It is very difficult to challenge the authority and accuracy of a whole tradition of accepted scholarship. That's partly because the whole weight of scholarly opinion has based itself on "accepted" assumptions, so that cumulatively these assumptions take on the status of certainties. To challenge them seems like a singular lack of humility, questioning the scholarship and intellectual cogency by saying up till now the tradition has been wrong.
Ive just finished reading Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His call to Peacemaking, a jointly written book by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G Siegrist and Danile P Umbee. It is an irenic but firm questioning of all previous scholarship based on the assumption that Bonhoeffer was actively complicit in conspiracy and assassination plots. More particularly it examines the widespread implication of such actions on Bonhoeffer's theological ethics and challenges with detailed argument the assumption that Bonhoeffer was ever involved in any explicit assassination plot. Careful study of Bonhoeffer's life, his own spoken and written testimony. the evidence of his writings from Barcelona to his final letters, and examination of the actual evidence for Bonhoeffer's alleged involvement in assassination plots, are all used to build the case that Bonhoeffer was not involved in the various plots for assassination and coup d'etat. In doing so the authors enage with some of the finest Bonhoeffer scholarship including Bethge, the recent biography by Schlingensiepen, Sabine Dramm (another scholar focusing on Bonhoeffer and the Resistance) and numerous other leading scholars including some of the editors of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English. The book is a tour de force, but is founded on careful exegesis of text, life and the testimony of Bonhoeffer and his circle of family and friends.
The book argues towards a pivotal challenge to the established taxonomy of Bonhoeffer's life and writings, and his changing views on war, peace and violence. The 1929 Barcelona lecture "Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic" enjoins taking up arms in war to protect one's Volk. This is an uncompromising moral principle, Bonhoeffer argues. Sometime in 1930-31, coinciding with his time in New York at Union Seminary and Harlem, he spoke of a complete transformation, which amounted to a conversion, a turnaround in which the Bible become central in his life as the revelatory Word of God. The Sermon on the Mount was no longer neutralised as radical demand by the Lutheran appeal to the two kingdoms. Several years later when his most famous book, Discipleship, was published Bonhoeffer's definitive position was clear. At the centre of his life, and of every Christian's life is the Word spoken by God in Jesus Christ, a word of peace, reconciliation, struggle and risk. The Barcelona lecture and the book known as The Cost of Discipleship, stand at polar opposites in Bonhoeffer's understanding of Christian obedience to the call of God.
It is the absolute clarity and conviction of his position in Discipleship that creates the difficulty in explaining how the person who wrote this book could possibly then move to a position in which complicity in assassination was even thinkable. Bonhoeffer's commitment to pacifism as expounded in Discipleship is not in itself the absolute, grounding principle. The authors of this book argue powerfully, and persuasively, that pacifism is an inevitable implicate of Bonhoeffer's placing Jesus Christ as revealed in the Gospel and the Gospels, at the centre of Christian existence. Non-violent peacemaking is an essential stance and disposition of those who are followers of the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord of the Church. Therefore pacifism, far from being an isolated moral axiom, is the outer expression of an inner orientation of complete obedience to the revelatory Word of God in Christ, a gift of grace that calls the Christian to take up the cross and follow Christ to Calvary and beyond.
Once this essential point is established, it then becomes necessary to explain how such a life commitment transmutes under constant and all but intolerable moral and spiritual pressures in the toxic ethos of the Third Reich, into an ethic of expediency which justifies involvement in lethal force against Hitler. Mainsteam Bonhoeffer scholarship appeals to the later more mature, nuanced and realistic writings of Bonhoeffer's unfinished volume Ethics, to explain this shift. The authors of Bonhoeffer the Assassin? set out to challenge this position, and suggest there is a continuous line of development in Bonhoeffer's theological ethics that offers an altogether different trajectory. They seek to demonstrate Bonhoeffer's consistency in action and writing,from 1930 onwards, with the cruciform convictions so powerfully argued in Discipleship and in Finkenwalde. Non-violent pacifism was the implicate of an obedient discipleship on which Bonhoeffer did not waver. That is their agument.
In my second post I'll come back to this fascinating book showing how they conclude their case, and exploring what this book might mean for the way we read Bonhoeffer and appropriate his thought for our own context. . The.