Let’s get a few things straight at the outset: Bonhoeffer was a Christian. Moreover, he was a Lutheran. Finally, he was a theologian. While it might seem that this is merely stating the blatantly obvious, it’s essential that it be borne in mind when discussing Michael P. DeJonge’s book “Bonhoeffer on Resistance” (2018). This is because everything Bonhoeffer thought, wrote, or said on resistance – or anything else, come to that – issued forth like a spring from his Christian, Lutheran, theological mountainside. As a result, anyone whose worldview doesn’t expressly match his – be they non-Christian, non-Lutheran, or secular – may have a hard time relating to Bonhoeffer’s thought process. However, in order to understand why he did what he did in the way he did it, it’s vital to keep an open mind with regard to the formation of his outlook. Not to do so would be like criticizing the game plan of a football coach without knowing the rules of football.
In “Bonhoeffer on Resistance”, Michael P. DeJonge sets out the theological foundation of Bonhoeffer’s political thinking that is shockingly beautiful in its simplicity. It all starts – hardly surprisingly – with the Bible, specifically the Creation. DeJonge shows that this “has its origin in God’s word. As Genesis 1:3 puts it, ‘And God said: Let there be light, and there was light.’” (p. 12) That is, “In contrast to human words, God’s word is the creative word that immediately and necessarily does what it says.” (p.13)
As part of Creation, God created Adam and Eve. Unfortunately, their eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil led to the Fall. This is the second Biblical component of Bonhoeffer’s theological footing. DeJonge describes the effect of the Fall as follows: “The fallen condition is, in a word, isolation. Fallen humans are cut off from God and from others.” (p. 17)
The final Biblical element of Bonhoeffer’s theological makeup is Redemption, “where Christ breaks through human isolation.” (p. 18)
Having rounded off the Biblical background of Bonhoeffer’s thinking on resistance, DeJonge proceeds to delineate another indispensable aspect of it: the theology of Martin Luther. As DeJonge presents it, this essentially boils down to two kingdoms and three orders (also known as mandates).
The two kingdoms are “the spiritual kingdom and the temporal or worldly kingdom […]” [They] “are connected but not reducible to what we would now call issues of church and state.” (p. 37) The three orders are “the church, the government, and the household (which included family life, economic life, and education) […]” [They] “reflect the way God has structured temporal reality. They are the places or sets of relationships in which people live out their vocations.” (p. 38)
That, then, is the theological background of Bonhoeffer’s thinking on resistance. Now the question may fairly be asked how this relates to politics in general and resistance in particular.
To answer this, the logical relationship which Bonhoeffer saw between two of the above-mentioned orders – government and church – needs to be understood. Since the government is an order, it has necessarily been set up by God. As a result, it has a divine mandate – something which Bonhoeffer understandably “had a high view of.” (p. 147) For its part, the church “speaks God’s word”. (p. 41) As DeJonge points out, the implications of this are “monumental”. (p. 47) As mentioned, “God’s word is the creative word that immediately and necessarily does what it says.” (p.13) Consequently, “When Bonhoeffer describes the church’s preaching as God’s word […], he attributes these same divine features to the church’s proclamation.” (p. 47)
Now, if the government acts according to its divine mandate and the church sticks to speaking God’s word, everything is all well and good – just as God planned it, in fact. The trouble starts, however, when the government disregards its divine mandate and the church stops speaking God’s word.
The government can disregard its divine mandate in two ways: firstly, when it reduces the civil liberties of the people (upsetting the order of the household), and, secondly, when it meddles in ecclesiastical affairs (upsetting the order of the church). The church can stop speaking God’s word when it… well… stops speaking God’s word.
In Bonhoeffer’s day, this is what happened in spades.
Not only did the government, headed by Adolf Hitler, reduce the civil liberties of the people (in particular, the Jews and people of Jewish descent) and interfere with ecclesiastical affairs (excluding ethnically Jewish Christians from positions of ecclesiastical leadership and setting up Ludwig Müller as Reich Bishop), but Müller’s German Christian Movement also “worked to align the Protestant church with the new Nazi regime.” (p. 57)
Bonhoeffer was appalled. As a result, he entered the so-called “church struggle” – “the situation of the Christian churches in Germany from Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 to the end of World War II in 1945” (p. 57) – on each of its three battlegrounds.
Firstly, through the offices of his own Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer fought Müller’s German Christians. Secondly, he played a leading role in the Confessing Church’s struggle against the Nazi state. Finally, he was involved in the conflict “between the conservative and radical wings of the Confessing Church itself over how strenuously, broadly, and publicly it should oppose both the German Christians and the Nazi state.” (p. 57)
It should be noted here that, in each of the three areas of the church struggle, Bonhoeffer’s political action went out from the order of the church itself. This is not only consistent with his thinking, but also understandable, since, to him, “The most powerful form of political resistance is not political action as we tend to understand it, whether that action comes in the mild form of nonviolent civil disobedience or in the drastic form of violent governmental overthrow. Rather, the most powerful and precious form of political resistance is the divine word entrusted to the church.” (p. 10)
This isn’t mealy-mouthed philosophizing with the dubious aim of avoiding responsibility. This is theology. However, it does also bring with it a thorny problem: What happens when the state, “which God has mandated with the maintenance of order, actually threatens to undermine that order? In this extreme case, this suggests the necessity of working against a given political regime in favor of proper political authority.” (p. 150)
This leads to the final aspect of Bonhoeffer’s thinking on resistance: “free responsible action”. (p. 151) This “involved the morally unjustifiable overthrow of the Third Reich and the equally unjustifiable killing of Hitler.” (p. 155) While the thought of overthrowing the Third Reich and killing Hitler wouldn’t find too many detractors today, DeJonge goes on to explain the dilemma which Bonhoeffer faced: “This extraordinary course of action is in so many ways out of keeping with the tenor of Bonhoeffer’s political thinking, which exhibits a preference against violence combined with a respect for governmental authority as an agent of God’s action in the world. But from another perspective, […] this conspiratorial path can be seen as an expression of the very core of his political thinking, namely, the conviction that the hope of the world rests in God’s preserving and redeeming activity.” (p. 155) It is, however, a perspective which remains decidedly “morally difficult” for someone like Bonhoeffer – a Christian, Lutheran, and theologian – because “no morally clean choice is available.” (p. 154)
By now, not only the theological background of Bonhoeffer’s thinking on resistance, but also his motivation in conspiring to kill Hitler should be clear. Furthermore, it’s hoped that his critics who maintain that he “should have done more” have been somewhat assuaged. However that may be, DeJonge leaves one more thing to contemplate: the utterly unenviable predicament Bonhoeffer found himself in. As he – writing from prison – asked his fellow conspirators ten years after Hitler’s rise to power, “Have there ever been people in history who had so little ground under their feet as we do today?” (Gremmels, Bethge, E.,Bethge, R. & Tödt, 1998, p. 20) The answer, then as now, is probably “no”.
Anyone who’s used Bonhoeffer’s name, be it in good faith or bad, cannot fail to benefit from reading Michael P. DeJonge’s “Bonhoeffer on Resistance”. With a few masterly brushstrokes, the author fills in the theological background of Bonhoeffer’s political thinking on resistance, thereby bringing his deeds into even greater focus. While DeJonge does tend to reiterate propositions he’s already established, he does so in a way which creates an air of familiarity with them more than anything else. Consequently, there are no reservations in recommending this book.
DeJonge, M.P. (2018). Bonhoeffer on Resistance
Gremmels, C., Bethge, E., Bethge, R. and Tödt, I. (1998). DBW 8a – Widerstand und Ergebung (blog author's translation)
Photo by the author – Books