This year marks the 100th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birth. Before its end, I’ll try to post more substantially about this impressive, difficult, and often misinterpreted pastor and theologian, hung by the Nazis for high treason. (I posted an excerpt from a short article from Sojourners magazine on “The Steep Price of Grace” in January here). Here, for now, is part of the transcript from the Australian radio show The Religion Report from October 4. The Reformed theologian John W. DeGruchy, of the University of Cape Town, is an expert on Bonhoeffer. Stephen Crittendon is the host.
Stephen Crittenden: Your comments about the Nazi period remind me that you’re here in Australia for a conference, or several conferences in fact, celebrating the centenary of the birth of one of the greatest of all of the 20th century Christian saints, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, who of course was executed by the Nazis for his role on the edge of the plot to kill Adolf Hitler. What is the importance of Bonhoeffer for us today? I suspect he has a lot to make us think about on this issue of individual conscience and the role of Church and State.
John W. de Gruchy: Well I think he does. Of course it’s difficult to reduce it into a couple of pithy sentences, but I think that one of the things that he does teach us is that the silencing of the prophetic voice of the church is to the detriment of the state. It’s not just something that affects the church let’s say, but he had a wonderful lecture that he gave just before Hitler came to power in which he said that the church has the responsibility to remind the state of its responsibility and of its boundaries. In other words, Don’t play God. And it had the responsibility of binding up the victims within society, whether they were state victims or victims from other causes. And then he made the third observation that if the state fails in its responsibility to be state, in other words if it transgresses its own boundaries, then the church has a responsibility to put a spoke in the wheels. Now that’s a pretty radical statement and of course that’s where he ended up.
Stephen Crittenden: I guess for me too, the other issue with Bonhoeffer is he isn’t someone who sort of pussyfoots around on the sidelines. At a moment of crisis he understands or he believes that you have to act, and act decisively, and in this case, take part in a plot to kill the leader.
John W. de Gruchy: Yes. Well of course he didn’t see this as akin to murder or to assassination. For him, it was part of a long-standing Christian tradition that went back many centuries of tyrannicide. In other words, there come those moments, sometimes very rare, in which it becomes morally justified to do this, but it doesn’t justify the use of violence more generally or it doesn’t justify war, it doesn’t justify violent revolution. This is a very specific act out of necessity, out of conscience, dependent really on God’s mercy in doing it, because it’s a guilty action but it’s a necessary one.
Stephen Crittenden: As a South African, who comes out of a reformed tradition, of course we all remember the role of the Dutch Reformed Church in being a supporter of apartheid; I guess that goes back to the very same kind of acquiescing in the role of the state that Bonhoeffer was complaining about, or breaking away from.
John W. de Gruchy: Yes it certainly does. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa came to South Africa in the middle of the 17th century, and the controlling influence there was the Dutch East India Company, not the government. It was the same in New Amsterdam, which became New York. It’s a very early example of global economic power controlling the church, but it led to the church being confined to the so-called religious sphere of life and really not being allowed to speak beyond in terms of the social questions of the day, and that became part of the ethos of the Dutch Reformed Church.