Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Nonviolent Terrorist

Introduction- What is Christo-dramatic re-traditionalization?

Today is the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, Germany.  One nonviolent terrorist during that era who threatened the reign of the Third Reich was Dietrich Bonhoeffer; he represents a continuation of indigenous German Protestant Christianity through his sermons, works, and political activity.  This particular concept of continuation is inspired by what Ogbu Kalu described as the Japanese process of “traditionalization,” or the patterning of the habits of Japan’s industrial life from the traditional Japanese mores.[1] Christo-dramatic re-traditionalization means, in this presentation, the German Church’s need to dramatize the story of Christ throughout the centuries and within differing contexts.  To Christo-dramatically re-traditionalize the Christian faith is to simultaneously recognize the differences between Christianity and other religions as well as the changing nature of Christian tradition from generation to generation as well as from culture to culture.  I will argue that Dietrich Bonhoeffer christo-dramatically re-traditionalized the German scholarly-activism of Martin Luther to confront the evils of Third Reich Germany, as well as the German mainline Protestantism that undergirded the national socialist movement.

Reformations: Protestant and Radical

“45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.”[2] In 1517, an Augustinian monk from Eisleben, Germany named Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the wooden doors of the Castle Church in Wittenburg.  At issue was the authority of Pope Leo X’s order for indulgences to be taken for the funding of construction of the Basilica of Saint Peter.   What is important for my purpose here to is to point out that Martin Luther was a member of the German academy of the 16th century.  He would be considered what we call today a “scholar-activist,” using his scholarship (initially) to address the concerns of the downtrodden.  Yet, one cannot say that Germany was united, for the country was nonexistent in the 16th century.  While Luther’s actions were on the one hand challenging emperor Charles I of Spain, who had found favor with the papacy, on the other hand, his arguments and doctrine attracted the ears of German peasants, as well as humanists and German nationalists.[3] Luther, as Walter Brueggeman puts it, was re-telling and re-enacting the story of Israel from a position of dislocation, in the shadow of an empire.[4]

Resistance was viewed as a violation of divine ordinance in Luther’s day, and if it were not for the protection of political allies such as Frederick the Wise of Saxony, Martin Luther’s rebellion would have came to a deadly end.  The doctrine of interest for our purposes is Luther’s concept of the Two Kingdoms.  The Two Kingdom theory posits that God had created two orders, one that is under the law (politics and society) and one under the edicts of the Gospel (the church).  The community of believers belongs to the second kingdom.  Civil authorities have no reign in the kingdom of the Gospel.  Christians owe no allegiance to the state, but because Christians are at the same time both made righteous and remain yet still sinners, we have to obey the law.[5]

Another group of Protestants in Germany argued along the lines of the Two-Kingdoms logic as well, but they noted that Christians did not have to submit to authority, and that resistance was necessary.  The Revolutionary Anabaptists, led by Thomas Müntzer who was from Zwickau, Germany.  They were mostly a group of peasants who had religious and economic demands.  Germany had had a history of peasant rebellions during Luther’s lifetime: 1476, 1491, 1498, 1503, and 1514.[6] The Catholics in Germany rightfully blamed Luther and his doctrine for the peasants’ mob-like behavior.  These Revolutionary Anabaptists established a New Jerusalem in Münster, Germany while expelling Catholics and moderate Protestants.[7] According to James Duke, some reports from the New Jerusalem included robbery as well as the stealing and swapping of wives.  Luther’s famous response, “Against the Robbing and Murderous Hordes of Peasants,” made it the duty of the princes of Germany to destroy the New Jerusalem because the Anabaptists were a group of people who showed no allegiance to the state and would not bind themselves to the authorities.[8] Although initially sympathetic with the plight of the peasant class, Martin Luther had to argue a case for their destruction; perhaps as an act of mercy toward the women being treated as property.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer- Nonviolent Terrorist and Heir of the Reformation

One of the implications of the Two-kingdoms theory proposed by Martin Luther is that cooperation and submission to civil authorities somehow guarantees law and order.  However, the nonviolent terrorism advocated by Stanley Hauerwas, is based on two presuppositions: one, that violence is never necessary because the story of Christ liberates us to choose to act in favor of God’s kingdom, which is peace, and number two, peace can never be insured outside anything of than the story of Christ; therefore any human action taken in the name of peacemaking should be looked upon with suspicion.[9]

The nonviolent Christian terrorism of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a case in point. The German church in the 1930s went through a tragic transformation; it devolved from, to use Bonhoeffer’s own terminology, a Church of the Word/the Church of Moses, to the Church of the World/the church of Aaron.[10] The church of the world, like Aaron in the Exodus story, is willing to give the people whatever they want; it is a priestly religion that thrives on impatience and makes sacrifices so that it can make its own god.  Now keep in mind that Bonhoeffer is a partaken in the historic German Evangelical tradition, and his mentor and friend Karl Barth started the Neo-Orthodoxy theology movement, but in many circles that theology was referred to as the Neo-Reformation.  It was a theological movement which was guided by the principles of the prophetic work and life of Martin Luther.  Stanley Hauerwas points out that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to reject the Two-Kingdoms theory by Luther because of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Luther’s doctrine of grace, which meant that the church should live in the world, rather than vanish to the realm of the invisible.[11] The church and the world should not be friends, since the community of Christ suffers, bearing the cross of Jesus in the world.

Thus, Bonhoeffer, is a nonviolent terrorist because of his own theology of the cross.  Everyone loves to quote his Letters and Papers from Prison, when he says that “only a suffering God can help.”  Yet, what exactly does that means for persons suffering oppression? Should they just passive and wait for God to directly intervene?  We must recognize first that Bonhoeffer did not believe that submission to the state’s authority guaranteed peace; nor does our participation in peacemaking activities.  Rather, it is our faithfulness to the Gospel, and making Christ our center who first calls us as a worshipping community to listen in silence and patience.[12] Bonhoeffer changed German indigenous Christianity as well as its tradition of scholarly-activism because he went back, he rejected the anti-Semitic texts and readings of Martin Luther’s work, and Christo-dramatically re-traditionalized Lutheranism into a prophetic force for Christian nonviolence.  Bonhoeffer should be considered a nonviolent terrorist not because he failed in his desperate attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler but because he believed violence was never necessary because of the freedom Christ gives us.

Questions to consider:

  1. Is violence sometimes necessary?
  2. Are all Christians called to be pacifists as Stanley Hauerwas claims (Hauerwas, 90).
  3. What is the difference between Christian nonviolence and pacifism? Is there a distinction between Christian pacifism and other forms of pacifism?


A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Christ the Center by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence by Stanley Hauerwas

The Story of Christianity: Volume II by Justo Gonzalez

[1] Ogbu Kalu. “Changing Tides.” Page 9.

[2] Martin Luther, 95 Theses.

[3] Ibid, 27.

[4] Walter Brueggeman. “Always in the Shadow of the Empire.” Page 55.

[5] Gonzalez, 36-37.

[6] Ibid, 41.

[7] Gonzalez, page 58.

[8] Martin Luther. “Against the Robbing and Murderous Hordes of Peasants”

[9] Stanley Hauerwas. “The Nonviolent Terrorist: In Defense of Christian Fanaticism.” Page 99.

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer., A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Page 209.

[11] Stanley Hauerwas. Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence. Page 43

[12] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Christ the Center. Page 27.

0 thoughts on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Nonviolent Terrorist

  1. Norris

    (Spotted this forthright web item just now – Norris)

    Obama’s desire to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” can actually help to fulfill the “days of Lot” (Luke 17, cf. Gen. 19), the fulfillment of which will hurry up the return of the Heavenly Commander-in-Chief who will make all things straight (pun intended)! Interesting Google articles include “Obama Supports Public Depravity,” “Obama Avoids Bible Verses,” “Separation of Raunch and State” and “David Letterman’s Hate Etc.” – required reading for the “Obama 101” course.
    PS – You’re invited to use these new pro-life slogans: “Unborn babies should have the right to keep and bear arms – and legs and ears and eyes etc.!” and “Unborn babies should have the same right to be born alive that abortionists had!”

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