Performing The Faith – Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence. Stanley Hauerwas. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. 2004. ISBN 1-57643-076-2 (pbk.) 252 pages. $14.69.

The Truthfulness of Nonviolence

Stanley Hauerwas concludes his “Preface” to Performing the Faith: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence with these words: “We live in dark times, but God gives us friends who make it possible to see through the darkness.” It becomes apparent in his treatment of the German theologian and martyr that Bonhoeffer is just such a figure to help us see through darkness truthfully. In some ways it is fortuitous that no one has reviewed this book for this journal in the nine years since its publication, because it allows a unique point for reflection. Hauerwas is writing in the aftermath of 9/11. He is writing about a German theologian living in the midst of Nazi warfare. And he is speaking to us now at the beginning of a rejuvenated war on terrorism. Dark times all around, and times where we need friends like Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas to speak truthfully about the world, about God, and about the church’s witness of nonviolence in a world that seems all too fraught with violence.

With that said, however, what is first apparent is that this book is more about Hauerwas than it is about Bonhoeffer. Within its pages, Hauerwas submits a sturdy defense against the perpetual charges of “sectarianism” levied against his work. (One might have hoped that such a strong defense nine years ago would have silenced those charges by now.) And while this criticism and defense parallel similar themes in Bonhoeffer’s own work—strong notions of church and world separation in parts, and a more fluid vision in others—Hauerwas does not take up this connection. Instead, this is a book of essays, the first two of which directly engage Bonhoeffer and the final three of which explicitly engage the issue of nonviolence, with an intermediate section on other themes. (Hauerwas admits that the editor originally approached him about writing a small book exclusively on Bonhoeffer.)  As such, it is another in the line of Hauerwas’s more occasionalist writings—that is, dealing with particular events (September 11, 2001) or responding to particular detractors (Jeffrey Stout). We might say, in the least, this style is appropriate for a subject whose major writings come to us in such a fragmentary way. In a sense, the rest of the book functions as a commentary on the primary themes Bonhoeffer developed in his work—and Hauerwas exegeted in the first two chapters—though a final chapter explicitly integrating Hauerwas’ commentary with Bonhoeffer’s work might have been helpful. I think an opportunity was missed to connect important tropes of performance, time, ecstasy, human contingency, patience, and worship (all central to Bonhoeffer) back to the theologian’s own thought—an opportunity to offer not only a rich and nuanced account of Bonhoefferian theology, but also a deeper constructive proposal for the Christian life. 

If I were writing this review for another journal and another audience, I would explore how this book offers many nuances and attends to gaps in Hauerwas’s theology (a review certainly fun in its own right). But writing for a journal dedicated to Bonhoeffer, I begin with this brief disclaimer that Hauerwas’s only book on Bonhoeffer is not really about Bonhoeffer. That said, this work is still valuable for those of us interested in the work of the Confessing Church theologian.

Hauerwas admits that he presents a Bonhoeffer that closely resembles both John Howard Yoder and himself—though for this reviewer, the resemblance does not seem far-fetched. It is difficult to accuse Hauerwas of misinterpreting a man so theologically slippery as to inspire the diversity of biographies we have witnessed in the last few years. But Hauerwas is at his best in this book when dealing with the themes of nonviolence and truthfulness, two concepts at the foundation of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics. On these issues, I think, Hauerwas gets Bonhoeffer spot on.

Hauerwas begins by quickly dismissing the notion that Bonhoeffer’s thought is bound to his context within a totalitarian regime. In fact, Hauerwas argues, Bonhoeffer’s political theology is meaningful as ever in the wake of terror attacks and ongoing wars. States, even democratic ones, will always attempt to give moral coherence to its people—to form a common “Volk”—through war (207). And thus, they need the continual witness of a politics established on the peaceful life together of the Christian community.

One reason Bonhoeffer is so attractive to Hauerwas is that their ecclesiologies are constructed on the same concept of peace. In a short and early essay, “Christ and Peace,” Bonhoeffer calls for an understanding of peace that Hauerwas would later promote. This peace is not an absolute principle abstracted from Christology, but a constructive imagining of peace—as not only the negation of violence, but a way of life practiced and formed through discipleship. In words that read like Hauerwas’s own, Bonhoeffer notes: “It was not Christ’s concern to change the conditions he found in this world in order to bring about security, peace, and quiet. . . . Christ was much more concerned that we should love God, that we become disciples of Jesus, as we are called to do through the promise of the Beatitudes, and that we thus become witnesses for peace.” [DBW vol. 12, Berlin: 1933, 259]. He criticizes claims that peace is best secured through war; human attempts to secure peace by “political” means risk “domination.” Constructively, he situates peace as central to faith and witness, a condition of properly performing the faith.

And most important for Bonhoeffer, Hauerwas argues, the church’s faithful witness of nonviolence is contingent upon our ability to speak truthfully about the reality in which we find ourselves. These are questions about the reality of human nature, earthly authority, our implication in systems of violence in the world, and Christ’s call to “follow me.” Put simply, peace is dependent upon a community capable of “telling the truth.” This is the church’s task in the world.

Hauerwas repeatedly suggests that according to Bonhoeffer, the church’s primary political gift is the truthful proclamation of the gospel (55). Bonhoeffer’s life work was fundamentally the search for what it means for the church to be visible in the world; “to flee into invisibility is to deny the call,” he says. (Of course this grants Hauerwas the occasion to continue his long-running critique of the “invisibility” of the American church, especially the “docetic ecclesiology” of its liberal Protestant strand (51)). Similarly, America’s is a faith that prioritizes tolerance over truthful speech, Bonhoeffer writes during his time at Union Seminary. But to flee toward invisibility for both Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer is a denial of God’s call because it is to deny reality, the truth that “Christ is the reality of all that is” (48). It is a denial of truth and a failure to speak truthfully in and to the world.

This highlights one of the most significant points for Bonhoeffer, one that Hauerwas endorses: that truth-telling means learning to properly discern reality. Examining Bonhoeffer’s well-worn essay on “What is Meant By Telling the Truth?”, Hauerwas argues that Bonhoeffer’s notion of truth is not merely relative or situational expression. A lie is fundamentally a contradiction of the word of God, even as that word exists within the reality created by God. Truthfulness, therefore, means the practice of “express[ing] the real, as it exists in God” (66, quoting Ethics, 332). This begins with properly describing the realities of our situation—that is, the narratives we find ourselves in (145). These narratives reveal to us the kind of people we are. We act truly (and morally), Hauerwas writes later—and sounding very much like Bonhoeffer—when we act according to what we were created to be (86).

Connecting this emphasis on truthfulness to the theopolitics with which he began, Hauerwas notes that for Bonhoeffer, what the church owes the world primarily is this task of speaking the truth, and truth begins in the practice of confession. “Nothing is more important for the world than for Christians to learn to confess our sins” (25). Confession for Bonhoeffer is not abstract—it is a personal, concrete, and political practice. Bonhoeffer spent the last seven years of his life in a relationship of mutual confession with his student and best friend Eberhard Bethge. Confession, he believes, is central to Christian life together, and thus to the political witness of the church community. As Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, a community willing to confess its sins before God and the world “stands in the fellowship of sinners” and witnesses to the world about the promise of life “live[d] by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.” In fact, the practice of confession forms the counterpolitics with which the church confronts the world. Its witness of nonviolence and truthfulness is ultimately a politics not based on coercion or violence (202), but on confession.

Having now explored the relationship between nonviolence and truthfulness, Hauerwas’s primary aim in the book seems like an appropriate place to conclude this review. Many readers, however, will think it odd that a review of a book on Bonhoeffer and nonviolence would fail to mention his perplexing role in the plot to assassinate Hitler. So, I only bring this up, reluctantly, at the end because of the sparse attention it receives in the book. Hauerwas never questions Bonhoeffer’s pacifism. In fact, he spends a meager two paragraphs and a footnote addressing his involvement in the plot, a welcome departure from the usual biographical (and often hagiographical) obsession with Bonhoeffer’s participation in the conspiracy in books on his theology. Still, such an obvious, and obviously intentional understatement will certainly leave many of Hauerwas’s readers with questions. His brief answer, and I think a correct one, is that Bonhoeffer understood his involvement not as an event that forced an adjustment to his theology, but as an action antithetical to his commitment to pacifism—and action that could not be justified (see footnote page 36). As such, Bonhoeffer remained a pacifist, but one who willfully chose to sin and violate his own conviction of nonviolence by participating in the plot—accepting the guilt of his (responsible?) participation in an act of violence.

More interesting in light of this book is whether such an action impugns the truthfulness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life. If truthfulness is tethered to acting according to who we were created to be, as he claims, then his action was not only a violation of his pacifism but a failure to witness to the truthfulness of his own life and of God’s work of non-coercive redemption. Was Bonhoeffer, this theological hero of truthfulness, ultimately not truthful, and thus an obstacle to his own vision of the counterpolitics of the church?

Perhaps we do not have to make such somber judgments. While in Bonhoeffer’s mind, his participation in an act of violence certainly required taking on the guilt of sin, perhaps the truthfulness lies in his confession of this sin. “Who stands firm?” he wrote to Bethge from his prison cell. “Only the one whose ultimate standard is not his reason, his principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action.” He continues: “The man of conscience has no one but himself when resisting the superior might of predicaments that demand a decision. . . . Counseled and supported by nothing but his very own conscience, he is torn apart. The innumerable respectable and seductive disguises under which evil approaches him make his conscience fearful and unsure, until he finally settles for a salved conscience instead of a good conscience” [DBW vol. 8, Letters and Papers from Prison, 38-39.) In perhaps the most truthful action of his life, Bonhoeffer accepted his guilt and confessed his transgression before God and Bethge, his confessor. Bonhoeffer’s, and the church’s, most potent witness to the world is often is acknowledging and confessing his own failure (25).

Hauerwas writes, “In order for such a witness to be faithful and true, in order for it to be convincing, the church must be attuned to the times,” (98), and perhaps this is true even in times when we must seek out radical measures, and friends willing to think radical thoughts and engage in radical actions. Perhaps there are times when truthfulness lies only in our confession, and confession alone is what allows us to truthfully and hopefully see through the darkness.

Kristopher Norris

University of Virginia

Topics: Peace and Pacifism
Stanley Hauerwas




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