Book Reviews, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Review: “Bonhoeffer: God’s Conspirator in a State of Exception” by Petra Brown

It’s no secret that I have been deeply impacted by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology. However, as with everything, I believe it is important to read views which are critical of your own. Sometimes, this can help moderate your own enthusiasim for a view by showing potentially problematic aspects of it. Other times, reading something which disagrees with your views can help confirm you in that view as you rebut the critique. Petra Brown’s book, Bonhoeffer: God’s Conspirator in a State of Exception is a remarkable critique leveled directly at Bonhoeffer’s ethic. I found it enlightening and, at times, course-correcting.

The central point Brown argues that Bonhoeffer’s ethic is dangerous because it essentially allows the individual Christian disciple to justify essentially any form of violence so long as they believe they are living in a state of “exception.” Brown cites numerous examples of Christians who used violence, claiming Bonhoeffer for support when challenged on it.

The state of exception is developed by Brown through the lens of Carl Schmitt, a Nazi jurist who developed the notion of “state of exception” as “a state of emergency which requires decisive action by the sovereign (in Schmitt’s case) or by other actors within the state” (5). Schmitt is explicitly cited by Brown as the lens through which she’s viewing the state of exception and analysis of Bonhoeffer, though she also clearly state’s Bonhoeffer’s own concept of exception is intended “in a fairly straightforward way, based on Machiavelli’s concept of necessita” (106). Brown rigorously documents Bonhoeffer’s writings showing that he did speak about a state of exception, along with the need for potential individual action on the part of the disciple. However, Brown’s own definition of exception is, by her own argument, placed squarely within Schmitt’s writings, not those of Bonhoeffer. And, since Brown denotes a significant divergence between the two, this seemingly undercuts her central point. Indeed, at times this reader wondered if the point was more akin to arguing that Bonhoeffer’s ethic could be misunderstood in light of other writers on states of exception, thus becoming dangerous because of that misunderstanding. Yet Brown herself seems to be arguing that Bonhoeffer’s ethic is problematic in just this sense: that it can and does yield individual, “lone wolf” type violence. The tension between these two points is, to my eye, not resolved.

Brown does make attempts to unite Bonhoeffer’s state of exception with that of Schmitt’s, but these arguments are tenuous. For example, she notes that one possible objection to her use of Schmitt with Bonhoeffer is that comparing Schmitt’s ideas with the “emerging ideas of Bonhoeffer” is mistaken because Schmitt was “a German Catholic who explicitly claimed to speak from a Catholic position” (112). Brown argues instead that Schmitt’s position was “highly idiosyncratic” compared to traditional Catholic political stance such that it was “neither neoscholastic, nor Romantic as German Catholicism tended to be at the time” (ibid). Of course, showing Schmitt had theological distance from Roman Catholicism of his time and place does not somehow mean that Bonhoeffer’s state of exception can be seamlessly united with Schmitt. Indeed, it is telling that after making these distinctions, Brown simply moves on with the analysis of Schmitt’s concept of exception rather than attempting to unite it with Bonhoeffer’s. Indeed, she noted earlier that Bonhoeffer’s position is more akin to Machiavelli, from whom she says Schmitt is “a significant departure” (114). This, again, makes it seem as though Brown’s point is less that Bonhoeffer’s ethic itself is dangerous than that it can be dangerous once one unites it with other ethical theories or concepts that are, yes, adjacent to it, but not actually part of it.

On this latter point, I think Brown and I are in general agreement. In fact, Brown’s argument here seems to demonstrate that American evangelicals who cite Bonhoeffer in support of violent acts are doing so by misunderstanding him. But Brown, as far as I saw (and I could have missed something in my own reading), never actually makes this point explicitly. Instead, the implication is that Bonhoeffer’s own ideas are dangerous in that exact way; but that point is not sufficiently established.

Another area in which Brown’s argument loses ground is that she attempts–and fails–to adequately account for Bonhoeffer’s moderation of that state of exception and ethic when related to the church. She acknowledges that Bonhoeffer’s writings about church-community present a significant problem to her reading of Bonhoeffer’s ethic as dangerous (184). However, even as she agrees that one cannot isolate Bonhoeffer’s discussion of ethics from his discussion of the church-community, she works to move Bonhoeffer’s concept of church to that of an individual.

Brown writes, “Bonhoeffer regards the church-community not as an institution, but as a collective person; the personhood of the church-community reflects its identity as the ‘body of Christ’ that is made [up of] ‘actual, living human beings who follow Christ” (187). Thus, she says, “The church community is understood by Bonhoeffer to have ‘personhood,’ and as such I suggest that it can suffer the same isolation experienced by Abraham or the isolated disciple in her obedience to Christ’s call” (ibid). The passage she quotes in support of giving the church-community personhood is from Discipleship (aka The Cost of Discipleship). Brown moves from this quote using the words “actual living beings who follow Christ” to saying the church-community has personhood. However, Bonhoeffer himself, in that very passage which Brown quotes, is not making that point. Instead, Bonhoeffer’s point is made explicitly: the church-community is the physical embodiment of Christ on Earth, preaching God’s word to the world (DBWE 4: 225-226). Thus, for Bonhoeffer, the church-community does not become personal by means of its composition of persons. No, for Bonhoeffer, the church-community has personhood because it becomes Christ to others. And this remarkable claim obviates the difficulty Brown is trying to press. For the church-community is not reducible to a person except that that person is Christ in the world. Therefore, Brown’s argument here fails, because she reduces the church-community to the person in the wrong direction. For her argument to work, it must be reducible, again, to the Christian acting as lone wolf, possibly through violence. But in fact, Bonhoeffer’s reduction is to bring it all to Christ.

One difficulty for Brown is that shared by her imagined–and real–opponents in interpreting Bonhoeffer. Namely, by lifting his name and ethic of the pages of a book and the specific time in which he lived and plugging it in to modern debates, they’ve assumed the context and intent of his ethic today. I need to unpack this a bit. It is abundantly clear that Bonhoeffer’s ethic is not meant to be a list of principles from which people are supposed to draw to make their decisions. Indeed, his ethic does encourage individual action. However, it always does so within the community of believers. Brown’s rebuttal for this was mentioned above, but I think it is worth noting again that community for Bonhoeffer is irreducible to the individual except that of Christ. Thus, the lone wolf violence about which Brown worries and which several have attempted to justify using Bonhoeffer’s words is deeply mistaken in putting Bonhoeffer’s name to it. Just as Bonhoeffer argues one cannot have church without sacrament, so too does he insist upon the church community as working together to embody Christ on Earth. Acting in state of exception does not mean merely acting individually–it means acting along with Christ and the church.

Brown’s arguments do have merit. It is demonstrable that many violent acts have been done in the name of, or at least justified after the fact by, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Brown’s argument that Bonhoeffer’s own ethic justifies this violence is, I believe, mistaken. However, her argument has powerful force if one includes those positions which are adjacent to Bonoheffer’s. So, for example, if one integrates others’ views of a state of exception, it becomes much simpler to justify violence. If one ignores or is ignorant of Bonhoeffer’s insistence upon the church-community and acting ethically alongside that, it becomes much easier to justify violence. So, is Bonhoeffer God’s conspirator, ushering in the possibility for violent acts by Christians? Yes and no. Yes, if Bonhoeffer’s ethic is read divorced from much of its context and with others’ interpretations and concepts smuggled in. No, if one takes Bonhoeffer at his own words.

There is, however, one clear exception to this. Brown presses hard on a sermon Bonhoeffer gave in Barcelona in which he clearly stated that even violent acts could be sanctified. She states, “I don’t believe that the 1929 Barcelona lecture can be dismissed as an aberration” for Bonhoeffer’s ethic. Her attempt to unify this lecture with Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Discipleship is intriguing. I also think that we ought to see Bonhoeffer’s ethic more as unified whole than as a collection of different positions. The Barcelona lecture needs to fit into that somewhere. Of course, Bonhoeffer himself wrote of having some regrets about what he’d written before, so one wonders if it’s possible that, due to the influence of pacifism on his views, he would have wholly rejected what he said in Barcelona. That, or, as others have argued, perhaps Bonhoeffer was moving along a continuum of a Lutheran view of ethics, and one can unify the whole through that. Whatever the case, more work needs to be developed to discover what was meant by Bonhoeffer in Barcelona, or whether Brown’s case succeeds at this point.

Petra Brown’s Bonhoeffer: God’s Conspirator in a State of Exception presents a significant challenge for Bonhoeffer scholarship. Those who wish to engage with Bonhoeffer’s ethics–particularly those of resistance–ought to engage carefully with Brown’s critique.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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