Book Review: Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking

I had the pleasure of reading Bonhoeffer The Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking, by Mark Nation, Anthony Siegrist, and Daniel Umbel. In this work, the authors have one primary and focused goal, that is to challenge the language used and assumptions held by many surrounding Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy, specifically as it relates to his participation in the Abwehr and the resistance plots to kill Hitler. These assumptions we have about Bonhoeffer provide hermeneutical lenses through which we read his later work, particularly Ethics. This book does not argue that Bonhoeffer wasn’t in the Abwehr, nor does it suggest that he did not know about the assassination plots or was distant from those engaged in those realities and plots. However, while recognizing and affirming those historical facts, the authors challenge what this actually means in terms of the nature of Bonhoeffer’s actual involvement and his ongoing theological positions.

One of the strongest historical arguments that challenge our assumptions about Bonheoffer’s legacy in the book is how the book explores Helmuth James Count von Moltke’s own legacy and participation in the Abwehr, in his own words. Considering Moltke’s actual participation, and all that it involved has considerable import for expanding current imagination around role participation possibilities. On paper, “His job description said that he was to gather military intelligence for the Wehrmacht, the Armed Forces, using his expertise to assist Germany in its war efforts. This entailed reading reports regarding German military efforts as well as those of other nations; it also involved extensive travel.” (3) However, Moltke was involved in the resistance, and therefore that was only a cover. In reality, “Making allies where he could, he attempted to work against the escalation of the war as well as to mitigate atrocities masquerading as legitimate war tactics” and this “involved gathering specific data and communicating with relevant German officials, attempting to convince them of the need to obey international laws, sometimes utilizing arguments of self-interest—such as mutual, respectful treatment of political prisoners—in order to be convincing.” (3) Along with this, he “improved local conditions for people where he could through invoking legal principles. After he knew that Jews were being deported, he attempted to get them rerouted to countries that would be a safe haven for them. When possible, he personally helped Jews escape to safe territories.” (3) Finally, he also used connections in England to communicate that there were Germans that were opposed and actively resisting Hitler. (5) What becomes pretty clear, is that Moltke was an important figure in the resistance, had military background and expertise, saw his participation as a way to avoid conscription in the war, and sought to resist German through nonviolent means (and actually participated in the Kreisau Circle which mostly rejected violence as a viable option). The authors make a compelling case from here, to at least reconsider what Bonhoeffer’s actual activity and reasoning for joining the Abwehr might have been.

All of that is covered in the introduction, but the first three of the seven chapters is primarily a biography of Bonhoeffer’s life. These chapters, as expected, detail Bonhoeffer’s geographic movements, significant friendships, and theological shifts (like his “grand liberation” and “conversion” to the Sermon on the Mount). For the books argument, chapter three holds significant weight in its importance in setting out to accomplish its objective. This part of the book engages Sabine Dramm’s work that has already significantly challenged many assumptions made about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conspiracy activity, and more controversially it questions Eberhard’ Bethge’s accounting of events, upon which most of the vague but implicit assumptions about Bonhoeffer’s activity emerges. However, from both of their writings, the authors highlight the following point:

What is striking about both the accounts of Bethge and Dramm is that Bonhoeffer’s life as an agent of the Abwehr was truly a cover: a way to avoid military induction while continuing his theological reflection and ministry. Not only did he receive no income from his work for the military intelligence agency, but he continued as much as he was able in his work as a pastor and theologian. (76-77)

However, leaning especially on Dramm’s work, he clarifies Bonhoeffer’s activity as being more of a cover so that he could avoid conscription and uphold his convictions rather than because he desired to participate in assassinating Hitler. Similarly, his actual everyday responsibilities and actions had nothing to do with assassination plots. However, it is from Bethge’s important biography of his friend, which leads most to interpret his participation as implying more active involvement in assassination plots. So, the challenge turns towards challenging Bethge’s depiction of Bonhoeffer at that time. Readers will have to wrestle with these points being brought up for themselves, because they are both compelling and yet controversial in their questioning of Bethge.

The last few chapters engage Bonhoeffer’s theological work, exploring its continuity and discontinuity. It is less controversial, though no less important in its place in the book. The authors easily demonstrate the theological continuity of Discipleship with the positions being presented in Ethics as well as Bonhoeffer’s Prison Letters. Their careful theological work will either win over their reader, or at least will leave a reality that there is some tension between what Bonhoeffer wrote in his theological work and what he said informally to Bethge.

This book, despite some responses from the Old Guard of Bonhoeffer studies, is not reaching that far beyond what is already known in Bonhoeffer scholarship. In fact, it relies heavily on the work of others to make its point. However, it does question Bethge (in a manner that I found actually very respectful and transparent in relation to its challenge). This book at the least will make a great reading conversation partner with Schlingensiepen’s biography which is certainly following the lead of Bethge in this regard. I would expect that most, regardless of whether one agrees with the approach of questioning Bethge’s account or not, will be challenged in this book in a manner that will change the way they describe Bonhoeffer’s role in the Abwehr, and his overall reasoning for being there to begin with. Finally, the book will help draw out much more continuity in Bonhoeffer’s theological work from Discipleship to his death. I gladly recommend this book as a stimulus for further consideration to those who already have some familiarity with Bonhoeffer’s life and thought.

You can order the book here.

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the UNkingdom of GOD: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance by Mark Van Steenwyk – Book Review

The UNkingdom of GOD: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance by Mark Van Steenwyk

Mark Van Steenwyk has written a thoughtful reflection on the significance of Jesus and his in-breaking Kingdom as an alternative way of being in our society that is marred by evil forces, social structures, death-dealing oppression, and coercive violence.  the UNkingdom of God is a subversive and anti-imperial vision for a repentant life concretely following after Jesus, that doesn’t attempt domestication or try to mince words. The book reflects the radicalism of an Anabaptist vision, as well as a liberative and prophetic witness that takes seriously the abandoning of empire while walking humbly in the footsteps and Way of Jesus.

One of the most important things about the UNkingdom of God is the way that he exposes how America and Christianity have merged so profoundly, being so deeply intertwined, that it has merely become an imperial puppet and tool. This is primarily done through personal stories as he retells his own story of being indoctrinated with American Christianity, awaking from it, and then ultimately repenting from it. It is primarily his own lived experience being told, often humorously, that I believe will resonate with many that consider themselves Christian while also a part of the dominant culture. For example he begins in the introduction explaining his infatuation with America and its ‘Dream’, and how he responded when he heard the song “God Bless the USA” as he watched fireworks in the sky. He explains:

At this point, I could no longer sing along. With tears in my eyes and a sob in my throat, I broke down weeping. I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and pride. I wept as the song played out, and I continued to weep as the fireworks began to fill the night sky. It was like a mystical experience.[1]

Clearly, Mark Van Steenwyk understands what it is like to be enthralled with America and American Christianity. However, he didn’t remain there. The goal of the book is to call people to repentance. And this is the particular strength of this book. I am not sure I have read a book that has so clearly and powerfully called people to repentance in a way that resonates with the way that Jesus did so. We are challenged to repent of our Christianity and how we have been unwilling to experience God because we have him figured out already. He names the issue. It is that “We think we are open to learning the way of Jesus, but our cup is already full of our own ideas.”[2] It is something that we are not conscious of, therefore, we go on engaging scripture and sermons as though we are growing in Christ, when in reality our cups are already full, so everything else just spills out. Steenwyk reminds us that “We need to empty our cups. We need to repent of the myths that crowd our imaginations. We need to repent of our Christianity.”[3] Ultimately, Steenwyk describes that we need to even release and let go of our image and understanding of Jesus before we can truly “be the love of Christ in our world.”[4]

Throughout the UNkingdom of God, we are challenged on a variety of fronts, because our Christianity is so deeply infected with empire. Steenwyk keeps a healthy track of societal power and explores the significance of “the Powers” in Pauline thought. He exposes the “Plastic” and consumeristic Jesus that we adopt in America that fits our sensibilities and values. And in response, we are offered an invitation to encounter Jesus through child-like mysticism and by experiencing an undomesticated feral God. It is a subversive vision that recovers Jesus from being employed by those in power and privilege, while also offering a pathway for all people to follow Jesus and sit at his table. Its communal focus along with all else that I have already mentioned, will certainly inspire a new way being the Church in the midst of imperial America that has often not been imagined given the most prevalent options that prevail in our society.

Yet, there is one thing that I am not convinced is helpful. My problem is not a matter of faithfulness, but rather its contextual implementation. I question the choice of connecting Jesus with anarchism. To be honest, I actually have no personal problem with Mark Van Steenwyk’s proposal of utilizing anarchist thought to understand the subversive reality of God’s Kingdom as like something opposite of worldly empires and domination. So, if that is not a problem, then what is the problem? Well, I guess it is a strategic issue. Anarchism seems to me to be a theory rooted in Eurocentric ideology that is both foreign, unfamiliar, and possibly confusing to many that are on the margins of society in the U.S. Again, it’s not the implications of anarchism that I am questioning, but rather whether anarchism will practically be heard as a term on the margins that is inclusive of the political imaginations of racial minorities in pursuit of liberation. I think there might be other ways of getting at the same issues that are at least a little more rooted in the experience of racial minorities on the margins of American empire. I do think that our identifying linguistic categories matter, and ought to be chosen carefully. For example, postcolonial theory and critical race theory, and empire studies in general, leave space to address those same issues and to define Jesus appropriately as subversive and defiant to the authorities. Let me say one more time, I think Steenwyk is correct in his interpretation of Jesus, and technically, anarchism works fine in helping highlight those realities in Jesus, his Kingdom, and his Church. But from a contextual vantage point, I do question if anarchism is the most helpful term to use, if he desires to walk in solidarity with racial minorities. I am not settled on this, but certainly it is something I will reflect more on.

In conclusion, the UNkingdom of God: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance is a terrific piece of work. I have not read a better book on repentance. This is not a book for those that want to continue blindly with a diluted and domesticated Christianity. This is not a book for those that want comfort and wealth more than they want to follow Jesus. Nor is this a book for those that refuse to disentangle the logics of empire from their Christianity. But this is a book for anyone that honestly wants to follow Jesus with abandonment and encounter his presence afresh. The book calls us all into the ecclesial vision of Anabaptism as well as the prophetic and liberative presence often found in many black Christian communities. It is an easy and enjoyable read in one sense, and yet challenging and demanding in other way. It certainly is the type of resources we need to recover what it means to be the people of God within an oppressive and sinful empire.

(As full disclosure, I was given this review copy of the UNkingdom of GOD with the purpose of having it reviewed publicly on my blog. I am not receiving any funds and there is no expectation of necessarily receiving a positive review. These are my genuine thoughts.)


[1] Van Steenwyk, The Unkingdom of God, 12.

[2] Ibid., 76.

[3] Ibid., 77.

[4] Ibid., 80.

Book Review of ‘Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder’

Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder

 

It is 2013 and John Howard Yoder’s writings are still the most influential Anabaptist works around. However, people are not (all) asking the same old questions that were being asked when Yoder first arrived on the scene, nor are many satisfied with merely rehashing old conversations with the Niebuhr brothers’ works. Instead, Yoder’s relevance has been seen worthy of venturing into new territories, using his insight and wisdom to wrestle with tough questions and issues facing our current society. The question is how can someone like John H. Yoder be utilized today to engage our most pressing concerns? That’s precisely where Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder is helpful.

In Power and Practices, young and emerging theologians place Yoder in dialogue with various issues and voices that Yoder himself never did. More so, they offer a much more critical, opposed to blindly affirming or unrelentingly negative to his thought, approach to dialoging with Yoder. With this stance, these insightful authors are not afraid to agree with Yoder on one point, while pressing him or ultimately rejecting his thoughts on another point. This book, then, offers both a rich theological perspective people can engage with while also offering a way of taking someone like Yoder (or theologians we value) and learning how to inherit and receive from them wisely.

This is concept of inheritance is beautifully covered in the first chapter of the book by Chris Huebner. Huebner utilizes Yoder’s own thoughts and approach to inheritance as a starting point to glean how we too can receive from a theological giant like John Howard Yoder. Ultimately, he points us to a way of engaging Yoder that is not about preservation but rather produces new conversation and dialogue. In fact, to not do push Yoder beyond his own limits, is unfaithful to Yoder’s own approach, says Huebner. “Given Yoder’s dialogical and ad hoc approach to doing theology, it might even be suggested that the more a reading of Yoder strives to be faithful in a literal way to repeating and capturing his main claims, the more we ought to approach it with caution” (24). With that, Huebner pushes us to consider Yoder’s dialogical significance today, and not merely as something that must be held to, just because.

Following Chapter 1 there are a variety of authors tackling a plethora of issues. Philip Stoltzfus takes Yoder to task on two fronts, his portrayal of a Violent God communicated through the language of Yahweh’s Wars (despite a portrayal of a nonviolent Jesus), as well as what he saw as missteps in theological approach that led to such inconsistencies. Andrew Brubacher Kaethler argues that while Yoder called for patience in ecumenical dialogue and challenged the oversimplified caricatures of the Radical Reformation, he himself was guilty of those same attitudes when he portrayed Scholasticism. Some other topics of interest are Branson Parler on Yoder and the Politics of Creation, Richard Bourne establishes election along with Yoder’s eschatology and exile while in conversation with Foucault and moving towards a more political posture. Paul Heidebrecht problematizes Yoder’s understanding of engineering, and how, when understood right, can be a helpful metaphor for theologians. Paul Martens contends that Yoder’s body of work is not consistent, ultimately moving away from the Christological particularity he is known for, and Andy Alexis-Baker challenges those that too quickly have tried to utilize Yoder in support for global policing.

For me the chapter that intrigued me the most was Nekeisha Alexis-Baker’s Freedom of the Cross. Alexis-Baker places John Howard Yoder in conversation with Womanist theologians. She is primarily interested in Yoder’s understanding of the concrete Cross of Jesus. She mediates between Delores Williams’ concerns around Black women’s surrogacy and subjugation and how the glorification of the Cross perpetuates it and Yoder’s contention that the Cross ought not to be domesticated into a symbol for all or any suffering other than being crushed by the powers from an expected result of nonconformity which derives ought of following Jesus’ radically political life. From Yoder we are challenged with the idea of ‘maximizing freedom’, while also left struggling with the term ‘revolutionary subordination’ that we inherit from him. She offers the Church the concept of ‘Creative Transformation’ in context with “seeking to maximize people’s freedom by confronting that social order’s injustice” as a careful yet powerful articulation that takes serious Yoder’s wisdom and the discernment of Womanist theologians. This is done while not avoiding the need to dialogically wrestle with both sides; bolstering points where appropriate and nuancing arguments as needed. Ultimately, Nekeisha Alexis-Baker ends with a political and liberating understanding of the Cross that empowers Black women and demonstrates Jesus continuing solidarity in their lives.

If you have read any of John Howard Yoder’s work at all then you will definitely want to read Power and Practices. If you want to consider how to engage the work of any significant theologian then Power and Practices is for you. This book communicates and demonstrates the responsibility of each generation to take serious the task of inheritance and reception, not by a shallow preservation but an active and critical engagement. I highly recommend this book for Yoderians and Young theologians alike. I know already that it will find a useful place in my own studies, thought, and writing.

Power and Practices is available for purchase here.

(As full disclosure, I was given this review copy of Power and Practices with the purpose of having it reviewed publicly on my blog. I am not receiving any funds and there is no expectation of necessarily receiving a positive review. These are my genuine thoughts.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: the POWER of ALL: Building a Multivoiced Church

For the typical American Christian, Sunday morning is the time in which a faithful believer attends a church service, where they will be lead in worship and are hoping to hear an impactful sermon from their gifted and informed pastor. Directly following the program, it’s not uncommon for people to verbally acknowledge how good church was. At that point it is time to get home to eat or catch the afternoon football game. This is the image that the New Testament paints of the Christian community, right?

Well, for Sian and Stuart Murray Williams, they decisively must contest that portrayal of the Christian community, despite how overwhelmingly common such practice is. While they have addressed various issues concerning the nature and role of the Church in the past, what they are most concerned with in the POWER of ALL: Building a Multivoiced Church, is whether the Christian community ought to be passive or participatory in its ecclesiastical life.

To get at this issue, the primary term that is employed is “Multivoiced Church”, which is a description of the actively participative Church in its worship, learning and teaching, and even discernment processes.  The term may seem odd or confusing at first hearing, but rest assured, it has a very clear and concrete implication. “There is nothing mysterious about the meaning of the term “multivoiced worship.” It means simply that when God’s people gather, our corporate worship is expressed by many people and in many formats, tones, and accents.”

One of the books strongest arguments are in chapters two and three, in which they look at the New Testament account and Church History. Without getting into any specifics, I think it is more than fair to say that the book does an exemplary job at looking at various New Testament ecclesiologies, demonstrating pretty adequately that life was in one manner or another best described as multivoiced. Likewise, the book attempts to locate the turning point for Christian churches gradual transformation from multivoiced churches to monovoiced churches.

This book is not written for scholars, but it’s highly researched and well documented information is made extremely accessible. What I particularly found helpful was the way in which the authors share real stories from their own experience as well as others who have wrestled with these church implications. Just as helpful are the various questions and even warnings that are provided for anyone that might consider transitioning their church in a more participatory course.  Their care and concern for the life of the church are one of the most compelling aspects of the book.

I highly recommend this book for any Christian that is tired of the consumeristic, passive, mundane, and ultimately boring congregational life that is found in most churches today. If you would like to see the local congregations BE the Church as it gathers as well as when it goes out into society then this book is for you. This is for the pastor that wants to foster this type of community and this for the “member” that wants to participate in the life of the Church as I believe God intended. Definitely grab a copy of the Power of All.

 

(As full disclosure, I was given this pre-release copy of the Power of All for the sole purpose of reviewing it publicly on my blog. I am not receiving any funds and there is no expectation of necessarily receiving a positive review. These are my genuine thoughts.)