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May 21, 2009


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Josh Rowley

Lots of thoughts, in no particular order:

1) It has long fascinated me how just about everyone--from Niebuhrians to Hauerwasians--claims Bonhoeffer as a friend. There are no doubt a variety of reasons for this tendency. One is that his theology changed over time; for example, THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP is more optimistic or idealistic than the later ETHICS, which is more realistic or pessimistic.

2) Similary, Bonhoeffer was more of an occasional theologian than a systematic theologian; he's harder to put one's finger on, thus allowing persons with a variety of views to appropriate him.

3) Every writer's views are influenced by their context (the air they breathe); and it seems safe to assume that Bonhoeffer's later works were especially influenced by the context of Hitler's Germany--an increasingly nightmarish context. Bonhoeffer was in an extreme situation, the kind that most of his readers will never face. I have wondered, then, if his earlier works might be interpreted as the rule, and his later works the exception--that is, a kind of qualifier. A focus on his later work may make sense for persons who are under the yoke of a Hitler. But should an ethic developed in this rare situation be regarded as normative? Or would it be more faithful to regard the ethic developed in DISCIPLESHIP as normative?

4) Perhaps it is because ETHICS was unfinished at the time of his death, but Bonhoeffer does not seem to have been consistent in his thinking. He writes, "Human problems are perhaps so entangled, so wrongly posed, that they are in fact really impossible to solve." Then he writes, "[T]he church [does] have a mission in regard to the given worldly orders themselves, in the sense of correction, improvement, that is, of working toward a new worldly order...." (Of course, none of us is entirely consistent, and Bonhoeffer worked under extremely difficult circumstances.)

5) Earlier, you summarized, "Bonhoeffer rejected the Lutheran notion of two kingdoms in any strong sense. There is one reality and Christ rules over all. There is the spiritual office and the kingdom of worldly authority which should not be mixed but God rules above both realities and they answer to him." I wonder whether Bonhoeffer's break from this Lutheran tradition, a tradition that underwrites "Christ and culture in paradox" thinking, was sharp enough. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer seems to have had a dual ethic--one for the church, and one for the state. ETHICS makes clear that only the state can use the power of the sword. What happens when the Christian has one foot in each? Do we follow DISCIPLESHIP when we're doing the work of the church, and ETHICS when we're doing the work of the state? How is this paradoxical approach different than Luther's "two kingdoms" view? Could not a Nazi soldier who was also a baptized Lutheran have justified his work with similar reasoning?

Travis Greene

"I have wondered, then, if his earlier works might be interpreted as the rule, and his later works the exception--that is, a kind of qualifier."

What if it's the opposite, that Hitler only made obvious the way states perpetuate evil all the time? What if the Nazis weren't an aberration of "normal" circumstances, but, as so many realized during the Nuremberg trials, just perfectly normal people following orders?

I'm not arguing that this is the case, I just think that, just as any theodicy has to take account of the Holocaust, so does any Christian treatment of ethics and the relationship between church and state. I don't think we can just say that was a "special circumstance".

Michael W. Kruse

Great thoughts, Josh. Thanks

"... everyone--from Niebuhrians to Hauerwasians--claims Bonhoeffer as a friend."

Stackhouse notes this as well. In addition to Bonhoeffer's evolving views is that so much of his work was in incomplete and not fully edited works. Sort of leaves things open to project on him what we will.

#3 - This goes to one of Stackhouse's most important observations: Differing contexts may call for different responses. In other, words there is no one ordained response to culture. Even further, it may be that could actually intends for different Christians to take differing approaches in the same context.

#4 - I'm not sure if it is entirely inconsistent as much as it is living in a paradox: We must act but must do so in a state of considerably uncertainty and fallibility (this is to say, "risk.") This tension is the one I've most profoundly felt all my life.

#5 - All excellent questions! You failed to give the answers. :-)

Seriously, "How is this paradoxical approach different than Luther's "two kingdoms" view?" I think this gets at the center of the issues Stackhouse will raise in the second half of the book.

Michael W. Kruse

Tavis, I think your question is right on. What if "normal" circumstances are merely instances where have become complacent with the culture?

But that raises an equally important question: If we make the normative response the type we would have with a Hitler scenario, and God would have paradox be the more normative approach, then is it possible we might actually thwart the redemptive role of the Kingdom of God?

Some use NT Christians as the model for the way the church should respond to culture. But New Testament Christians were living in a particular context. Would they have adapted there response with a change in context? I don't think we can absolutize the NT posture as normative.

The answers are not self-evident to me.

Travis Greene

I agree. It's difficult. The NT Christians had no power at all. I arguably have a relatively high amount of power as a vote-wielding citizen of the planet's most powerful nation. Can I use that power to further God's purposes? Or does that just run into the Tolkien problem, wherein power corrupts and must ultimately be rejected?

I really don't know. I dig Anabaptist thought, but I still voted, and still will, because I don't think I should reject what (arguably) God has given me to use. Including my citizenship.

But I do think nonviolent submission is an appropriate response to even a Nazi-style government (which is not too far off from some of the early church's experience). Submission, of course, does not mean obedience. Corrie ten Boom is probably a better example than Bonhoeffer in this respect.

Although what I would have done in his place, who knows.

Michael W. Kruse

"Submission, of course, does not mean obedience."

I agree. I think submission is often placing the shalom of the other above your own comfort. Sometimes we need confront others for their own good and the easy thing would be to just go along to get along. Submission is a challenging thing to figure out as well.

Josh Rowley

Cool conversation.

I should clarify that my original comment was an attempt to interpret Bonhoeffer's views, which are not necessarily my own. My thinking is that perhaps Bonhoeffer saw his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler as an "exception to the rule." Also, "normal people following orders" was what I was getting at with my question about persons who were both Nazi soldiers and baptized Lutherans. Luther's "two kingdoms" notion did nothing to guard against this kind of dualism--probably encouraged it.

What about non-violent resistance or subversive non-cooperation as alternatives to "submission"?

Michael W. Kruse

"What about non-violent resistance or subversive non-cooperation as alternatives to "submission"?"

To a degree, I think the can be an act of submission. Martin Luther King, Jr., always said his non-violent resistance wasn't just about rights for the oppressed. It was about helping the oppressor face to face with his unwarranted violence, so as to free him what caused him to oppress others. The action was taken with aim of redemption not destruction.

I suspect Bonhoeffer did indeed view his plot involvement as exceptional ... possibly as the better of two evil options, for which he was still accountable.

Travis Greene

"submission is often placing the shalom of the other above your own comfort"

I think there's an analogy to be drawn here between violence and the way the NT treats Christians attacking one another in the courts. "Wouldn't you rather be taken advantage of than to be so unloving, and in front of outsiders?"

In perhaps a similar way, we should ask, "If the choices are kill or be killed, isn't it more Christlike to be killed?"

Re: Nonviolent resistance and MLK...the submission we give to governments can often come in the form of submitting to punishment for disobeying unjust rules.

Michael W. Kruse

"Re: Nonviolent resistance and MLK...the submission we give to governments can often come in the form of submitting to punishment for disobeying unjust rules."


LeVon Smoker

In 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote that he "stood by" what he wrote in Discipleship.

Also, his (perceived?) idea that Christians might find themselves in situations where the only "right thing to do" is to sin (kill Hitler if you get the chance) is very problematic in light of the prayer to "lead us not into temptation". If Christians manage to imagine ways where good can only come from a sinful act then maybe they ought to admit that they don't have much to say about ethics.

Michael W. Kruse

I think Bonhoeffer's problem was that he all options could be considered sinful. He chose as best he could and trusted in God's mercy and grace.

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