February 6, 2006
-- Martin E. Marty
"Bonhoeffer Was Wrong," screams a headline in the National Catholic Reporter, atop an article by Raymond A. Schroth, S.J. (January 27). For balance, then, should we also read "Schroth Is Right"? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by Hitler and company one month before Germany surrendered, is the subject of a PBS documentary tonight. Watch it and think about "wrong" and "right." (For the record, the film, directed by Martin Doblmeier, is getting good advance reviews and much notice—for example, almost a full page in the weekend USA Today.) Schroth is a humanities professor and informed writer of note on Catholic subjects.
Schroth asks, why notice Bonhoeffer now, apart from his 100th birthday anniversary this week? Why? Schroth: "Every day we read the news from Washington and Iraq -- both denials of and justifications for torture from the same administration," et cetera, "all without a peep from our so-called religious guides. We ask ourselves, who will speak for Christians? Bonhoeffer?" Schroth quotes Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who sides with Bonhoeffer, both of them believing that "the character of a society and state is to be judged by the willingness to have the Gospel preached truthfully and freely." Also, in the Jesuit America, David L. Martinson used Bonhoeffer's theory of truth to "criticize journalists who fail to report 'what is really going on' in Iraq" (January 2-9). Again, et cetera.
Schroth sees parallels between then and now: in the film "we can't help noticing that the Gestapo taps citizens' phone lines, tortures its prisoners, and slaps suspects into jail without lawyers or trials for years." Doblmeier produced this film before those practices reached front pages here, and so may have intended his work to deal with timeless issues. But Schroth's judgment is that Bonhoeffer is a pastor for our time "in courage, yes," but "in moral judgment, no." Why? Because the Sermon on the Mount leaves no wiggle room for political assassination, and Bonhoeffer, a pacifist, was killed for having been a part of the almost-successful plot to kill Hitler in 1944. Jesus and Immanuel Kant both forbid such plotting and killing. A bit casuistically, I thought—but what do I know?—Schroth says that such radical action may be all right "in civil disobedience," when "one protests an unjust law and takes public responsibility"; but "beware" of going "above, outside or around the law."
Was Bonhoeffer wrong? Is Schroth right? Had the plot been successful, had Hitler been killed and Nazi leadership thrown into chaos, there might well have been moves toward a German surrender. Many millions of Jews and others would have lived. But if one takes the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus' teaching and follows it literally—which few do; I don't, or I'd be a pacifist, too—one can't kill, as Bonhoeffer's group hoped to kill Hitler. And Bonhoeffer had four centuries of Lutheran theological gene-pooling behind him, with its accent on Paul in Romans 13, where "whoever resists [the 'higher powers'] shall receive damnation," so he had to be a traitor and take a theological risk. (Does anyone notice that, at the decisive moment, Luther resisted authority—his 'Caesar'—with a "here I stand?")
I am glad Bonhoeffer left the witness he did. But at a recent forum on the film, while I called the theologian a martyr, I had to call him a "guilty martyr"—and thanked God for him, at his 100th birthday. "Is Marty Wrong?" Perhaps.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.