The National Catholic Review

There are lives so fraught with moral significance that each generation must be reintroduced to them in order to preserve the health of civilization and hope for the future. For pacifists or, more aptly, for those seeking a stronger receptivity to nonviolence, these icons include Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King and, less familiarly for American Catholics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Strange Glory, by the commonwealth professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and Dietrich Bonhoeffer visiting professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, is not a simple book. It could not be, because Bonhoeffer was neither a simple man nor a simple pacifist. In the pantheon of pacifists, he is the most puzzling. Could a pacifist abet the assassination of Hitler? Marsh tells us that although Bonhoeffer played no active part in any of the well over 100 assassination plots, he “gave his blessings to those who conspired to murder the Führer while affirming the essential nonviolence of the Gospel” and never lost “his deep ambivalence about the proposed assassination,” describing himself as an “accomplice conscious of his guilt.”

While Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and Letters From Prison rank among the last century’s most important works of theology, read in the context of his life they lack the sharp contours we would like from our moral exemplars as we try to become more faithful to the demanding sayings of Jesus in the Beatitudes. On the other hand, none of our other pacifist exemplars lived in regimes as comprehensively wicked and soul-searing as Nazi Germany.

Not yet 40, he was hanged April 9, 1945, just 16 days before the Flossenburg concentration camp was liberated by the Allies. Anyone following contemporary thought about just war in Catholicism (and elsewhere, to be sure) knows that, especially in the nuclear age, the classical notion of just war increasingly seems morally obsolete. Presidents and others have too readily found its language useful to camouflage national political-economic interest in the garb of national security. Yet for pacifists and their admirers there persists the morally nagging “what about Hitler?” questions, including the current “what about the beheading ISIS” ones.

Hesitant pacifists especially will find Strange Glory worth the pondering. Bonhoeffer’s own journey toward pacifism was plodding. Though his brother Walter died in the war and his brother Karl-Friedrich returned cynically disillusioned, Bonhoeffer had no immediate moral qualms about “the war to end all wars.” As late as his postgraduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1930, a friend recalled that despite Bonhoeffer’s comprehensive knowledge of the Christian tradition and his erudition, “a peace ethic was something completely new to him” and that Bonhoeffer “made strong arguments against Christian pacifism” and seemed only “beginning to learn the language of peace.”

Recent notes, letters and reflections collected by Bonhoeffer’s colleague and soul mate Eberhard Bethge add innumerable rich details to the 17- volume Bonhoeffer Archives (1986), and Marsh’s approach is to use this new “soft” data to help the reader inhabit, not just know, Bonhoeffer’s life. The overall impact is that what first seem to be external inconsistencies pages later become internal paradoxes. As the author quotes extensively from Bonhoeffer’s many letters, we slowly get to know not a brilliant theologian but a singularly extraordinary human being, who linked mind and heart and wrote and lived without pretense. Marsh, making the personal political and the political personal, captures Bonhoeffer’s efforts to achieve a “nonreligious interpretation of faith” that embraces Jesus as “the man for others” and then adroitly places him within the larger context of the era.

While Bonhoeffer admired the traditional Catholic monastery (see his Life Together, 1954) and in his seminary work for the dissenting Confessing Church he tried to approximate it, he was not monkish. He liked his wine, had no trouble mixing his after-dinner theology talk with several schnapps, stayed up late and slept late into the morning, took naps, was constantly borrowing money from his prosperous family, let others know how smart he was (his first doctorate at 21, second at 24), liked tennis and Ping Pong and could be short-tempered about not winning, and he was never without his cigarettes. Still, his normality included no girlfriend until June 1942, three months before imprisonment, when he’s 36 and his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer is 18. And this happens just weeks after his ardent soul mate, Bethge, at the age of 33, began courting the 17-year-old Renate Schleicher, Bonhoeffer’s niece. Not surprisingly, Marsh informs us that Bonhoeffer had no interest in Freud. While acknowledging that he was emotionally underdeveloped, Marsh persuades us that a sexually jaded contemporary eye does not adequately capture Bonhoeffer’s delayed heterosexual love life.

While Strange Glory qualifies as exemplary history, so moving is Bonhoeffer’s directness that Marsh himself, in his commentary, sometimes turns Bonhoefferesque in his explicit acknowledgment that only an icon constantly stripped of the hagiographic can hope to subvert our present-day encrypted nationalistic idols. In this spirit, Marsh takes pains to separate Bonhoeffer the paragon from Bonhoeffer the martyred legend. He tells us that the famous last words attributed to Bonhoeffer before his hanging—“This is not the end for me; it is the beginning of life”—are those of a British intelligence officer writing five years after the war. Bonhoeffer had no aspirations for martyrdom; and to deceive the Gestapo, he kept a phony diary on his desk that placed him elsewhere on the days when Hitler resisters met.

After he was removed from Military Intelligence (which he joined to escape the draft), he volunteered for other non-killing service and signed the request with the necessary “Heil Hitler.” He attracted government attention for his critique of the Lutheran Church’s acquiescence to the Reich’s nazification of the church and its widespread acceptance of the April 7, 1933, order removing any one of Jewish descent from civil service, which included the tax-funded churches. But just a few months later Bonhoeffer, listening to the caution of colleagues, refused his mother’s and his sister’s soulful requests to lead the Lutheran funeral services for his Jewish (and baptized) brother-in-law, a decision that haunted him till his death.

Marsh makes us see all the discontinuities in Bonhoeffer’s life as inevitable paradoxes for any non-cloistered pursuer of Christ’s Beatitudes. While they are alive, icons have at least one clay foot. In more general theological terms, Bonhoeffer spent his life trying to mesh his Barthian-grounded sense of God’s transcendent total otherness with Reinhold Niebuhr’s moral realism. Especially at a time when leadership in the United States continually slips back into the historically discredited hope of empires that their temporal eternity is ensured by a political “realism” secured by its military prowess, Strange Glory is worth the grapple.

James R. Kelly is professor emeritus of sociology at Fordham University.

Recently by James R. Kelly

An Urban Defender (October 27, 2016)
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Incomplete Philosopher (March 12, 2014)