Reading Bonhoeffer: An Ecumenical Pacifist

Day two of class, and my backside is getting sore. Whoever thought up one-week classes never sat in those chairs.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known for plotting to assassinate Hitler; he is less well-known for his role as an international ecumenical activist and pacifist, even though his work in this regard spanned more of his life than any of his other endeavours and even provided the context for his journeys abroad as an agent of the Abwehr.

The Background

Being a German Lutheran, perhaps especially in that era, there was absolutely no reason for Bonhoeffer to be an ecumenicist, let alone a pacifist. Pacifism was looked down upon or ignored in the Lutheran church, which had a notion (from Luther’s doctrine of Two Kingdoms) that the affairs of the State (including war) were no business of the Church; this meant that Christians who preached the “gospel of peace” had absolutely no problem picking up the weapons of war when they were called upon to do so by their nation. And to fight for one’s nation was a matter of deep pride and honour; even at Finkenwalde, the illegal Seminary, many of the students were excited when war broke out because it meant a chance to show their national pride.

National pride was not in short supply in Germany in that era, either. Germany had fought World War I on the notion that they were being attacked by their surrounding neighbours (who were inferior to them) out of jealousy; the treaty of Versailles, which the defeated Germany had been forced to sign in 1918, insisted that Germany take all of the blame for the war, and also pay reparation payments to their affected neighbours. If Germany had felt picked on before, their attitude toward the international community was even more frustrated now. When the Great Depression hit, and Western nations started calling in the massive loans that they had made to help Germany rebuild after WWI, Germany was hit with a financial double blow which was easy to blame on those same “jealous” Western powers, which many in Germany still felt were inferior to Germany, which was believed by Germans to be the height of culture and power. Hitler promised to return his Volk (people) to the place of a world power, and was incredibly popular for it.

In light of this situation of nationalism and suspicion of the outside world, the idea of going abroad to meet with representatives from all over the world was not only considered foolish, but somewhat suspicious. Ecumenicism was a growing phenomenon after WWI, but the groups that were meeting were still small, just getting off the ground. But why did Bonhoeffer go at all?

According to Keith Clements, who wrote “Ecumenical witness for peace” (ch. 8 in the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer), Bonhoeffer wasn’t much different from the average German in these regards until he went to study in New York. He wasn’t particularly impressed with the social gospel movement there, but he was deeply impressed by the institutional racism he saw  against African Americans, which showed him the necessity for Christian response to social issues. He was also deeply impressed with his new friend Jean Lasserre, a French student also studying at Union Theological Seminary. They went on a road trip to Mexico, and Lasserre’s pacifist theology rubbed off on Bonhoeffer, so that by the time they reached their destination, they tag-teamed sermons on peace for their Mexico audience. A German and a Frenchman, preaching together on peace!

At the heart of their discussions was the Sermon on the Mount, which Lasserre insisted was actual ethical instruction. For Bonhoeffer, who was raised on the Lutheran idea that the Sermon on the Mount was an idealistic passage intended to make Christians aware of their inability to earn their salvation, this was revolutionary. And of course, the Sermon on the Mount includes powerful instruction in non-violence. The rest of Bonhoeffer’s life would be marked by Lasserre, for Bonhoeffer spent it in non-violent resistance to Nazism and in international ecumenical discussions of peace.

Theology of Nationalism

German Nationalism wasn’t just a grass-roots movement of angry people; it was supported by the intellectual elites as well, including theologians. They proposed a theology of the “orders of creation”, which identified certain things as self-evidently part of the way God designed the world to function. Part of this was Luther’s Two-Kingdoms theology, which established the State as a divinely appointed order of creation, as well as other orders such as marriage, race, and nationality. These last two so-called orders of creation fed German nationalism and Aryan superiority complexes in particular, because German theologians had elevated them to the highest prominence among the orders of creation. To serve one’s race and nation unquestioningly was taken for granted as being one’s Christian duty.

In response to this theology, Bonhoeffer suggested (primarily in Creation and Fall) that there are no orders of creation, but rather “orders of preservation.” God may have ordained such institutions as orders, but they were not to be taken for granted as God’s intention for the world, but rather seen as a part of Christ’s intervention and rescue of the post-fall world. As such, if they in any way were not open to the proclamation of the gospel, they must be abandoned. Bonhoeffer delivered a speech on this at an ecumenical council, right after another German delegate had delivered a speech about the nation as one of the orders of creation.

On Ecumenical Councils

Shortly after he returned from New York, Bonhoeffer was asked to be a youth delegate to an international ecumenical meeting (the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches, in Cambridge, England). There, he was made one of two youth secretaries for the movement. He was later also involved in a similar group, the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work; both of these groups had some overlap between them, and were predecessors to the World Council of Churches, which still exists today.

From early on, Bonhoeffer was critical of these groups for having weak or no theology. As differences of doctrine are largely responsible for the division between different churches in the first place, the slogan of Life and Work was “doctrine divides, service unites.” These groups were working for international peace in spite of doctrinal differences, pushing theology to the background so that they could focus on calling for political peace. This frustrated Bonhoeffer, who felt that they had no basis on which to call for peace, because they had no theology to justify such a call: “Because there is no theology of the ecumenical movement, ecumenical thought has become powerless and meaningless” (Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, vol. 1, p. 159).

Bonhoeffer was also critical of calling for peace without proper theological justification, because it was not clear to him that peace was the default theological position. There should not be peace for the sake of peace, but rather for the sake of Christ:

There shall be peace because of the church of Christ, for the sake of which the world exists. And this church of Christ lives at one and the same time in all peoples, yet beyond all boundaries, whether national, political, social, or racial. And the brothers who make up this church are bound  together, through the commandment of the one Lord Christ, whose Word they hear, more inseparably than men are bound by all the ties of common history, of blood, of class and of language. – Ibid., p. 290

In this way, the Church was the answer to nationalism’s claims, and Bonhoeffer’s theology pitted him against Nazi ideology from the beginning. But the councils’ work calling on world governments for peace was fundamentally flawed:

How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security….Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. – Ibid.

Here we can see the impact of non-violence on Bonhoeffer’s thought; he was already counting the cost of pacifism, which ultimately ends on a cross. And once again, peace is not necessarily always called for by the gospel, and thus should not be called for without due thought:

The broken character of the order of peace is expressed in the fact that the peace commanded by God has two limits, first the truth and secondly justice. There can only be a community of peace when it does not rest on lies and injustice. Where a community of peace endangers or chokes truth and justice, the community of peace must be broken and battle joined. – Ibid., p. 168ff.

Keep in mind that the Western powers did nothing when Germany broke the treaty of Versailles and started re-arming. They did little when Germany started expanding, annexing its neighbours. They gave up the freedom of those nations to Germany under a policy of appeasement, in order to preserve peace. To Bonhoeffer, peace with the Nazis was peace for peace’s sake, and was antithetical to the gospel.

Pacifist, Conspirator, Spy, Martyr

When asked what he would do if conscripted, Bonhoeffer had once said “I pray that God will give me the strength not to take up arms”, knowing that this would mean execution (Germany had no concept of conscientious objection to military service, and those who refused were traitors). He had planned to visit India in 1935 to learn about non-violent resistance from Ghandi, but was asked to run the seminary at Finkenwalde and so put the trip off; shortly thereafter, conscription started, and Bonhoeffer suggested that his students think carefully about pacifist options.

Bonhoeffer had already pastored in London for a time, perhaps hoping that if war broke out while he was away he would be spared execution for refusing to fight. He was criticised by Barth, who called him back to Germany, but he remained there for 18 months. War did not actually break out until much later, but in anticipation of the war some of his friends had arranged for Bonhoeffer to take up a teaching position at Union Seminary in New York. He went there, but stayed only a few days, feeling compelled to return to his people. War broke out shortly after he returned.

Because of his contacts with the ecumenical community, Bonhoeffer had a cover for his involvement in the Abwehr, or German Military Intelligence, where his brother-in-law Hans von Donanyi worked. In order to avoid Bonhoeffer’s conscription, he was made a spy of sorts for military intelligence, citing his excellent network of international contacts which could theoretically be used to the benefit of the Nazis. In reality, Bonhoeffer was using his contacts to report to the outside world about the atrocities that were occurring inside Germany, and to advocate for the Confessing Church to be recognized as the only legitimate German Evangelical church (as opposed to the official Reich Church).

Because of Bonhoeffer’s theology, which called for peace to be set aside in the face of injustice and lies, he was not overly concerned when the plots to overthrow the government became plots to assassinate Hitler. Because of his involvement in these plots, he was executed in April 1945. His last recorded words were a message to Bishop Bell, an English lord and head of one of the ecumenical councils, who was the greatest friend to the Confessing Church and the Resistance movement:

Tell him, that with him I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests and conflicts, and that our victory is certain. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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3 thoughts on “Reading Bonhoeffer: An Ecumenical Pacifist

  1. I don’t wish to keep posting “corrections” of sorts, but technically the Treaty of Versailles was not signed until 1919. Also, Bonhoeffer initially was called to establish the seminary in Zingst, but it moved after just two months to Finkenwalde. And his brother-in-law’s last name is spelled “Dohnanyi” with an “h”.

    Once again, I appreciate your taking the time to sit down and write out such things for the benefit of others. This is a tremendously helpful thing you have done brother!

  2. Pingback: Reading Bonhoeffer with Jeff Wheeldon « I Heart Barth

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