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The decision to attempt the assassination of Hitler, to “cut off the head of the snake,” was difficult for many of the conspirators involved in the 1945 “July 20th Plot.” But it was particularly tormenting for the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had long felt the attraction of pacifism and who had planned a sojourn in India with Gandhi. Some of Bonhoeffer’s later readers have looked to his writings for a general rationale for opposing tyrannical power even to the point of violence. But they have been disappointed, for Bonhoeffer never penned a full-fledged justification of his determination to resist.

In part, I think, Bonhoeffer refrained from writing such a justification because he feared that it might be taken as grounds for resistance in situations less dire than his own: If hard cases make bad law, extreme political situations make bad precedents for everyday ones. And in part, of course, he could not write it because time was not given him by his Nazi executioners. But we may gain an understanding of just how desperate Bonhoeffer saw his situation to be if we examine certain key themes in his writings: his tantalizing and under-developed notion of responsibility, his concept of deputyship, and, especially, his historical analysis of the growth of modern adoration for sovereignty of the entwining in the Enlightenment of sovereignty over the nation and the sovereignty of the self. We may even gain from such an examination a general understanding of what, for Bonhoeffer, we must render unto Caesar and what we must not.

Bonhoeffer saw himself as a faithful follower of Luther in his refusal of what Germans were asked to render to their terrible Caesar. Any reduction of Luther’s doctrine of the “Two Kingdoms” to a notion that there are two spheres, “the one divine, holy, supernatural, and Christian, and the other worldly, profane, natural, and un-Christian,” Bonhoeffer held to be a vulgarization. The modern reading of the Two Kingdoms—a reading shaped (Bonhoeffer would say deformed) by the Enlightenment—unwittingly finalized the separation of Christian concerns from the secular and profane. “On the Protestant side,” he writes, “Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms was misinterpreted as implying the emancipation and sanctification of the world and of the natural. Government, reason, economics, and culture arrogate to themselves a right of autonomy, but do not in any way understand this autonomy as bringing them into opposition to Christianity.” The Lutheran misunderstanding of Luther contributed over time to the Enlightenment cult of reason and the emergence of the self-mastering self.

With that triumph came an idolatrous faith in progress that could only result in nationalism—the “Western godlessness” that became in modern times its own religion. In the “apostasy of the Western world from Jesus Christ,” a massive defection from our collective recognition of finitude, we abandoned the knowledge that we are creatures as well as creators. This for Bonhoeffer is the backdrop to twentieth-century totalitarianism, a terrible story of what happens when we presume we stand alone as Sovereign Selves within Sovereign States, a terrible story of what happens when individual hubris meets nationalism.

Bonhoeffer was no simplistic basher of modernity. He understood the impossibility of undoing the Enlightenment and recovering the premodern world. But he believed that we could tame and chasten modern profanations including the notion that human beings are sovereign masters, unencumbered in their sway. The key seems to be a recognition of the ironic reversal that follows the enthronement of reason. The Enlightenment proclamation of man as the rational master and unlimited sovereign of his own fate contrasts oddly with Nazi invocations of “the irrational, of blood and instinct, of the beast of prey in man,” but the Nazi invocations succeeded, in part, primarily because appeals to reason, human rights, culture, and humanity—appeals that “until very recently had served as battle slogans against the Church”—could not succeed in Nazi Germany. For such appeals depended for their success upon a culture upheld by the very Church that had been weakened and compromised. The uninhibited “Will to Power” that constitutes totalitarianism is born from sovereign and unlimited reason, but reason itself gets battered and bloodied when sovereignty goes too far—when it refuses to acknowledge a limit.

It is in the ironies of the French Revolution, especially, that Bonhoeffer sees the first joinings of freedom and terror, a terrible godlessness in human presumption of godlikeness. Man begins to adore himself. He denies the Cross, denies the Mediator and Reconciler. He is avid in his regicide, idolatrous in his deicide. The radical, Bonhoeffer declares, has fallen out with the created world and cannot forgive God His creation.

Thus it is that those who deify man actually despise him. God, who does not deify man, loves human beings and the world: “man as he is; not an ideal world, but the real world . . . . He does not permit us to classify men and the world according to our own standards and to set ourselves up as judges over them.” But this is precisely what the deifiers of human sovereignty do: they become their own standard, with the result that human beings devour themselves. Western godlessness underwrites the triumph of modern totalizing ideologies that recognize no limits.

The confluent forces of post-Enlightenment politics—the self-sovereignty of both the self and the state-deepened the overall quotient of “folly” in the, human race. Demagogues found it all too easy to play to human weakness. Weak human beings are ripe for mobilization, ever susceptible to becoming tools in the hands of tyrants. “Any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind,” writes Bonhoeffer. Exploiters and charlatans arise. Often they do only limited damage, but when they triumph, as they had in Bonhoeffer’s time and place, traditional ethical responses seem inadequate to oppose them.

A review of the history of modern sovereignty and the nationalism to which it gave rise may help us understand the virulent political idolatry Bonhoeffer faced. To the question of what makes a nation-state a state at all, the answer is a sovereignty, self-proclaimed and duty recognized. The proclamation alone won’t do; recognition must follow. Hegel’s bloody-mindedness about war as the definitive test of a state’s existence is a culmination of the state system that triumphed with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. As every first-year student of political history learns, Westphalia marks the codification of the nation-state precisely because it constitutes the recognition of such states. With sovereignty, rulers and states take unto themselves powers previously reserved to the Sovereign God. Too often, no longer seeing nations under God’s judgment, they proclaim the state the final judge of its own affairs. Indeed, claims to state power as dominion, a notion essential to early modern theories of state sovereignty, were parasitic upon older proclamations of God’s sovereign power.

That God is Sovereign, the Progenitor and Creator, is central to Hebrew and Christian metaphysics. From God’s sovereignty comes the “right of dominion over his creatures, to dispose and determine them as seemeth him good,” writes Elisha Coles in his 1835 Practical Discourse of God’s Sovereignty . “There can be but one infinite; but one omnipotent; but one supreme; but one first cause; and He is the author of all,” John Murray, speaking at the First American Calvinistic Conference in 1939, notes that “the moment we posit the existence of anything independent of God in its derivation of factual being, in that moment we have denied the divine sovereignty . . . . The moment we allow the existence of anything outside of His flat as its principle or origination and outside of His government as the principle of its continued existence, then we have eviscerated the absoluteness of the divine authority and rule.”

God’s right is coterminous with His power: it is a right of dominion, rule, and possession in which human beings are subject to the sovereignty of the God who misses nothing and attends to everything. And yet, though this vision dominated “sovereignty talk” for centuries, it ironically helped establish the modern nation-state. Sovereignty migrated, so to speak, from God’s domain—or a particular version of it—to a domain devised by man and arrogated unto himself. When modern man forgot he was not God, as Václav Havel recently put it, “sovereign mastery” was the name he gave this forgetfulness.

Consider Jean Bodin’s claim that “Sovereignty is that absolute and perpetual power vested in a commonwealth which in Latin is termed majestas.” Or consider the claim of Thomas Hobbes—one of the most canny, the most inventive of all sovereign-discoursers—that:

the only way to erect such a Common Power . . . is to conferre all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of men, that they may reduce all their Wills . . . unto one Will . . . as if every man should say to every man, “I Authorize and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give the Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner.” . . . This is the Generation of that great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortall God to which we owe under the Immortal God, our peace and defence . . . . And he that carryeth this Person, is called Soveraigne, and said to have Soveraigne Power; and ever one besides, his Subject.

Hobbes enumerates the sovereign’s rights and powers: to judge all opinions, to name all names, to defend all as “a thing necessary to Peace, thereby to prevent Discord and Civill Warre.” Hobbes, Bodin and a small army, of legalists helped to give the emerging centralized monarchies a basis in legal and political theory. But to do so, they also relied upon (and appropriated to their own purposes) a whole body of pre-statist sovereign theory, some of it indebted to elaborate defenses of the power of the papacy (under the Sovereign God, I must add). As historian Antony Black puts it:

It now seems clear . . . that much of this was already created for them by papal theory. Certainly, long before this period, Roman imperlal doctrine had been used by national kings and territorial princes to justify the overriding of positive laws and a centralized system of legislation and appointment. Papal doctrine both endorsed this . . . and also supplied something of the more abstract and more generally applicable notion of sovereignty which was to be fully developed in the works of Bodin.

The difference between earthly powers and God is that the earthly sovereign, although untrammeled in his power in the temporal space that is History, is subject to God’s grace or punishment. But having taken unto himself all the features of the deity—including, in some sense, the creating of a perpetual earthly domain—the sovereign finds precious little constraint on his sovereignty. “Absolute sovereignty,” the twentieth-century political theorist Raymond Aron writes, “corresponded to the ambition of kings eager to free themselves from the restriction Church and Empire imposed upon them, medieval residues. At the same time it permitted condemning the privileges of intermediate bodies—feudal lords, regions, guilds—privileges which no longer had any basis if the sovereign’s will was the unique source of rights and duties.”

In sum, then, the story goes like this: The Sovereign God gets displaced in the early modern theory of sovereignty, taking up residence at a much greater remove than He had for medieval Europeans, where God’s sovereignty was incessantly enjoined as a brake on the king’s designs. (The medieval history of the authority of the Church is another story. To say that the Church was unhappy with the presuppositions codified at Westphalia is an understatement.

But a second displacement Occurs when, after the Treaty of Westphalia, even kings begin to find their sovereignty usurped by the political body over which they rule. Sovereignty shifts from king to state, and the state “can no more alienate its sovereignty than a man can alienate his will and remain a man,” as Charles Merrian, a rather sober proponent of the classical theory, puts it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau protected sovereignty in this way through his postulation of the inalienability of the general will: the sate and sovereignty are one. Popular sovereignty is, if anything, even more absolute and terrifying than that of the king, if the French Revolution and its aftermath is any indication.

After Westphalia, then, sovereignty signifies the freedom of a sovereign entity to regulate its own affairs without interference. In the words of Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland, in the 1936 U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export decision, “Rulers come and go; governments end and forms of government change; but sovereignty survives. A political society cannot endure without a supreme will somewhere. Sovereignty is never held in suspense. “All who speak of sovereignty seem to share a deep preoccupation with the notion of a unified will. As God’s Will is singular, so must be the sovereign state’s, whether as Hobbes’ Leviathan or Rousseau’s General Will.

This preoccupation with willing “the final say” is but one point in the discourse of sovereignty, but it helps us understand Bonhoeffer’s principled, theologically grounded refusal to obey an idolatrous state and its utter abandon to the singular will of the leader. Bonhoeffer joined a violent revolt in order to defeat idolaters who travestied Christian values and authentic German patriotism. The Nazi Caesar asked Bonhoeffer and others to tender too much.

For Bonhoeffer, what constitutes legitimate state authority is a concept of deputyship . Parents act in behalf of the children, but what they can and should do occurs within the bouded order of the family. Similarly, what the state can and should do occurs within the bounded order of political government. Responsible action flowing from legitimate authority is always limited. Bonhoeffer reminds us that “the term ‘state’ means an ordered community; government is the power which creates and maintains order . . . . Government is divinely ordained authority to exercise worldly dominion by divine right. Government is deputyship for God on earth.”

But modern Lutheranism—at least in Bonhoeffer’s Germany—had acquired a notion of the “natural state through Hegel and romanticism” that makes of the state not so much the fulfillment of “the universally human and rational character of man, but of the creative will of God in the people. The state is essentially a nation-state.” Thereby, the state becomes, as it was for Hegel, its own ground of being, “the actual subject or originator of . . . the people, the culture, the economy, or the religion. It is ‘the real god’”—which makes it very difficult for the average citizen to see the state’s coercive power directed against man.

The original Lutheran Reformation, however, in its return to Augustine, was a turn against such concepts of sovereignty, claims Bonhoeffer. Sin and the Fall are what make government necessary. As such, government is not that which helps the human person to flourish, and Luther insists on the restraints and limits of government. Government is indeed, Bonhoeffer declares, “independent of the manner of its coming into being.” It is “of God,” and an “ethical failure” on the part of government does not automatically deprive it of “its divine dignity.” Thus, to say “my country, right or wrong,” need not be an expression of political chauvinism so much as a tragic recognition that it is my country, right or wrong, and I am in some way responsible even as I am in some way beholden. Government’s tasks are legitimate in certain limited ways, in Bonhoeffer’s characterization. We owe obedience, under normal circumstances.

We do not owe government our very selves, however, for it does not create us. It may curb, compel, and chastise us. Indeed, the individual’s “duty of obedience is binding . . . until government directly compels film to offend against the divine commandment, that is to say, until government openly denies its divine commission and thereby forfeits its claims. In cases of doubt obedience is required; for the Christian does not bear the responsibility of government. But if government violates or exceeds its commission at any point, for example by making itself master over the belief of the congregation, then at this point, indeed, obedience is to be refused, for conscience’s sake, for the Lord’s sake.”

But we must not generalize from this dire circumstance to a duty to disobey . Disobedience is always concrete and particular, while “generalizations lead to an apocalyptic diabolization of government. Even an anti-Christian government is still in a certain sense government . . . . An apocalyptic view of a particular concrete government would necessarily have total disobedience as its consequence; for in that case every single act of obedience obviously involves a denial of Christ.”

This is a very austere argument. Many will argue that Bonhoeffer unacceptably downplays the good possibilities of states and that he sets up a too strenuous requirement once the threshold of disobedience is crossed. But it is very much in tune with Bonhoeffer’s determination to explore the “in between” (in this instance, in between state idolatry and state diabolization). Action against an evil government, or a specific evil promulgated by government, is part of the realm of concrete responsibility, always undertaken in the midst of the needs, the conflicts, the decisions of the immediate world around us from which there is no escape into general ideals and principles.”

Bonhoeffer could never have made his peace with any regime that promoted rabid nationalism or that eclipsed the space for the free exercise of human responsibility—for in a “world come of age” human beings are called to account, and any system that demands the surrender of our identity to what Havel has called the “social-autotality” is an order whose claims on us are suspect. Neither could he support a regime that served cynicism, collusion in evil deeds, and human isolation, desolation, and terror, or that worshipped History and Power and accepted no brake by definition on its sovereign designs—for such a regime repudiates the Sovereign God who holds the nations under judgment.

For Bonhoeffer, I need not “wear myself out in impotent zeal against all wrong, all misery that is in the world.” But neither am I “entitled self-satisfied security to let the wicked world run its course so long as I cannot myself do anything to change it and so long as I have done my own work. What is the place and what are the limits of my responsibility?”

Bonhoeffer leaves us with this question. There are no easy answers about what we must render, to whom, and under what circumstances. But we can at least banish the false pride that demands that we be sovereign in all things, even as we accept our real but limited responsibility.

In our tormented time, he writes from prison, the Church is an area of freedom, a repository of culture and quality and human decency. It can and should recover its links with the Middle Ages, Bonhoeffer tells us, but leaves tantalizingly under-developed (in the short time he had left) what that might entail. “Liberal theology” cannot help us here: “The weakness of liberal theology was that it conceded to the world the right to determine Christ’s place in the world; in the conflict between the Church and the world it accepted the comparatively easy terms of peace that the world dictated. Its strength was that it did not try to put the clock back, and that it genuinely accepted the battle, even though this ended with its defeat.”

There is ground left for the Church, of course, but only in the light of the Christ who called human beings away from their weakness and to strength. To restore a rightful balance in the order of things, Bonhoeffer insists that we participate in the powerlessness of God in the world as a form of life even as we acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all of life. I suppose this is what might be called Lutheran irony and it goes—as they say nowadays—all the way down. Our adoration of sovereignty makes us weak; we have rendered altogether too much and we have gotten the Caesars we deserve. That is the solemn lesson Dietrich Bonhoeffer leaves us.

Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Her latest book is Augustine and the Limits of Politics, published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

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