Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Violent Pacifist -- By: J. Robert Douglass

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 27:0 (NA 1995)
Article: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Violent Pacifist
Author: J. Robert Douglass


Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
The Violent Pacifist

J. Robert Douglass

Robert Douglass (M.Div., ATS) is a pastor in western Pennsylvania.

I have always been fascinated by the stories of martyrs. It did not surprise me, then, when I became interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer soon after having read his book, The Cost of Discipleship. In addition to his martyrdom, I believe that I became interested in his life because of its complexity. One aspect of this complexity is Bonhoeffer’s ethics. For example, Bonhoeffer was a self-proclaimed pacifist, even going as far as making arrangements to travel to India in order to study with Gandhi, yet he was executed for his involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler.1 Immediately the question arises, “how does a person adhere to these seemingly mutually exclusive ideas?” In attempting to answer this question, an understanding of Bonhoeffer’s ethics is required. In order to establish, at least in some sense, Bonhoeffer’s ethic, the following will examine Bonhoeffer’s theology by surveying his writings.

In order to correctly understand Bonhoeffer’s writings, it is necessary to consider their context from which they arose. One experience that seemed to have a profound effect on Bonhoeffer occurred while he was in America studying at Union Seminary in New York. While there, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the black church in Harlem.2 This experience greatly affected his understanding of oppression. In fact, after returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer was convinced that racism would become one of the most critical problems for the church.3

Another incident occurred in Bonhoeffer’s life in the early 1930’s. The circumstances surrounding the event are unclear, but in recalling the event to a girlfriend, Bonhoeffer wrote, “I suddenly saw as self-evident the Christian pacifism that I had recently passionately opposed.”4 These events are only a few of the examples of the many formative experiences that influenced Bonhoeffer’s theology and subsequently, his ethics.

Bonhoeffer’s first work, Sanctorum Communio. or The Communion of Saints, was his dissertation, which he completed in 1927. In it, we can observe a clear break with the typical enlightenment

approach to morality. In addition to this break with the enlightenment, some seeds of his later works are present. This is demonstrated by the Preface, in which Bonhoeffer wrote,

The more theologians have ...

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