Bonhoeffer the assassin? Think again professor says


Mark Thiessen Nation, professor of theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, has broken new ground in the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Nation’s new book, co-written with two former students, argues that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist from the time of his tenure in America in about 1931.  Going against the conventional wisdom that Bonhoeffer was a co-conspirator in one or more plots to kill Hitler, Nation et al assert that Bonhoeffer was and remained a Christian pacifist, committed to the “costly discipleship” of which he wrote so powerfully.

As a fan of Bonhoeffer’s I was always troubled by his alleged involvement in the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler, which seemed at odds with his complete commitment to the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount.  One of the classic lines of Christian literature is Bonhoeffer’s “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” from The Cost of Discipleship, now re-titled in a new Bonhoeffer edition as just Discipleship. Now there is strong evidence that Bonhoeffer was executed, not for his attempt to kill Hitler, but for his unswerving commitment to Christ and his consistent pacifism.  If true, and I hope it will attract further examination, Bonhoeffer emerges as a true martyr for Christ, not just another Christian who resorted to violence to combat evil.

Nation presented the results of the team’s research at a colloquium at EMU.  You can listen to the podcast, which runs about an hour, plus 20+ minutes for questions from the audience.   You can also download the podcast from EMU’s iTunes selections.  Nation’s case is well-made, with compelling stories and illustrations from Bonhoeffer’s life.  The podcast is worth an hour.  The book will be published by Baker Academic some time next year.

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2 Comments

  1. What a shame that the courage of Bonhoeffer appears to have died at the hands of an executioner.

    “Now – is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country” is a lesson we learned in HS and soon forgotten for those of us who went to church and heard, that if we were good and confessed our sins, everything was going to be OK.

    I much prefer the church that Christ gave His life to create than the one it has become as courage became something to read about rather than act upon in our daily lives.

    1. Sherwood, thanks for your comment, although I am puzzled at the point you are making. Maybe I’m wrong, but if you are implying that Bonhoeffer’s courage is only expressed if he was part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler, then I would disagree. Bonhoeffer himself once held to the view that love compelled him to defend his country and his family even to the point of war. By 1931 (perhaps slightly later) he had rejected that view, and had embraced Christian pacifism based on the Sermon on the Mount.

      Mark Nation’s thesis is that Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis as an enemy of the state, not as a co-conspirator in a plot to kill Hitler. Listen to the podcast when you have time. I am of the opinion that it takes far more courage to peacefully live your faith in the face of death, than to engage in violence in response to violence. The book will no doubt create a stir, but I found Nation’s research compelling.

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