Bonhoeffer: Assassin (wannabe) and Patron Saint of Lutheran Ambiguity
Today is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday.
I was reminded of this on today’s Writer’s Almanac by Garrison Keillor. We wake up at 6:00 a.m. to classical public radio in my family, and at 6:15 Garrison lulls us right back to sleep with his tales and poetry and voice.
But it’s worth your time to look up Keillor’s superb summary of Bonhoeffer’s life here.
By 6:41, seven-year old Elsegirl and I had had a thoughtful little conversation about Dachau, gas chambers, Hitler’s suicide, pacifism, ambiguity, and grace.
She is so going to need therapy.
I know I’ve linked to this page before as well, a show done on him by the extraordinary Speaking of Faith program. It’s worth your time on this day too. 53 minutes of stimulating thought, or a lesser amount of time scanning the transcript.
We Lutherans speak a lot about the both/and-ness of life. The reign of God is already here but not yet, God has given us both Law and Gospel, and we are all saints and sinners.
Bonhoeffer is the poster child for Lutheran ambiguity.
A self-declared pacifist, Bonhoeffer recognized, as the darkness of Hitler’s regime spread over and through Germany’s land, government, church, and spirits, that resistance–even violent resistance–might be the only appropriate, and even faithful, response to his evil agenda.
And so Dietrich Bonhoeffer participated in several plans to assassinate him.
Of course an assassin (wannabe…well, he didn’t really want to be, but felt compelled to be) is the closest thing we Lutherans have to a saint.
Martin Doblmeier (whom Krista Tippett interviewed for the Speaking of Faith segment mentioned above) made an astonishing documentary on Bonhoeffer. In it, he makes the case that Dietrich was a brilliant theologian, but an assassin?
Not so much.
Bonhoeffer’s ineffectual efforts got him hanged three weeks before his camp was freed.
But his theology? Wow.
Listen to this observation regarding the connection between faith and life–or, more accurately, the connection between Church and politics:
The church has three possible ways it can act against the state. First, it can ask the state if its actions are legitimate. Second, it can aid the victims of the state action. The church has the unconditional obligation to the victims of any order in society even if they do not belong to the Christian society. The third possibility is not just bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself. No Rusty Swords
Or this thought regarding the possibility that God says different things in different ways to different circumstances:
The will of God is not a system of rules established from the outset. It is something new and different in each different situation in life. And for this reason a man must forever re-examine what the will of God may be. The will of God may lie deeply concealed beneath a great number of possibilities. Ethics
Or this assertion refuting quietism:
There is no way to peace along the way of safety. Peace is the great adventure. It has to be dared. (Speech in Fanö, Denmark, 1934)
So today, on Bonhoeffer’s birthday, it seems a good moment to pause and consider the possibility that life is messy. That things are not always clear. That God’s call can be ambiguous. That inaction is itself an action of sorts. That paralyzed by fear that we might have it wrong–and obsessing that God might just therefore damn us (or at least hate us for a while)–we might be more wrong than we can imagine.
Consider this quintessential observation of Luther’s (found here):
If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.
- Letter 99, Paragraph 13. Erika Bullmann Flores, Tr. from:Dr. Martin Luther’s Saemmtliche SchriftenDr. Johann Georg Walch Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol. 15, cols. 2585-2590. [3
Bonhoeffer did just that. He trusted that he would sin, but he trusted in the grace of Jesus Christ more strongly.
So he acted out of trust in grace instead of the stultification of fear.
Of course, he got killed for it.
There’s precedence for that, I suppose.
When he died, however, he said, “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.”
There’s some active freedom in that.
The Gospel for the day, this birthday of Bonhoeffer?
Thank you for this, Anna. I have long been an admirer of Bonhoeffer, a true saint from my point of view.
Thank you for this insightful piece. If any faith tradition needs a saint of ambiguity, it is Lutheranism. Then again this wonderful appreciation of paradox is what many of us find to be a strength of our Lutheran faith.
I like your juxtaposition of paradox and strength.
Paradoxically, if you will, to live in tension is to relieve the tension, so to speak. That is, to acknowledge that regardless of one’s system, there will be paradoxes, there will be loose ends, frees one to accept the reality of ambiguity. Much like the truth that the thing you adore most about your lover is the thing that will make you most crazy. And so you live with it…or leave it to find another lover/system, only to discover that this truth exists there too.
Bonhoeffer did finally throw himself at the feet of one thing he felt he had no choice to but trust entirely: grace. How to steward the grace remains ambiguous, this is true. But acting out of the belief that nothing trumps grace is a powerful, potentially dangerous, risky, freeing, liberating, breathtaking possibility.
One can’t help but wonder what might happen were more people to do as Bonhoeffer did, and trust grace entirely, no?
Thanks for your comment!
Thank you for the thorough response. My parish (Immanuel ELCA in Chicago) is currently concluding a program to encourage parishioners to think in new and affirming ways and to take up new spiritual practices. The 21 week program is called “Opened By Grace.’ Interestingly enough when we finish this we begin a seven part series on Bonhoeffer. I am sure our discussions will have to take up cheap and costly grace.
I look forward to exploring this site.