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Dietrich Bonhoeffer - Radio 4 Interview

Sunday 5th February 2006

The Archbishop was interviewed about the life and achievements of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on BBC Radio 4's Sunday Programme on 5th February 2006.

PRESENTER: Should Bonhoeffer be regarded as a Protestant Saint?

ARCHBISHOP: What makes it an interesting question is that he himself says in one of his very last letters to survive, that he doesn't want to be a saint; he wants to be a believer. In other words he doesn't want to be some kind of, as he might put it, detached holy person. He wants to show what faith means in every day life. So I think in the wider sense, yes he's a saint; he's a person who seeks to lead an integrated life, loyal to God, showing God's life in the world. A saint in the conventional sense? Well, he wouldn't have wanted to be seen in that way.

PRESENTER: Now, he was executed by the Nazis in the last days of the war, the reason being treason and to an extent he did commit treason in the sense that he conspired to act against the German government, the Nazis, and assassinate Hitler. Was he right to do that or should he have witnessed the Christian message by being a martyr and saying violence is not the way to deal with violence?

ARCHBISHOP: Most of his adult life of course Bonhoeffer had been a very strong supporter of non-violence; he wanted to go India to meet Gandhi at one particular point, he had a very strong commitment to this. He felt, and this is very hard to judge from the outside, but he felt very strongly by 1939 that first of all he had to be back in the thick of things in Germany, to identify himself with his people's problems. And he came to feel, as did some others, that the only possible solution for Germany was a drastic military coup. Now, he wasn't a terrorist; he wasn't even what we call a freedom fighter. He wasn't a sort of isolated individual with messianic delusions; he was part of a very sophisticated and complex plot within the intelligence services and the army in Germany, which had a sort of alternative government ready to step in. And in so far as you can judge these things from outside, from the distance, this was something which everybody entered in on with a lot of misgivings, a lot of heart searching, but felt was the only possible thing they could do in circumstances of such extreme crisis that ordinary democratic means were just not available. So I think the answer is Bonhoeffer himself wouldn't have wanted his difficult decision to be seen as a kind of recipe for a general principle of violence. He himself says that if the plot succeeds and he survives, he wouldn't feel able to start work as a pastor, he would feel that he had compromised himself somewhere along the line, that there was no way out of this, it wasn't a good position to be in. So what's most impressive to me about Bonhoeffer is that he doesn't romanticise the situation; he doesn't have a kind of cult of violence, he just - along with a number of other very grown up people - says 'we just don't see any other way'.

PRESENTER: Bonhoeffer did in the end take the decision to stand out against his government and whatever one thought of that government, and it's probably the worst there's ever been, there are some who say that it's not the role of the Church to do that, to stand out against it's own government. Can you see a situation in the future, in this country, where it might be necessary for a person like yourself to stand out against the government in that way?

ARCHBISHOP: I think there's a long and broken tradition of the Church standing out against governments in certain ways; and the way in which a national Church can play its part in challenging the nation or the government, that has always been seen as part of the vocation of the Church. And that's something rather different from the extreme situation we're talking about with Bonhoeffer, where he wasn't (if you like) trying to commit his Church; he was an individual Christian looking for the only way he could respond with integrity. You see in the 1930s he and many others had been involved in what you might call 'ordinary' resistance to the Nazi government - non co-operation with the racial laws and so forth. And many of his friends and contemporaries were arrested; they were already in prison by 1939, some faced death and met it later on, as did some Roman Catholics in the same situation. Now we're talking about very different sorts of resistance here. In most countries, thank God, resistance means making certain things known in the public sphere, using the democratic means available for protest or criticism.

PRESENTER: So you think it's not just an historical figure, if you like, trapped in a particular time and a particular place? He has something to speak to us, to tell us today?

ARCHBISHOP: Absolutely. Every time I return to Bonhoeffer I find that I'm stretched and enriched more than I can possibly say. I think for me he is just one of the very greatest Christian writers of the modern age.

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