The Bonhoeffer Assumption

There’s a trap that I’d call the Bonhoeffer assumption. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was studying at Union Seminary in New York. He was about to go to India to study nonviolence with Gandhi when he decided he had to go back to Germany. And when he got back, he discovered there weren’t any people who had committed to nonviolence except for the Bruderhof and a few others; there were no troops, in other words. The churches had failed their job in evangelizing people about nonviolence. So Bonhoeffer decided to join the death squad against Hitler because he could see no other alternatives that would be effective.

American thinkers who have used Bonhoeffer as a way of justifying the just war theory overlook his clear statement that he does not regard this as a justifiable action—that it’s a sin—and that he throws himself on the mercy of God. He does not use his act as a legitimization of war. I don’t want to take the position that if you use nonviolence and it doesn’t work, you use violence.

Walter Wink is professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York and author of many books, including The Powers That Be, When the Powers Fall, and most recently The Human Being.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2002
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