Sunday, June 01, 2014

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

The German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Third Reich in the waning days of World War II, is enjoying something of a posthumous renaissance in the evangelical world even though he might not really qualify as an evangelical. Much of this is attributable to the risible but wildly popular biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. Unfortunately this renewal of interest in Bonhoeffer presents as an ironclad fact his supposed involvement in one of the myriad plots within the Third Reich to assassinate Hitler.

The narrative of Bonhoeffer as an active participant in the plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler is a commonly referenced trump card in discussions of redemptive violence. This is especially true with the contemporary co-opting of Bonhoeffer as an honorary American evangelical hero. That is why this book, Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony Siegrist and Daniel Umbel, is such an important counter-balance to the Bonhoeffer as assassin narrative.

The great strength of this book is the systematic dismantling of the "facts" that form the evidence for Bonhoeffer as a participant in the assassination plots. By first unraveling the flimsy historical evidence. notable mostly for what is not there, namely any concrete evidence that directly supports the contention that he was involved directly in assassination plots, what is left is an examination of what we do have, his writings. When you read Bonhoeffer, and note the entire scope of his writing, what you are left with is a man who is hardly the model of a would-be assassin.

The great weakness of this book, in my opinion, is the pretty technical nature of several chapters. For someone unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer's works as well as unfamiliar with philosophical fundamentals and writers such as Karl Barth, several chapters will be difficult slogs to get through. I am more comfortable with theology proper than I am what I consider more esoteric philosophical conversations and while important I am not sure that the average reader will benefit much from these chapters.

More fundamentally it is important to remember that while the alleged evidence of Bonhoeffer's involvement in the assassination plotting is pretty flimsy, even if he were involved it really doesn't matter because our standard is Scripture, the example of Christ and the witness of the Biblical teaching. Bonhoeffer, whether he did or did not actively seek to be involved in the assassination attempt, is still just a redeemed sinner and while he was brilliant he was also still very much a work in progress when it came to his own theological positions. In spite of that caveat this is still an important book that serves as a serious, scholarly corrective to the "heroic assassin that justifies killing" paradigm that surrounds Bonhoeffer in popular literature. When a man who was as brilliant as Bonhoeffer and still has so much to teach the church is primarily known as the pastor who plotted to kill Hitler in spite of a decided lack of concrete evidence, something is wrong and I believe Bonhoeffer himself would be aghast. You might not find the argument compelling but it at the very least deserves examination.

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