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by Richard Beck

One of my favorite parts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life is the spiritual transformation he underwent in the early 30s. Prior to these years, Bonhoeffer had mainly pursued theological studies as an academic, intellectual endeavor. The Bonhoeffer family was Christian, but they weren’t particularly devout by way of church attendance or personal devotion.

And while it may be strange to think of someone pursuing theology in a purely academic way, just attend AAR/SBL. Theologians and biblical scholars who have no faith in God are a dime a dozen.

That was Bonhoeffer before the early 30s. But then something happened to him. As Eberhard Bethge describes it, the theologian became a Christian.

What caused the change? Bonhoeffer’s time in America seemed to have played an important part. Bonhoeffer spent a post-doctoral year in 1930 studying in New York at Union Theological. During that time, two critical things happened.

First, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the black church. During his year in New York, Bonhoeffer attended and taught Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Second, through his relationship with the Frenchmen Jean Lasserre, who was also studying at Union, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the Sermon on the Mount as the Word of God. Prior to this time, Bonhoeffer had used his Lutheran theology to keep the Sermon on the Mount in a box. But after 1930, Bonhoeffer began to see the Sermon at a command to be obeyed.

And beyond his experiences in America, I also think Bonhoeffer’s pastoral work with churches, like his confirmation class in the Wedding parish, also had a profound impact upon his faith.

All these experiences changed Bonhoeffer profoundly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a Christian. Here’s how his best friend Eberhard Bethge describes the change:

He now went regularly to church…Also he engaged in systematic meditation on the Bible that was obviously very different from exegetic or homiletic use of it…He spoke of oral confession no longer merely theologically, but as an act to be carried out in practice. In his Lutheran ecclesiastical and academic environment this was unheard of. He talked more and more often of a community life of obedience and prayer…More and more frequently he quoted the Sermon on the Mount as a word to be acted on, not merely used as a mirror.

For the rest of the post…

Was Bonhoeffer a Conspirator?

It is a foregone conclusion among many scholars, and certainly the wider public, that by the late 30′s Dietrich Bonhoeffer had changed his view on violence. While earlier in the 30′s he had articulated a perspective on violence that could be characterized as pacifism rooted in his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount captured clearly in Discipleship, the realities of Nazi German had caused him to see the necessity of violence in the face of such evil. This interpretation of Bonhoeffer finds its plausibility in his later letters from prison and his unfinished Ethics that was later published by Eberhard Bethge.

But a new book robustly challenges this assumption. And it is quite convincing. The thesis of  Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking is that this widely held belief is flat wrong. When one looks carefully at Bonhoeffer’s life and his writings one finds that Bonhoeffer was consistent throughout his life on the question of violence. His work in the Abwehr, which is often pointed to as evidence of his involvement in the conspiracies, does not necessitate his participation in the plot(s) to assassinate Hitler. According to the argument of the book, Bonhoeffer’s decision to join the German Intelligence agency was his way of avoiding service in the military. Further, there is no evidence of his involvement in these plots.

Bonhoeffer was a conscientious objector, but not a conspirator.

Let me summarize the five key arguments (summarized in the conclusion) in this well-argued and well-written protest:

1. It is highly unlikely that Bonhoeffer was involved in any assassination attempts. There is no evidence that during his time in the Abwehr connecting Bonhoeffer to the five assassination attempts on Hitler from 1938-44.

2. Bonhoeffer claimed that he had become a Christian pacifist. He believed it was “self-evident” in light of the Sermon of the Mount. There is no evidence to suggest that he recanted that statement.

For the rest of the post…

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