The below was originally posted at the Neobaptist Blog after a post which questioned the Bonhoeffer 4’s actions at Shoalwater Bay in 2009. That blog has since been taken down, so here is my original post:
Firstly, I want to thank each of your blog readers and commenters, particularly those who are coming from a Christ centredness. I really value the Baptist identity being expressed here also, as it is the tradition which I have chosen, or perhaps more accurately has chosen me. I had a number of people come to me as brothers and sisters (ala Matthew 18), both supporting my actions and criticising them, and I am deeply grateful to both. I want to say that it is entirely possible that I’m wrong in my position, and am very open to being corrected. I believe it’s important that as brothers and sisters in Christ we be accountable to one another for our actions, and this is no exception.
And then let me say that I don’t expect to win you over with what I say, but I do wish to explain my actions in a way that will hopefully assist you in understanding somewhat where they come from. These were not actions I took lightly (as you can imagine being married with three children under 6), nor were they undertaken without a great deal of thought, prayer and accountability to my family, church, and denomination.
Which brings me to one of the first things you wrote Stan: “The first question that arises in my mind is what on earth his deacons or elders think about him swanning around North Queensland. The average Baptist deacon would have an apoplexy if he found out that the minister was doing what Simon is.”
I chuckled as I read that because as it happens, at the precise moment that I was swanning around Central Queensland (Shoalwater Bay is just north of Rockhampton), the deacons and elders of my church were standing out the front of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne demonstrating their support, and talking respectfully to passersby about what was happening. As a church we’ve gone on this gospel journey together for many years now, so it certainly didn’t come as any surprise to them, they had been actively supportive. In fact, we try to take seriously the practice of mutual accountability and even mutual submission that is so out of fashion in the average evangelical church. So we’ve hashed these ideas and actions out together as a community. It was not a unilateral decision.
It’s funny (or maybe not funny) how when we hear stories, particularly online (I confess I do this too) we so often caricature or stereotype the people in them and make all sorts of assumptions about the way they think – usually the worst assumptions rather than assuming the best. We’ve been called everything from “theological rats poison” to “unthinking leftists” and all kinds of stuff by everyone but those who know us, which might tell you something. I’d appreciate it if when people respond to this they could check their assumptions at the door and ask questions instead.
Stan, you also said, “Simon and his other three cohorts are known as the Bonhoeffer Four, or B4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known for both his pacifist stance, and also for departing from his long held pacifist views and participating in a plot to kill Hitler. The plot was uncovered and Bonhoeffer was executed as a result.”
It was partly challenging this caricature of Bonhoeffer (which, perhaps understandably, is all people know) that we hoped might be a by-product of naming our action after him. I guess there were a few reasons for naming our group after Bonhoeffer:
1. It gave us an opportunity to speak directly to Kevin Rudd about his military spending plan, and to call him back as a brother in Christ to what he claimed in his article in the Monthly before he was elected. People were always going to be cynical about the claims he made there, but we had hoped he wouldn’t give people reason to be. It is difficult to see the consistency between Bonhoeffer’s actions which intended to stop war, and Rudd’s ongoing war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, let alone with his recent Defence White Paper which recommends a $100 billion military spending plan. This despite the admission by that same white paper there is no anticipation of Australia being under threat for at least the next 30 years (except from climate change, which strangely gets a paltry sum in comparison).
2. It gave us an opportunity to encourage people to think harder about Bonhoeffer’s legacy than simply to label him as a failed or lapsed pacifist, let alone an advocate of violence. I work a lot with nonviolence movements, and many of them simply write Bonhoeffer off because of his participation in the plot to kill Hitler. This does the complexity of Bonhoeffer no favours, as it abandons him to those who would use him to justify violence (a fact which Bonhoeffer would be frankly horrified by) and the nonviolence movements also miss out on an amazing, complex man.
3. People want to use Bonhoeffer’s example to justify war, and then in the same breath cite Romans 13. If we want to argue that Romans 13 means we should never oppose the state under which we are subject, then Bonhoeffer did the wrong thing because not only did he participate in the plot to kill Hitler, but he actively participated in the resistance movement. In actual fact, if you want to follow Bonhoeffer’s action to its logical conclusion today, you’d probably have to attempt kill either Kevin Rudd or Obama, or possibly both. If you’re not going to be nonviolent in your opposition to war, you’d have to be violent in your opposition to it.
Incidentally, what people often forget is that Bonhoeffer failed in the assassination attempt, and there is ample evidence that far from undermining Hitler, the failed attempt actually strengthened him, giving him God-like claims to immortality. This is just one of the many problems with violence backfiring.
Interestingly, the people who have been most strident in their criticism of the Bonhoeffer 4 are those who are not particularly invested in the war themselves. I have friends who are soldiers. Our conversations with soldiers have been always respectful, and often we agree on most things. Many were even openly encouraging of us and our actions. Most soldiers we met understood that we cared about them, about the costs they and their friends were bearing, and we cared about the situation that they were heavily involved in, and even criticised those who criticised us as “disengaged from reality.” They knew we cared enough to act even at risk to ourselves, and bear some costs for it, and that gave us a platform from which to listen and speak that those who criticised from a point of disengagement did not have.
Those who accuse us of being disrespectful to soldiers gravely misunderstand us. As organisations such as Stand Fast, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Courage to Resist demonstrate, just because you don’t support the war does not mean you do not support the troops. In most cases supporting the troops means ending the war.
The question of Christian ethics and war and peace are complex and vexed, and there’s no way to cover it adequately here. Suffice it to say that I don’t consider myself a ‘pacifist’, even though many people describe me in those terms, I consider myself to be primarily a disciple of the crucified and risen Christ. Christian ethics, I believe, is not based on so-called ‘values’ or even principles, but on a person, and a story. It’s not a matter of extracting some universal principle from the story, but a living into that story (as one of my heroes, the great Jesuit priest Fr. Daniel Berrigan SJ says, “to fit your life into Jesus’ life.”) It is not, however, a story devoid of content. So the question is, what is that story?
The central event, I’m sure we would all agree, is the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. I don’t think we can meditate on it or what it means for us enough. All of Scripture must be read through this lens. So many facets reveal themselves. One of those facets for me is this: that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God that we have. Therefore this is the way God responds to our violence. God doesn’t crucify God; we do.
This has (at least) two implications; one, that our violence – MY creation of victims, whether by action or inaction – is always against God. And two, that this is the way that I am called to follow – the way of being the suffering victim in the course of faithfulness to the Kingdom, rather than the causer of victims.
Jesus calls us to follow him in these terms: “If any want to become my followers, they must affirm their own right to live, take up their gun, and kill their enemy.” No wait, that’s not right…“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Ouch. Take up our cross? Of course, we’ve spiritualised that away to mean pretty much any discomfort or difficulty. But crucifixion had a concrete social and political meaning for the early Christians. It was the price of sedition, of loyalty to a regime other than Rome.
Ultimately it’s a question of where you put your faith – what you trust in to save you. Is it in the sword or in the cross? Do I trust in the gun and the bomb to save me, or do I trust in the crucified agape of the cross, which allows itself to be crucified before it will call down armies?
This way, of course, sounds weak and foolish to the world, just as Paul says (or as I think Servus put it “dumb resistance”). Such weakness could not possibly triumph, surely? Yet we know that it has – which is why “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” It is possible that this way of the cross could result in my death (as it did for Jesus – Mark 8:35 “whoever wants to save their life will lose it”) or the death of ones dear to me (as it did for Jesus’ disciples and family). I do not wish for or seek such a death, but am aware that faithfulness to the kingdom sometimes results in same. Jesus is explicit about it, yet somehow we have missed it.
Because death is not the end – which is why the disciples don’t get excited when Jesus dies, but when he rises again. If even death cannot win, what have we to be afraid of? What can anyone do to us that God has not won over? This sounds like good news for the poor and the oppressed!
And so we are called to actively resist evil and injustice, even at great cost to ourselves (this is the context of the actions of the Bonhoeffer 4), just as Jesus did (this is the context of the exorcisms, and of the healing stories, and of actions like defending the adulterous woman or the cleansing of the temple). But he did so nonviolently – refusing to perpetuate the dynamics of domination – which does not mean passively, it means actively putting oneself in the way of injustice without mirroring that injustice. If one does not actively and creatively place oneself in the way, one is being PASSIVE, not NONVIOLENT. So the choice is not between being violent or doing nothing, which unfortunately is what most of your readers assume. This I think is what Bonhoeffer unfortunately failed to understand, in the context of a church who also failed to understand it. I wish he had gone to meet Gandhi, as he planned to do. Gandhi might have helped him understand nonviolence much better.
In terms of why Bonhoeffer made the choice he did to participate in the plot to kill Hitler, I think this post says it better than I could: http://www.rustyparts.com/wp/2003/09/28/bonhoeffer/. But on top of that, I’d want to say that Bonhoeffer never renounced his pacifism, recognising that he may well be making the mistake of his life that would land him in hell, and consequently throwing himself on the mercy of God.
I also notice that Romans 13 was dragged out the discusions of our actions. Its context must be understood and implications need to be worked through (it’s preceded by Romans 12 for a start – Bless those who persecute you…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good…hardly arguments for supporting military interventions.) Hitler loved to quote Romans 13 – a misreading of it is one of the reasons the German church was so complicit in the horrors of World War 2. Under such an interpretation, Bonhoeffer’s and the Confessing church’s resistance to Hitler was unacceptable, as are our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. If a Muslim state were to invade Australia (as you surmised) then we ought to obey such authority as it is “instituted by God”. You simply can’t have it both ways. So what are the limits of such ‘obedience’? I believe that any government decision which is not consonant with the Kingdom of God is not for me to obey. The Lordship of the crucified and resurrected Christ is our authority. If Christ is Lord, then Caesar (or Kevin Rudd) is not. I see Romans 13 in the light of the events of Jesus, and of the early Christians including the apostles (all of whom were imprisoned, and most of whom were killed by their government). We are to submit to the punishment of the state for our loyalty to the inbreaking Kingdom, and by such suffering love (as with the slaughtered Lamb), the Kingdom triumphs. As such I do not advocate evading the punishment of the law (see Rev. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail for an excellent exposition of this – “it must be done openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to pay the penalty”) but submitting to it. That’s why we take responsibility for our actions by “staying and praying” rather than “hitting and splitting”.
By the way, this is about discipleship for us, about where we place our bodies, not media attention. If the media want to tell our story, then that can sometimes be a bonus (although most of the time it’s an unhelpful caricature). But concrete, faithful action is what is important, not media attention. Outside of the context of our lives, this might look like a mere ‘stunt’. But in the context of lives of engagement and solidarity with the victims of our society, it looks more like a witness to the Kingdom coming. Unfortunately if it looks like an isolated stunt, that’s at least partly because the church has largely failed in its mission to be a giant Jesus in the world.
We could go on and evaluate the war in Afghanistan too, but then we’d have to look at history and realise that the US set up, trained and funded the Taliban to fight against the Soviets. Now they want to oust them because it’s politically inconvenient to have them there. So we can moralise all we like about this war being about saving women from being oppressed, but just a few years ago we were actively supporting the Taliban. We’re still doing nothing today about the Burmese junta, or Darfur, or Zimbabwe and other places. So we need to question what our government is telling us about our reasons for going to war.
Whatever else we do as Christians we MUST appeal to the story in which our salvation is invested, that of Christ. I invite anyone who wishes to respond to do so from that point of view. Let’s call one another to faithful discipleship.
So much more to say, but I’ll leave it there and invite questions. If people want to comment or ask questions off the blog, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to answer them. I’d much prefer the opportunity to meet up to discuss these issues, as they’re best hashed out face to face (or better, over a meal!). So if you’d like to meet up to discuss them, I’d be more than willing.