Bonhoeffer on Resistance

The Word Against the Wheel

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Michael P. DeJonge
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


During the first two years of the Trump administration, it has become exceedingly fashionable to invoke Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a symbol of resistance, invoking his words of “grabbing the wheel” to #resist all manner of destructive federal policies. But this usage of Bonhoeffer is only the latest in a long list of times in which the German theologian has been marshalled for the cause of rebellion and resistance, both in popular and scholarly writing. Typically, Bonhoeffer’s words are taken as inspiration for individual acts of resistance, with optional connections to Christian commitments. But as DeJonge demonstrates, this is to miss entirely the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s work. 

Bonhoeffer, writing within the context of the Second World War, was a theologian both deeply committed to the revival of the ecumenical church and to the good of his homeland of Germany. As such, his understanding of “resistance” encompassed both his commitments to the church in the world, and to the good of the divinely-instituted structures which sustain life in the world. As a Lutheran, the church exists not only as the proclaimer of the word of God, but as the embodied presence of Christ in the world. The church, as this bearer, calls the world to live into its true reason for being: the preserver of the world for the good of Gospel. This is not a call for theocracy—that the state should judge its citizens by biblical law—but a call for the state to preserve the natural world and society so that the word of Christ can be heard.

This complex arrangement, in which the church exists as the bearer of the creation’s true logic, is threatened whenever the state or the church abandon their nature. If the church attempts to theocratically govern, or if the state abdicates its role as the preserver of human life and order, the work of Christ in the world is at risk. If the church is the cause of the disorder, it is to repent, confess, and re-devote itself to the work of discipleship, but if it is the state that is the cause of the disorder—such as when the Nazis began to restrict the lives of Jews—the church must call the state to account. 

How the church calls the state to account is where most interpretations of Bonhoeffer run aground. As DeJonge explains, the church calls the state to account first by proclaiming the Gospel, and then—if the state rejects its hearing—by existing as the body of Christ in the world, which bears witness to a different order. The church devotes itself to building up the unified ecumenical witness of Christians together, so that its singular confession can find purchase before the state. 

Too often, in reading Bonhoeffer on resistance, this commitment to exercising resistance as part of the body of Christ—committed both to the ecumenical witness of Christians and to the good of the created order—is lost on interpreters. But as DeJonge argues, this twin emphasis of the good of the church and the good of the world never leaves Bonhoeffer’s thinking. He traces Bonhoeffer’s advocacy for the Jews, and shows how Bonhoeffer’s argument involves elements of criticism of both church practices of exclusion of the Jews and state practices of keeping the Jews from belonging to church and society. Likewise, in describing Bonhoeffer’s involvement in plots to overthrow Hitler, DeJonge shows that this too was born out of the same theological concerns which Bonhoeffer had articulated for a decade. 

In this work, DeJonge has reclaimed the theological dimensions of Bonhoeffer’s thinking on resistance, showing that Bonhoeffer was—from first to last—a churchman and pastor in his thinking on political activity. But beyond this, he has shown that the resistance of Christians to unjust political order, for Bonhoeffer, can only ever be exercised as one continues to do so theologically. Put differently, “emergency cases” are not the time for abandoning theological logic, but for digging more deeply into that logic. DeJonge’s work, in making the case for Bonhoeffer’s consistent thinking across his life, does open up new questions for us to consider about Bonhoeffer’s resistance. For example, if a Christian does not leave behind concerns for discipleship in order to engage in the politics of society, are there limits to the kind of political activity which a Christian can participate in? If, as Bonhoeffer does in his book Discipleship, there are certain ways that Christians operate in the world—with respect to violence or economics—and if Christians engage the world on the basis of their identity as churchgoers, are there certain activities of resistance which Christians must leave behind? These kinds of questions will continue to be debated among Bonhoeffer scholars, and by those who would appeal to Bonhoeffer’s thought. But DeJonge, in crisp clear prose, and with deep textual acuity, has provided a definitive account of what “resistance” in a Bonhoefferian key looks like.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University.

Date of Review: 
February 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael P. DeJonge is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, where he teaches on the history of Christian theology and topics in modern religious thought. His previous publications include Bonhoeffer's Reception of Luther (2017), Bonhoeffer's Theological Formation (2012), and The Bonhoeffer Reader (co-edited with Clifford J. Green; 2014).


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