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.

400 Years of Blinders, Counterintuitive Solidarity, and the Epistemological Advantage of the Oppressed

“In being pushed to the margins of the system the repressed not only gain an alternative perspective–you see things from the underside that you cannot see from the top, especially the distortions of the system–but they also gain surplus energies and enjoyment that escape the powers that be in a twofold sense.” – Joerg Rieger[1]

Like clockwork our country cycles through event after event that sparks outrage over issues of race and racism in America. The responses to events like these are predictable, as many fall into their default positions, because people’s perceptions of what took place are equally shaped by race as much as the event itself that triggered the conversation. A slight majority of white Americans will deny and dismiss the outcry and experience of black Americans, claiming that it is emotionalism and an inability to deal with the facts. From their vantage point, only they are seeing things objectively. Their experience tells them that America is generally speaking a good, fair, and equal country. The continual outcry of black Americans, therefore, is a result of media manipulation and race card playing for sympathy. In the end, these White Americans apparently know and understand black experience better than black people themselves know it. Despite the fact that those who deny systemic racism most, are actually more likely to have less racially diverse networks than white Americans who also recognize the racial inequalities in America similar to African Americans (check out Divided by Faith).

And there lies the problem. White intuition and experience (limited by homogeneous networks) is signifying one thing while black experience is claiming an alternative reality. What are people who participate in dominant society to do when their intuition and experience contradict the experiences of oppressed people? It is on that subject that we must gain some historical insights from before we can offer a constructive path forward.

It was in the 17th century, that masses of Europeans bought into the myth of race as a justification for chattel slavery. Ironically, the majority of Europeans were not wealthy enough to purchase slaves themselves. In fact, many Europeans were themselves indentured servants in no better situation than most Africans. The motivation of wealthy Europeans who could actually afford paying for slaves was obvious; they could increase their production and labor while living a more luxurious life. But, what was the motivation for poor Europeans who could not afford to pay for slaves? It seems as though the main reason was simply the relative status offered of knowing that no matter how hard things were, they could count their blessing that they were not black! That is right, the relative social status of being a part of the new found ‘White Male Citizenry’ proved to be more important than linking arms with the people who actually had more in common with them economically in absolute terms. The invitation from the elite to participate in the relative psychological gain of white identity and social life outweighed the absolute realities these European men were living with. The privilege of Whiteness blurred the reasoning of these people, which while looking back now seems “self-evident” (to use modernity’s universalist language) that they were blinded by their desire for acceptance and superiority. It is also worth briefly noting that throughout most of slavery, the majority of White Americans did not think we had a racial problem.

Let’s jump forward to 1857 and the Dred Scott decision. It was at this point that the honorable and esteemed Supreme Court of the United States, dispensing truth, justice, and equality, came to the clear minded 7-2 decision that black people are not citizens and could never be citizens, and therefore did not have the right to sue for their freedom when moved into free states. This decision after the fact has been agreed upon by just about all legal scholars to be one of the most horrific decisions by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, at the time, while still a boost to the Southern way of life and the larger U.S. slaveholding economy, it was not so obvious to most people who benefited from this arrangement that this was a poor decision. White privilege blinded people’s moral vision.

That was not the only decision that now as Americans we can all look back on and (almost) agree was a terrible decision by the Supreme Court. Consider Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. It was in this 7-1 decision by our highest court, that racial segregation was decisively affirmed as legal and promoting equality. Looking back, most white Americans could agree that that was a terrible decision, but that was not the sentiment at that time.

Jump forward to the racial unrest of the mid 20th century, which climaxed during the Southern Freedom movement. We can all picture from the old black and white footage, black school boys and girls being hosed down against walls and sliding down the street while dogs are set loose on them during the Birmingham demonstration in 1963. Or how about remembering ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma, Alabama, where peaceful marchers were clobbered and beat senselessly. We all (mostly) can look back and say that racism was a huge problem at that time. Guess what, when polled in May 1946, about 7 out of 10 White Americans believed that “negroes in the United States are being treated fairly”.[2] This of course was in the midst of Jim Crow segregation, the terror of the KKK and the White Citizens Council, and the regular lynching of black people in America. That almost 7 out of 10 white Americans could think that black people were being treated fairly, questions the capacity of any oppressive dominant society to look even remotely objectively at a situation. Of course, for the black community the majority of them knew that they were being treated unfairly. That so many in the midst of racial segregation and oppression could think that things were fine and pretty much equal for all, at that time, must be seriously wrestled with for its epistemological significance.

What I have very briefly and quickly tried to do is highlight the epistemological blinders that most White Americans seemed to have had for about 350 years. That they were epistemologically impaired is a given today. Almost everyone, except for the very fringe of society will agree that the majority of white people got it wrong for the first 350 years. What we are considering now is the implications of 350 years of those within dominant society, to not be able to recognize, see, or know racial injustice in whatever new social manifestation it appears in their time.

Why does this matter? Well, as I mentioned, polls continually demonstrate that race tends to be a decisive factor in interpreting these highly charged racial moments in our country. Likewise, I have seen online and in person some people speak from a place of privilege in which they dismissed the experiences of race in American society as expressed by black Americans. Their own experience and intuition tells them that race is not a significant reality in this country. However, we must keep history in perspective as we consider current perspectives on race.

I guess, given our history, should we really consider it logical to believe that people, who benefitted from the racial system and have repeatedly been perceptively wrong for 350 years, now have suddenly gained an epistemological advantage over those whom they have historically oppressed? Even more implausible is to believe that at that exact moment that those in the dominant culture somehow suddenly got their act together that black people who have been epistemologically right for 350 years also instantly lost the ability to interpret their own experience now. To affirm that position seems to be the more emotional response not based on serious reflection of our past.

This is where I will employ some Christian white men to make this point for me. John Howard Yoder argued that those at the bottom actually have an epistemological advantage and what they know to be reality is closer to the real thing than the perceptions of those in dominant or privileged positions in society. In his words, “This phrasing points us to the awareness that the first question is not who should be fed or who should govern, but whose picture of things is correct. We speak of an epistemological advantage. To see things from below is a truer way to see things as they are.”[3] In light of the Trayvon case, some have seemed to think that since the courts ruled a verdict, that justice has spoken and the case is closed. This flows out of a naïve assumption that our legal system actually dispenses justice. Black people now that the verdict and reality often do not coincide. Yoder pushes this point as well. He states:

We are still part of the generation that believes that the wicked won’t really prosper, at least not for long, at least not if we do our job right. We believe that some of the people in power in Washington, DC, are on the side of the good; some of the oppressors’ hearts can be touched, and some people will give in a little, if just to get us off their sidewalks. That the wicked really prosper is a piece of world history and a part of the Old Testament witness, and a part of the Jewish and black experience, that we have not learned to take with deep seriousness in North America.[4]

What we are moving towards as a solution is completely counterintuitive. It is to trust the intuition of oppressed people over against one’s own gut and experience, which is proven to lead you astray when operating from a vantage point of dominance. Privileged people must do something very absurd and unnatural, they must move decisively towards a counterintuitive solidarity with those on the margins, while allowing the eyes of the violated to lead and guide the way.

In the end it is Dietrich Bonhoeffer that really understood the need to do that very thing. Coming from a very elite and privileged family it boggles the mind to think about the type of solidarity Bonhoeffer repeatedly sought after throughout his life. Whether it was in Harlem attending the famous black prophetic church, Abyssinian Baptist, while Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was the pastor or his later participation with the Confessing Church in Germany as he defiantly confronted the violence being done against Jewish people, Bonhoeffer continually chose solidarity with the oppressed. This counterintuitive solidarity gave him new eyes to see and evaluate the world. Therefore, as he lived out his final days in prison before being hanged, he could write these profound words:

It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering. If only during this time bitterness and envy have not corroded the heart; that we come to see matters great and small, happiness and misfortune, strength and weakness with new eyes; that our sense for greatness, humanness, justice, and mercy has grown clearer, freer, more incorruptible; that we learn, indeed, that personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle than personal happiness for exploring the meaning of the world in contemplation and action.[5]

This call for counterintuitive solidarity and trusting the historically marginalized and oppressed perception above one’s own is not easy. But I believe that Jesus’ own emptying of himself and taking on slave humanity models for us The Way forward. Jesus’ own solidarity performance is a call to discipleship and imitation as a way of being in the world. It is the cure for privileged blinders that leaves people’s own vision impaired and unreliable. The Spirit is pulling all of us to see things “from below” because that is where God has chosen to move, work, and transform the world (1 Cor. 1:18-31).


[1] Joerg Rieger, Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 9.

[2] Hazel Gaudet Erskine, “The Polls: Race Relations,” Public Opinion Quarterly 26, no. 1 (1962).

[3] John Howard Yoder, “On Christian Unity: The Way From Below,” Pro Ecclesia 9, no. 2 (Spr 2000): 175.

[4] John Howard Yoder, Glen Harold Stassen, and Matt Hamsher, The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2009), 195.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Fortress Press, 2010), 52.

Black History: Focusing in on Bonhoeffer???

It could be seen as a bit strange to be focusing in on a white person during black history month, right? After all, the whole purpose of black history month is to finally learn about the experiences, culture, and heritage of black people in a culture that only values white history, culture, and literature.

Nonetheless, today on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday, we briefly stop and remember this man who literally gave his life because of his Christian convictions.  However, I will not spend most of your time on what he did to resist Nazi Germany (which you probably already know), but rather to remember his time in Harlem, NY.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and also attended Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Very few white Christians in America have been willing to place themselves under black spiritual leadership (the opposite is much more frequent), yet Bonhoeffer did just that and was shaped significantly by those experiences. He not only loved the Negro Spirituals and culture there (which he admitted he did), but he also had his faith impacted dramatically has he began to see life “from below”.  It was here that he  fully grasped the Church’s call to pursue justice and its unfortunate participation and perpetuation of racism and segregation.

So why Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Because he offers a model for what can be. People in the dominant culture can indeed emerge themselves into black culture and community, and more than that… they can actually learn and grow from that opportunity. So, I invite you to take the Bonhoeffer challenge, and immerse yourself in black culture, community, and history this month and see how it might impact you. Let me know if you are up for the challenge.