Review of Clifford Green and Guy Carter, eds., Interpreting Bonhoeffer

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 1 (March 2014)

Review of Clifford Green and Guy Carter, eds., Interpreting Bonhoeffer, Historical Perspectives/Emerging Issues (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013),  Pp. xvi + 258,  ISBN 978-4514-6541-9.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

The time has come, the editors said, for a synopsis of Bonhoeffer’s theology and witness. So Clifford Green and Guy Carter invited an international gathering of theologians, translators and historians for a conference at the Union Theological Seminary in New York in November 2011. The papers from that meeting have now been published in this book. But since they were presumably prepared in advance, it is not clear how much resulted from this meeting. The reader is left to make his or her own synopsis.

greencarter-interpretingbonhoefferThe tone is of course laudatory, rather than critical. But at least these papers help to set the boundaries within which Bonhoeffer scholarship can flourish today, and thus exclude some of the more exaggerated theories. For example, in recent years, Bonhoeffer has been characterized as a revolutionary, an assassin and an American Evangelical. None of these authors was invited. On the other hand, it is also clear that the theologians and the historians are not always talking on the same wave-length. The latter’s approach is empirical, concrete and historical, whereas the former seem often to engage in highly theoretical, even metaphysical interpretations, which rarely touch down on the solid earth of Nazi Germany. So this book should help to encourage some cross-fertilization in the debates about Bonhoeffer’s legacy.

Victoria Barnett leads off for the historians, along with three other members of our CCHQ team. She has been the general editor of the English translations of the sixteen volumes of Bonhoeffer’s papers, but still feels that this is only a work-in-progress. And just because the epoch in which he lived is gone, so the challenge is to try and understand the church and faith which shaped him and his students. In the thousands of pages which survived–his biographer Bethge collected everything–it is easy to get lost in the forest and not to see the trees. His life and work remain fragmentary and unfinished. And, as he himself admitted, he was never completely clear about his motives. Barnett rightly states that, contrary to his later fame, Bonhoeffer was a marginal figure in the German Church and the Resistance Movement. For the most part, as he himself admitted, he was amongst those who were “silent witnesses to evil deeds.” His life was cruelly cut short at an early age. His theological enterprise was barely begun. Yet his contribution–at a time when European Christianity suffered drastic blows–was an authentic witness to a world come of age.

Doris Bergen takes up the question of why the churches made so few protests against the Nazis’ crimes. Their silence in face of the Nazi persecutions and outrages has been a charge frequently leveled against Christianity. The question, she thinks, is inadequate. It is not the silence, but the noisy and enthusiastic support for the Nazi regime which concerns her most. Much more pertinent would be to question why the churches so readily backed the Nazi state. Why did they engage in pro-Nazi ceremonies, lend their religious support to Hitler’s wars of aggression, indulge in antisemitic propaganda, and even expel Jewish-Christian members from their parishes? She gives numerous and shocking examples of how the majority of churchmen, both Catholic and Protestant, subordinated or distorted Christian teachings in order to provide ringing and voluntary endorsements as loyal Germans, and genuine Nazis. This was the very opposite of silence. She clearly does not have much time for those who were later to argue that churchmen were intimidated by the ruthless police state tactics of the regime, and were fearful lest they be taken off to be imprisoned in one or other concentration camp. As she rightly points out, silence or martyrdom were not the hallmarks of the majority of German Christians, though all honour is due to those who chose this latter path. But she might have considered more fully the principal reason for what seems to us now as widespread apostasy. In my view, the root cause lies in the churches’ shattering loss of credibility in the years after 1918 when their strident preaching of an imminent German victory with God’s blessing was proved false, and their proclamation of God’s beneficence had to come to terms with the millions of corpses lying in Flanders Fields. In the subsequent years, the attempt to regain the allegiance of those they had so grievously misled was their principal concern. Enthusiastic support for a popular political movement seemed to be the avenue to make the church relevant again. For Catholics, who had for so long been regarded as second-class citizens, the opportunity to upgrade their status by joining the Nazi bandwagon seemed to secure their institutional position in the wider society. Protestants too were eager to celebrate their national loyalties and to swallow their reservations about the tactics employed by their new rulers. Their complicity in the regime’s crimes cannot be doubted, even if many of them deluded themselves as to its true nature or intentions. The silence of the churches after 1945 was all the more obvious when, for the most part, they showed no remorse or repentance.

Bob Ericksen echoes the same themes in his short chapter, in which he too strongly criticizes the readiness of so many church people to concur with Nazism, including the majority of the Confessing Church, at least on national grounds. Bonhoeffer was one of the very few pastors of his generation who differed from the majority. This only led to his isolation both during his life, and even more so afterwards. For many years after 1945 the majority of nationally-minded churchmen took exception to his political or to his theological views, or to both. It was at least twenty years before the impact of his “new theology” and the prodigious efforts of his biographer, Eberhard Bethge, paid off. Ericksen has more recently written extensively about the complicity of both the pastors and the professors in serving the Nazi regime, mainly for nationalistic reasons. In this essay he correctly criticizes the churches’ readiness to praise Hitler’s brutal imposition of repressive measures, especially against the Jews, for whom churchmen showed relatively little or no empathy, and all too readily accepted the Nazi propaganda that the Jews were a threat to German values. Their predisposition to anti-Judaic theological biases rendered them, even Bonhoeffer, incapable of changing to a much more positive evaluation of their Jewish heritage.

Matthew Hockenos gives an excellent summary of how the Protestant churches eventually came to terms with this deficient legacy. He rightly questions the extent to which Bonhoeffer himself changed his theology about the Jews, since we lack any substantial evidence after his very tradition-bound statement of supersessionist theology from 1933. Hockenos points out that the leaders of the Evangelical Church after 1945 were all survivors of the Confessing Church struggle, and still politically and theologically nationalistic. When it came to addressing the church’ share of responsibility for the policies of the Third Reich, these leaders “demonstrated more trepidation than courage, more equivocation than clarity, and more obstruction than determination.” Most of them were shocked by Bonhoeffer’s readiness to take part in the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler and regarded him as a national traitor not a Christian martyr. They stressed the post-war indignities and sufferings of their own people at the hands of the occupying powers, rather than the far greater sufferings their countrymen had imposed on so many other nations and peoples. It took years before Bonhoeffer’s reforming ideas could take hold. Similarly, years were to pass before a new climate of repentance for Christian prejudice against the Jews could emerge. Hockenos provides a notable if brief description of the slow and often reluctant process of “metanoia” in the Evangelical Churches on the subject of attitudes towards the Jews, and contrasts this with the much more vibrant contributions of such Catholics as John Oesterreicher and Gertrud Luckner, whose pioneer efforts were to find fruition in the Second Vatican Council. But thanks to Bonhoeffer’s biographer, Eberhard Bethge, the same route was finally taken by the German Protestants too.

Keith Clements’ fine contribution focuses on Bonhoeffer’s postwar reception in Britain, which was much more friendly and sympathetic than in his homeland. This was largely due to the friendships he had established with the ecumenically-minded community during his earlier visits to England. Principally it was the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, with whom Bonhoeffer had collaborated in the Life and Work Movement, and who warmly welcomed him on his arrival to look after the German-speaking churches in London. Bell found Bonhoeffer a most valuable source of information about the German Evangelical Church, and resolutely backed the Confessing Church in its struggle to block the Nazi plans. It was also Bell, who most courageously defied public opinion and organized the first memorial service for Bonhoeffer–a dead German–in a large London church in July 1945. So too Bonhoeffer found an ally in Joe Oldham, one of the chief architects of the future World Council of Churches, and in Ronald Gregor Smith, the Editor of the Student Christian Movement Press, which was the first to publish Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison in English translation. Its impact caused sensational reactions in the early 1950s. All of these men had a deep sense of the crisis facing Western Civilization, and the need for new visions, not just for the church, but for the world and humanity. Bonhoeffer’s message from his prison cell exactly matched their hopes, and gave a pragmatic concreteness to their witness in those years.

Other essays in this collection explore the impact of Bonhoeffer’s theology in such far distant societies as Japan and Brazil, thus giving a world-wide dimension to his legacy. Of course, this global appearance of his ideas and life-story owed much to the successes of his translators, especially into English. Several papers in this book show how this task was undertaken, and how the translators had to wrestle with Bonhoeffer’s cultivated, upper-class, but somewhat dated German, and to find up-to-date and more colloquial expressions in English for his much wider audiences. A very good instance of their dilemmas comes in trying to translate the well-known poem Christen und Heiden. They were also perplexed by Bonhoeffer’s continual use of masculine pronouns for “God” or “Man”, and wondered how appropriate it would be to turn these gendered expressions into some more modern form of inclusive language. It was a delicate course to steer between the Scylla of Bonhoeffer the proto-feminist and the Charybdis of Bonhoeffer the hopeless chauvinist.

The theologians’ contributions focus very largely on Bonhoeffer’s ideas about “public ministry” and are drawn from close studies of his Ethics. As the epoch of European-centered Christianity is increasingly replaced by global diversification, and as his homeland Germany, like other parts of historic Christian Europe, becomes more and more pluralistic in its religious allegiances, so Bonhoeffer’s insights will undoubtedly continue to be of value in guiding us forward in fashioning new forms of discipleship for the years ahead.