Further thoughts on Bonhoeffer and resisting the authorities (Guest Post)

Following my post regarding Bonhoeffer, Cromwell and modern-day Iran, I received some helpful messages on the question of resisting the authorities. One response I received was helpful in pushing our thinking a bit, so I asked Dave Williams – pastor at Bearwood Chapel, Birmingham – if he would mind expanding his thoughts a bit further and giving us a guest post on this topic. This is what he wrote.

First, let me say thank-you to Steve for raising the topic of resisting evil and particularly the focus on the actions of Bonhoeffer and those who attempted to assassinate Hitler. Like him, I’ve wrestled with this question. I think the challenge for many of us is that whilst at first glance, Bonhoeffer’s actions seem to go against Romans 13, we also know that Hitler was evil and Bonhoeffer good, so we understandably want to find a way to justify him. I have no easy answers either but here are three further thoughts to hopefully contribute to the conversation.

  1. It is possible to say that Bonhoeffer was sincere and brave whilst disagreeing with his decision. In doing so, we recognise that it’s difficult to know how we would respond in such a situation because we are not put in it. Maybe we need to acknowledge the nagging suspicion that if we didn’t follow Bonhoeffer’s example it would be more out of fear of the consequences than deep-seated theological principles. Nevertheless, someone can be brave, sincere, theologically astute and a genuine believer in Christ yet get all sorts of things wrong.

    This enables us to do two things. First of all, I think it helps us escape from the victim/identity politics in our thinking where the only people who can speak about a thing are those who have direct experience of that thing itself. Second, it helps us know how to regard people in the church where the opposite problem is at play. There will also be a lot of Christians in the public eye whose views and actions seem stupid, even cringe-worthy at times. This does not take away from the fact that they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Am I frustrated, embarrassed even, by Wayne Grudem’s pronouncements on Donald Trump or John MacArthur’ s response to the cry for justice concerning race? Of course I am. Does that mean they have nothing to say now and that I should throw out their books? Of course not.

  2. I think it is possible to answer the question about Bonhoeffer positively, as Steve has done. However, I believe that we also need to look at other factors. I don’t think it is enough to say that, because it was a time of war, this therefore changes things. The despotic leaders of the Roman Empire would have been under attack at times but Paul does not seem to provide an exception clause for the church of his day. I’m also not sure whether the unique circumstances in redemption history of God’s people claiming their rightful inheritance (e.g. Rahab at Jericho) offer a wider example. To make the case, I think we’d have to push harder at three further considerations. You would have to make the case that:
    • Hitler’s government was not recognised as legitimate by the international community
    • Hitler had attacked his own people so that there was, in fact, a civil war in which he was the aggressor.
    • An alternative and legitimate government had been recognised by the German people and the International community.

I think those types of arguments would push you towards a view that the war was not with Germany but an illegitimate regime. If such is true, this would mean “true Germany” should have been on the side of the allies against a hostile regime. This is the type of argument used to justify Cromwell. It is saying that those who have power do not necessarily have legitimacy. Might is not necessarily right.

  1. I think this conversation also raises a follow-on question that bears consideration. The other option open to believers living under an oppressive regime is to flee and seek asylum elsewhere. On the other hand, there are believers who think it right to stay and to face the persecution. Where it is short-lived, and those who fled begin to return, there’s the challenge of how those who stayed respond to those who come back.