What can we glean from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially his The Cost of Discipleship, about his political and social outlook? Can we say any more than the mere fact that he opposed Nazism?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not only oppose Nazism; his political and social outlook was far more detailed. Far from a blanket resistance to the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer struggled with questions such as the role of government, the duty of a believer to obey authority, nonviolence and nonresistance, and how to settle actions with conscience in times when there were conflicts between loyalties. What Bonhoeffer is known for is a (failed) assassination attempt on Hitler’s life, his arrest and imprisonment, and eventual execution. However, behind the man who decided that the best solution was murder was a man who was deeply religious and believed strongly that the duty of a Christian was to be peaceful, as he writes in his book The Cost of Discipleship: “‘‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.’’ The followers of Jesus have been called to peace. When he called them they found their peace, for he is their peace. But now they are told that they must not only have peace but make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult.” With this worldview in mind, then, it is worthwhile to look not only at what Bonhoeffer did, but also what he thought, in order to better understand the reasoning behind his actions.
For a pacifist, an assassination attempt was a big step: one that required much thought, prayer, and a firm conviction that there was no better option and that something had to be done to stop Hitler. That Bonhoeffer judged the Nazi government guilty of being exceptionally bad is evident, since the theme of nonresistance is clearly present in his theology and writing. His book The Cost of Discipleship has long sections on the topic, stating his position in terms of morality and even of Christian obligation:
“The Christians are to know that if they would perceive and do the will of God, they must be content with the subordinate place accorded to them by the powers. They are bidden to be of good cheer: God himself will use the powers to work for their good, and his sovereignty extends even over the powers. …To resist the power is to resist the ordinance of God (διαταγᾔ τοῦ Θεοῦ), who has so ordered life that the world exercises dominion by force and Christ and Christians conquer by service. Failure to realize this distinction will bring a heavy judgment on the Christian … it will mean a lapse into the standards of the world.”
The duty of the Christian is not to resist the government for his own purposes, but instead to obey the authorities and allow God to take care of the rest. He was committed “to renew the church in self-sacrificing service and to challenge it to relevance, even at the risk of its suppression by the civil authorities”, and further encourages his readers through his reassurance that “By willing endurance we cause suffering to pass. Evil becomes a spent force when we put up no resistance. By refusing to pay back the enemy in his own coin, and by preferring to suffer without resistance, the Christian exhibits the sinfulness of contumely and insult. Violence stands condemned by its failure to evoke counter-violence.” Thus far, it would seem that there was no room for the believer to resist the authorities.
Additionally, while realizing the importance of nonresistance in keeping peace, Bonhoeffer was also realistic enough to see that “Because the world is evil … the precept of no-resistance must be put into practice.… If we took the precept of non-resistance as an ethical blueprint for general application, we should indeed be indulging in idealistic dreams: we should be dreaming of a utopia with laws which the world would never obey. To make non-resistance a principle for secular life is to deny God, by undermining his gracious ordinance for the preservation of the world.” To pretend that non-Christians should be following the same guidelines as Christians was nothing short of ludicrous – and so while not excusing his own readers from their responsibilities as Christians to be peaceful, he also made clear that they could not in turn expect the secular authorities to follow the same guidelines. This lifestyle is not without its benefits, though: “The cross is the only power in the world which proves that suffering love can avenge and vanquish evil. But it was just this participation in the cross which the disciples were granted when Jesus called them to him. They are called blessed because of their visible participation in his cross.” In most situations, Bonhoeffer’s counsel was to not resist and to live in peace. He saw great benefits coming from such a lifestyle, and wanted to encourage others to follow it as well.
Living in this state of nonresistance did not allow for rebellion; on the contrary, without obedience the point of not resisting would be missed. Bonhoeffer felt that the claim of a government on its citizens was very strong, which again shows that even though he ultimately worked against his government, the circumstances had to be truly extenuating in order to justify such an action. Instead, he believed that “The Christian is not obliged and not able to prove in every single case the right of the governmental demand. The duty of Christians to obey binds them up to the point where the government forces them into direct violation of the divine commandment, thus until government overtly acts contrary to its divine task and thereby forfeits its divine claim. When in doubt, obedience is demanded, for the Christian does not break the governmental responsibility.”
The question of obedience to a secular government did not change the situation. “In exactly the same way in which obedience is called the consequence of faith, it must also be called the presupposition of faith”, and without obedience the proper faith is therefore lacking. The problem, Bonhoeffer was telling his readers, was not that they needed a different government, but more faith that God would get them through the situation. To show this point he uses Scripture, noting that “[In Romans 13:4], St. Paul is talking to the Christians, not to the State. His concern is that the Christians should persevere in repentance and obedience wherever they may be and whatever conflict should threaten them. He is not concerned to excuse or condemn any secular power. … St. Paul certainly does not speak to the Christians in this way because the governments of this world are so good, but because the Church must obey the will of God, whether the State be bad or good.” The point for obedience, then, is very strongly made that a Christian has an ethical obligation to obey the authorities.
This position of obedience, however, proved to be difficult to maintain. Bonhoeffer found it impossible to reconcile his conscience with doing nothing to oppose the Nazis. While he did have these strong convictions about government and authority, he also felt the pull of morals and ethics, and the ideology of the Nazis he saw as being not only dangerous, but wrong. His political outlook was shaped by his conscience, and in this case, he found himself in a situation that could not be won by one man against so many, but also unable to let his conscience rest until he did something about the situation.
“For Bonhoeffer nothing less than the truth of the gospel was at stake in the confrontation with Hitler. Bethge observes that Bonhoeffer’s famous radio address in 1933, which criticized the Führer concept, was not based on liberal democratic ideas, but rather reflected Bonhoeffer’s concern with authority. According to Bonhoeffer, in the past, leadership was expressed through the office of the teacher, the statesman, and the father, but now the “Leader” has become an end in himself. When leadership was based on office, leadership required commitment to standards that were public and therefore capable of some rational justification. But the new leadership is based on choice, answering to nothing other than its own self-justification.”
The mission he felt as a Christian to do something to oppose the Nazi regime was stronger than the beliefs of nonviolence and obedience to government that he held. Those convictions were the rules by which he lived, but the place he got those convictions was his Christian faith. Since his allegiance was primarily to God and that informed the rest of his beliefs, when he felt God’s call to do something rather different there was no question of if he should do it or not. Normal scruples aside, his primary task was to follow God’s direction and he felt clearly led to resist the Nazis – so he did.
On the role of government
Bonhoeffer had a lot to say about government, its structure, and the duty of a Christian to obey the government. He believed strongly that “Through an ethical failure [government] does not … lose eo ipso its divine dignity”. Therefore, even though he believed that what the Nazis were doing was wrong (particularly in reference to their anti-Semitism), that belief did not justify an outright rebellion against the government. Instead, “Bonhoeffer’s belief in Christ’s centrality to brotherhood and sisterhood in a world community freed to transcend racial, religious, and national divisions led him into the anti-Hitler conspiracy”. His actions did not come from a personal belief that he could get something out of overthrowing Nazism, but from Christian conviction in what was right to do as a member of the Church. That is one thing that caused him to work against the Nazis, even though he did have this belief that it was wrong to oppose authority. His actions arose from a belief that it would be more wrong to not oppose the government.
The decision to defy the Nazi German authorities was not an easy one for him to make, and he realized full well that it would be a dangerous decision – and indeed it was, as he “became part of the Holocaust, not, to be sure, in the same sense as did the six million innocent Jews, but as one who shared their fate because he resisted their oppressors and did so with the awareness that no non-Jew in Germany could dissociate himself from the guilt of the Nazi terror.” However, he also realized that there was much more to the situation than a simple dislike of a governmental policy; this was an issue of making a historical statement in order to show protest for a particular regime that he felt was violating Christian principles. That he did not see this to be an easy decision, though, can be seen by his writing: “The refusal to obey within a specific historical political decision of the government, as well as this decision itself, can only be a venture of one’s own responsibility. A historical decision cannot be completely incorporated into ethical concepts. There is one thing left: the venture of action.” This action in Bonhoeffer’s case was an assassination attempt, but the decision was neither impulsive nor irrational. Instead, it was the result of a moral and ethical conviction that it would be more wrong to not oppose Hitler than to continue in peace with the Nazi state. Even so, Bonhoeffer specifically noted that the church “must not condemn wars in general. It must condemn this war.” The principles behind his belief had not changed, and he was very clear that what he was doing was an exception instead of a new theology. He remained a pacifist and worked to restore peace instead of calling himself a pacifist and doing nothing to bring peace.
One way in which he saw ethical justice could be achieved was through Christian intervention, but he also saw this as being acceptable only in very extreme cases. “Put[ing] a spoke in the wheel, the direct political action of the church’, was left for that last and extreme case when the church in fact saw the state unrestrainedly bring about too much or too little law and order. Bonhoeffer was convinced that this instance in which the church had to abandon its own task and take on that of another was ... unique.” The situation in 1943 fit his criteria of an extreme case, allowing him to act in a way otherwise not in accordance with his pacifist principles. He certainly did not believe that there was anything wrong with having a state that was not specifically Christian, in fact he believed that “the concept of the Christian state is … untenable, for the governmental character of the state is independent of the Christian character of persons in government.” Furthermore, he saw government as being “established and ordained by God alone”. For this reason, the idea of rebelling against a government was akin to rebelling against God, which is self-evidently not desirable. “Government is not itself world, but of God” he wrote, showing just how strongly he felt on nonresistance toward the government. To rebel against a government is to rebel against God’s chosen agent here on earth, which to the believer ought not to be an option. For this reason he was very careful in his approach, so that no one would mistake his actions or motives but understand clearly that they stemmed from his religious convictions. His belief in the duty of the believer to uphold government was not being undermined by his decision to join the resistance, but instead he used his actions to show just how important he thought the situation was. By working counter to the government, he was making clear that he thought the case was exceptionally bad and that added weight to the situation that would not have been felt had he only spoken words of resistance.
Bonhoeffer’s political and social views are apparent not only in his writings, but also in what others have written about him. Far above a simple opposition to Nazism, Bonhoeffer struggled with the balance between obedience to authority and following his Christian convictions regarding social justice. In this sense, the two oppose each other – his political views of non-resistance and pacifism collide with his Christian beliefs. There are many facets to his convictions, some of the strongest being nonresistance and obedience to authority – countered with conscience and Christian belief.
In writing of this difficulty, Bonhoeffer gives his conclusion on how to settle the question of how to live: be “the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedience and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God” He is not making the claim that this path will be easy, but that it is the only way to live. That is the way even a man who was so conflicted about the way to live as both a pacifist and a Christian in a world of injustice was able to decide to partake in an assassination plot: he felt the call of God to do something, and acted upon it. The consequences were not an obstacle: he believed that “To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life.” Although he felt called to go against the government and as a result suffered in this world, he did not see this as something unusual but instead gladly suffered for Christ, knowing that what he was doing was the right thing.
If there was one motto through which these many parts of theology all come together, it would be found in The Cost of Discipleship, written to show believers exactly that the Christian life should not be expected to be easy or painless, but must be pursued with absolute devotion. “If the world refuses justice,” Bonhoeffer writes, “the Christian will pursue mercy” What he saw in Germany in 1943 was the world refusing justice, and as a Christian, he saw no other option but to show that his ultimate allegiance was to God and pursue mercy in the best way he knew how.
D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: SCM Press Ltd, 1959).
D. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).
D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953).
S. Hauerwas, Performing the Faith Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004).
G.B. Kelley, Liberating Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Message for Today (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984).
A.J. Klassen, A Bonhoeffer Legacy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1981).
K. Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, Volume One: 1918-1934 (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1977).
 D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 112.
 D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 261.
 G.B. Kelley, Liberating Faith, p. 20.
 D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 142.
 ibid., p. 144.
 ibid., pp. 144-145.
 D. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, pp. 516-517.
 D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 64.
 ibid., p. 262.
 S. Hauerwas, Performing the Faith, pp. 60-61.
 D. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, p. 513.
 G.B. Kelley, p. 15.
 A.J. Klassen, A Bonhoeffer Legacy, p. 161.
 D. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, p. 518.
 G.B. Kelley, p. 22.
 D. Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, London and New York: 1970, 217-25: qtd. K. Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, Volume One: 1918-1934 pp. 276-277.
 D. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, p. 510.
 ibid., p. 510.
 D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 5.
 D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 88.
 ibid., p. 258.