Review of “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance”

Realityby Larry L Rasmussen. Westminster John Knox Press, (2005). ISBN: 0664230113.

Reviewed by Richard

I purchased this book on the recommendation of Chris who stated that this was the premier work on understanding Bonhoeffer’s entry into both the work of resistance but also tyrannicide. Having read it I think he is right.

Larry Rasmussen who is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary writes with the stated aim to answer the question “what led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his momentous decision to be involved in the plot to be involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944?” In seeking to answer this question Rasmussen offers a superb, if occasionally tough-going, theological exposition of the whole corpus of Bonhoeffer’s work.

In order to address this question Rasmussen begins by analysing the theme of resistance and it develops and demonstrates the exclusively christological character this takes in Bonhoeffer’s thought, particularly in the conception of Christ-for other and the idea of Christian responsibility. In particular, Rasmussen highlights the continuity but also marked development between The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics; a development that was to form the “wedge” that opened up tyrannicide as a viable theological option.

In the second section of the book Rasmussen turn his directly to Bonhoeffer’s direct theology of violence. Rasmussen begins by assessing whether Bonhoeffer can rightly be considered a pacifist. His conclusion is probably best described as “almost, but not quite” although even here Rasmussen notes that Bonhoeffer can oscillate between a ‘sectarian’ pacifism and a just war position. This just war tendency also informed Bonhoeffer’s move towards tyrannicide although again in the context of christological justification.

Are there weaknesses in this Book? If there are they are few in number. I would perhaps suggest the differences between Bonhoeffer’s move to active resistance to the majority of the Confessing Church as well as the wider legacy of Lutheran ethical dualism would be one. Nonetheless it is not often that having read through a quarter of the book I have already decided that it will not be too long before I return to reread the same book, this is what happened reading this. It is in my opinion the best account of Bonhoeffer’s political ethic (resistance and conspiracy) that I have to date come across.

For anyone interested in Bonhoeffer’s theology then they should have this book in their library. enough said?

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