarded, if necessary by force of arms. In contrast to both positions, Bonhoeffer models a life deeply and consistently nourished, on many levels and without apology, and at the same time convinced that the fullness of life takes place not in hoarding these gifts but in their becoming a resource radically available for challenging injustice and fostering authentic human life. One may well take issue with his example as to how this balance is best reached – e.g., an ascetic he certainly was not – but that such a balance is essential to healthy Christian life often needs defense from both directions.

[6] 2) Intellectual analysis: tools of cultural, historical, theological, sociological analysis focused around concrete Christian community and its actual, authentic life in the world. Bonhoeffer shows that “academic” need not mean “irrelevant”; he used his academic gifts as powerful resources for engaging the real problems and challenges of church and world. Even his early writings, unlike the later texts not written in response to concrete political developments, proved crucial in providing an analytic foundation from which he could later identify the distortions of authentic human community Hitler represented and enacted. And his Ethics and the Letters and Papers from Prison theological letters show the ongoing fruitfulness to the end of such analytical tools well, creatively, and incisively used. Bonhoeffer famously demonstrates the power of a life in which intellectual analysis is constantly in dialogue with both prayer and political engagement; perhaps this comes to fruition most profoundly in the practice of discernment central to Bonhoeffer’s spirituality[6]. For discernment, a practice deeply rooted in prayer, encompasses the most incisive capacities of the mind as well, in light of all the complexity of one’s contemporary circumstances calling for response.

[7] 3) Trust in Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer’s becoming a Christian was clearly a watershed experience in his life: the gift of transforming intimacy with God and fellow Christians, growing capacity for deep prayerful listening, radical exclusivity of allegiance to Christ in the face of all the world’s (or his own life’s or church’s) idols, commitment to the church in all its concrete struggles in the real world…. in short, for him, a fundamental re-orientation to reality. This includes, of course, the practice of personal prayer, one’s own heart and deepest conception of the Real. Prayer in and of itself is the very heart of resistance, not “prior” to real resistance or something ancillary, a selfish luxury. It is what grounds a person in Reality itself, namely (for Bonhoeffer) Jesus Christ so intimately and powerfully present to each person, and simultaneously redeeming the whole world. Without prayer, resistance really is futile (!); but prayer itself is resistance and opens a different world shaped by God. The practices of Christian life, nourishing that deepest commitment, provide the means by which authentic resistance, and an alternate vision of reality, can ever be sustained over the long haul. Thus the foremost strategy of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to evil is surely – most undramatically and yet transformingly – the practice of daily prayer, Scripture reading, community worship, and confession by which he and those in his closest circles stayed close to a very different Reality than the one proclaimed in Nazi pulpits, Nazi newspapers, Nazi newsreels. These practices of faith nourish the profound levels of discernment, vision, hope, and courage that make truly effective resistance possible.[7]

[8] 4) Public regional, national, international ecclesial leadership. This strategy is in some ways the most obvious; this is the sort of thing we readily think of when we consider the necessity of resisting evil in the world, and it is Bonhoeffer’s public leadership that first brought him into prominence and gave his writings their audience. From his national radio address the day after Hitler’s rise to power, through countless sermons and church speeches, to leadership in the institutional resistance that became the Confessing Church, and to international and ecumenical advocacy for peace and truth and the urgency of the Gospel, Bonhoeffer consistently and courageously spoke out. As insistently as he could, he attempted to rally others to stand with him in urging the church to take seriously its authentic nature and responsibilities. The three roles he urged in April 1933 for the church in the face of an unjust state, highlighted in Dr. Wind’s lecture and specifically in the title of both her talk and her biography of Bonhoeffer, culminate in the call to the church to become, itself, “a spoke in the wheel” of injustice. Already in 1933 Bonhoeffer urged the church to civil disobedience. And, however unthinkable such a possibility appeared to most of his contemporaries, this still stands as the great untested possibility: what might have happened if a critical mass of others had been able to hear, with him, the call that made such radical disobedience a liberating step of true discipleship? He gives us courage to hear the urgent divine call at the heart of our own times as well, and if necessary to take steps that feel risky and radical in order to be faithful to thechurch and to the One who creates it. And this cannot evade public responsibility: action in correspondence with reality, in the real world.

[9] 5) Withdrawal to regroup. From 1933-35 Bonhoeffer withdrew from Germany to serve as pastor to a congregation in London. Karl Barth criticized this decision, just at the point the Confessing Church was coming into being and needing strong leadership. During those years Bonhoeffer continued to read and cultivated ties with Mohandas Gandhi, as well as developing the network of international and ecumenical alliances that both grounded him in a reality beyond Nazi Germany and provided contacts essential to the later resistance against Hitler. Were these years a form of escapism? Or a strategic form of resistance? I tend to take the latter view in Bonhoeffer’s case but, regardless, I believe it important to highlight the significance of strategic withdrawal within a life or campaign of resistance. Discernment itself, that essential process of clarification of vocation and the particular leading of God in complex situations, can at times be nearly impossible without such space to reflect. In his periodic retreats to Ruth von Kleist-Retzow’s estate as well, Bonhoeffer reminds us that stepping back to rest, to re-group, to ponder the lay of the land and one’s actual resources, gifts, and vocation, may be as essential to resistance as the public moments, the courageous speeches and pivotal turning points that result. A similar pivotal withdrawal as in London – though with a much quicker turn-around back to Germany – took place in June 1939 in New York as, reflecting on the situation in Germany and his own place within the beleaguered Confessing community, Bonhoeffer realized despite imminent war that he needed to return, a discernment that eventually drew him into the resistance itself. Just as in the time in England which both equipped him for and allowed him to recognize his call to the seminary leadership of Finkenwalde, so too this later withdrawal proved extraordinarily clarifying of Bonhoeffer’s true vocation at a decisive moment.

[10] 6) Reclaiming of monasticism, as a personal and communal spiritual strengthening for vocation. In Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde, a common life of prayer shaped by the Word encompassed current events and the complexity of pastoral practice in the real, political world, as well as personal depths and interpersonal life. In addition to an ordered rhythm of prayer, study, meals, and play together, this life also included the practice of confession as an act of mutual self-disclosure, friendship, and accountability. Here one moves into difficult, radical truth-telling about one’s life, to learn the contours of one’s own blind spots and capitulations, and to experience the incomparable gift of trust and the profound liberation of truth-telling within human and divine friendship.[8] Ultimately, Bonhoeffer teaches us, we will simply not be able truly to tell the truth about society/church if we can’t face and confess shameful aspects of our own selves; it’s all of a piece. And such confession itself takes place only within relationships grounded securely in the living Word and love of God.

[11] 7) Action to rescue Jews (Operation 7). Along with speaking out as fully as possible, the rescue of Jews from Nazi terror, usually at tremendous personal risk, has of course come to be seen the paradigmatic resistance to evil on the part of righteous Germans during WWII. Bonhoeffer did participate in such action – his involvement in the Abwehr-orchestrated operation to smuggle several Christian Jews into Switzerland is well documented – but on the whole his resistance activity was not centered in directly humanitarian work. Nevertheless it is clear that he sees costly solidarity with those most oppressed as a key criterion of the church’s (and his own) faithfulness; becoming a “person for others,” a “church for others,” is of the utmost importance.[9] In fact, he comes to see, it is in joining those who suffer, leaving positions of privileged distance and bearing the same risks and dangers as the most vulnerable, that one finds the “place” from which reality is best viewed.[10] If, ultimately for Christians, reality is manifested most clearly in Jesus Christ, then such solidarity is precisely what draws a person closest to the Crucified.

[12] 8) Conspiracy to overthrow Nazi government and to assassinate Hitler: discernment, responsibility, risk, guilt. As problematic as this phase of his resistance is for many Christians to this day, nevertheless with it Bonhoeffer raises unavoidable questions about the place of guilt within authentic Christian vocation in an immeasurably complex and ambiguous world. In a situation where no option was guilt-free, this willingness to move into actual political action also meant the willingness to incur guilt: to act in ways of love even if that meant one’s own hands got dirty. As a Lutheran he knows we’re never “pure” anyway. Maintaining personal innocence is not the point of Christian discernment; effective and responsible action within history is. So, within the extraordinary situation of inevitable sin, Bonhoeffer discerns which option is God’s call.[11] This does not “justify” the use of violence, which is always a grave offense before God and makes a person truly guilty. Yet the mandate to “obedient [i.e., called by God alone] and responsible [i.e., potentially effective, not suicidal or destructive] action”[12] is for him the ultimate act of unconditional trust in a profoundly this-worldly God. It also provides an example of an authentically Lutheran model of holiness, grounded not in personal purity but in faithful discernment and action.

[13] 9) Friendship, love, gratitude, poetry, music, prayer: Strengthening friendship and family bonds is itself resistance to all forms of evil bent on separating us from the sheer goodness of life and creation. Like the divine love tasted and soaked up in prayer, the experience of human love ushers us into a different reality than that overshadowed by rage, fear, or despair. In prison Bonhoeffer’s capacity for human love, and for prayer as a lifeline of reality, deepens into profound and heartfelt letters and poetry — the agony of imprisonment within a world so rich with friendship, love, and the created world — and an overarching gratitude able to encompass everything within the mercy of God[13]. In a beautiful essay from shortly before his imprisonment, he even suggests gratitude as a primary category for discernment itself:

That for which I can thank God is good. That for which I cannot thank God is evil. And the determination whether I can thank God for something or not is discerned in Jesus Christ and his Word. Jesus Christ is the boundary of gratitude. Jesus Christ is also the fullness of gratitude; in him gratitude knows no bounds. It encompasses all gifts of the created world. It embraces even pain and suffering. It penetrates the deepest darkness until it has found within it the love of God in Jesus Christ…. Gratitude is even able to encompass past sin and to say yes to it, because in it God’s grace is revealed–O felix culpa (Romans 6:17). [14]
[14] 10) Martyrdom: the ultimate fruit of the view from below. As noted above, all of these strategies of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to evil are rooted not in asceticism, some heroic desire for self-sacrifice, but in the ever-incarnate love at the heart of his profoundly Lutheran spirituality of the cross: the desire to be with Jesus Christ wherever he is, and to follow him wherever he leads, simply for the sake of living with him and all those he loves. If that union with Christ and action on behalf of the “least of these” brothers and sisters leads a person also into death, then such martyrdom becomes the ultimate “strategy” of resistance to evil, as in fact Bonhoeffer’s own legacy has borne powerful fruit for Christians in situations of injustice around the world. The blood of Christian martyrs really is “seed of the church” (Tertullian).

[15] One final note: an attempt like this to tease apart strategies of resistance, as if each were somehow merely a functional tool separate from the others and from the unique person, circumstances, and God calling them all forth, inevitably distorts the very nature of discipleship itself. For of course Christian discipleship is not the application of disembodied strategies but a whole human life in which, in the case of Bonhoeffer, all of these strategies, and others I haven’t thought of, come together in the concrete gifts, resources, personality, psyche, limitations, and blind spots of a particular human being attempting to follow Jesus Christ within particular communities in a given place in history. His intellectual gifts shape his public leadership; his rooting in family and friendships and social location shape his experience of Jesus Christ; his capacity for personal confession shapes his participation in the conspiracy – and vice versa, and so on. For each of us as well, in our given communities, within our circumstances and limits, the discernment of our concrete, ongoing vocation will be as complex and multifaceted as Bonhoeffer’s. Despite (or even more profoundly because of) his limits, he inspires us with the unfolding of a joyful, mature, and spiritually free Christian life in one of the most brutal periods in human history. He gives us insight into particular tools helpful to us as well for discipleship within a public sphere increasingly – ominously – marked by greed, arrogance, deceit, cynicism, and xenophobia. And ultimately he points us beyond himself to the One who desires our joy, our maturity, our spiritual freedom as well in courageous response to the needs of this period of history in which we live. Who are you, Christ? It’s a good question.

[1] This text began as a response to Dr. Wind’s March 31, 2003, lecture entitled, “A Spoke in the Wheel” (also printed in this issue). In that response, I used the structuring device of seven concentric “circles of resistance” I saw in Bonhoeffer’s life. Centering in prayer, these circles of resistance expanded to encompass friendships, family, close Christian community, the church, and the world come of age. In April I then revised this material for presentations to clergy and lay leaders of the Montana Synod of the ELCA. In expanding this material into a full-length lecture – this time building on my own interpretive presentation of the Bonhoeffer biography – I revised it into these ten “strategies.” The present piece is therefore closer to the Montana lecture, and its primarily reflective (rather than critical/academic) genre reflects this. I assume basic familiarity with Bonhoeffer’s story and writings here.

[2] As part of his lifelong suspicion of general principles, Bonhoeffer rejected attempts to categorize “good” and “evil” in some absolute or universally-applicable way. Rather than knowledge of good and evil (the serpent’s temptation), he insisted at the very outset of his Ethics that what is to be sought is the will of God in the concrete situation of responsibility. Thus a central theme of his life and resistance (and of this essay) is that of mature Christian discernment.

[3] Cf. Bonhoeffer, “Christus, die Wirklichkeit, und das Gute,” in Ethik, ed. Ilse Toedt et al. (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1992), 31ff. (Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (New York: Touchstone/Macmillan, 1955), 186ff.)

[4] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (DBWE volume 4), ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 40.

[5] Ethik 40 (Ethics 193).

[6] I have written on the place of discernment in Bonhoeffer’s spirituality in “Probing the Will of God: Bonhoeffer and Discernment,” Dialog 41/1 (Spring 2002): 42-9.

[7] For more on Bonhoeffer’s spiritual practices, particularly as these nourished his resistance, see the newly published study by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003). Of course, as this volume’s title makes clear, Bonhoeffer’s spirituality (unlike some uses of this term) is not limited to prayer practices. Indeed, all ten of the strategies outlined here are dimensions of a life whose inner and outer coherence lies in its self-understanding as discipleship taking seriously the public as well as private implications of faith in Jesus Christ.

[8] See the chapter on confession in Life Together (DBWE volume 5), ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 108-118.

[9] Letters and Papers from Prison (LPP), new greatly enlarged edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 381f.

[10] “The View from Below,” published with “After Ten Years,” LPP 17.

[11] In several sections of his Ethics Bonhoeffer explores these questions. See the extended treatment titled, “The Structure of the Responsible Life” (Ethics 220-50), in which Bonhoeffer treats such matters as discernment of reality, the “boundary” or “extraordinary” situation, guilt, and freedom. In German cf. Ethik 256-89.

[12] Here I am citing, and expanding, Renate Wind’s phrase in her

[13] His letters, particularly those to his parents, his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer, and his best friend Eberhard Bethge, are a profound testimony to this capacity for friendship, love, and gratitude. In addition to LPP, see also the volume of letters to and from Maria, gathered in Love Letters from Cell 92: The Correspondence between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer 1943-1945, ed. Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and Ulrich Kabitz, trans. John Brownjohn (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.

[14] “On the Gratitude of Christians,” Konspiration und Haft 1940-1945 (DBW 16), ed. Joergen Glenthoej, Ulrich Kabitz and Wolf Kroetke (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1996), 491, forthcoming translation. This volume, which I have had the privilege of translating (DBWE 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, will be published by Fortress Press in 2004 or 2005).