Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who opposed Nazism before and during the second world war. He spoke out against the treatment of Jews and was very concerned about the influence of Nazism on the German church, leading to what was known as the Deutsche Christen church.
Opposition to Nazi infiltration of German churches led to the establishment of the Confessing Church, which tried to preserve Christianity as based in the Bible. Many on this side of the divide referred to the Deutsche Christen church as a ‘destroyed’ church. However Bonhoeffer’s attempts to have the Confessing Church completely repudiate the treatment of the Jews was unsuccessful.
He joined the Abwehr at the start of the war, and through this he came in contact with the German resistance, with which he became heavily involved. He was arrested in 1943, and was implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. He was hanged with other conspirators in Flossenberg concentration camp, a mere eleven days before the camp was liberated by American forces.
Bonhoeffer’s dilemma refers the question he faced in regards to the plot to kill Hitler. Can a person of faith, in order to fight evil, commit a crime? Is it justifiable for a Christian to take a life? In other words, do the ends justify the means? There is the saying ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’. But what is the right thing to do in this instance? Can you take a life in defence of others? Bonhoeffer was already imprisoned at the time of the attempt on Hitler’s life, but was acquainted with many of those who were involved.
I think the sayings I have mentioned over-simplify a complex problem. We are talking about Hitler, a person responsible for great evil. So it might be very easy to say that the ends do justify the means in this case, that the killing is justifiable. If we strip the emotion from the circumstance it becomes more complicated. Many people are victims of murder. Many murderers would say their actions are justified – ‘he had it coming’, ‘he hurt me or someone close to me’, ‘he caused me harm and I had to get him back’, and so on. Some of them would probably be right. But it’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? Who decides, after all?
I don’t think there is a solution to Bonhoeffer’s dilemma for any Christian, or indeed any person of conscience. We will not know, until we are in that position and are faced with that choice. At what point can we morally justify violence?
What is remarkable about Bonhoeffer was his refusal to justify his decision to take part in what many would consider treason, as well as conspiracy to murder. He never seemed to assume any kind of moral high ground, never argued for the rightness of this particular cause. In his poem ‘Voices in the night’,
only before Thee, maker of all,
Before Thee alone are we sinners.
Shrinking from pain and poor in deeds,
We have betrayed Thee before men.
He wasn’t prepared to absolve himself from guilt, for what had happened in Germany, and the steps he and others had taken to resist it. He refused to whitewash his actions, instead standing prepared to take the consequences.
In the poem ‘Stages on the way to freedom’ he spoke about both action and suffering as being points on the road to the freedom of death. He seemed to be saying that, right or wrong, the decisions he made, and their consequences, were inevitable.
In his work “Ethics”, Bonhoeffer really thrashed out the problem he faced, and that which everyone must face. His conclusion was that Christians must take responsible action to combat evil, but insisted we must do so with the understanding that we are not getting a free pass for our behaviour:
There is no justification in advance for our conduct. Ultimately all actions must be delivered up to God for judgment, and no one can escape reliance upon God’s mercy and grace.
it’s quite a tough call he was making. You must fight, you must take action, and you must do so without guarantees of God’s forgiveness. This puts the responsibility squarely on the individual. You must do this, not for a place in Heaven, not to please God, but because it’s right. You earn no favours with your action. You risk everything. But this way makes the decisions we make a lot more serious than we tend to make them. God is not there to provide us with a safety net. We should do what is right because it is right, not for some perceived benefit to ourselves.
I’ve never thought of it this way, but in looking at what Bonhoeffer faced and what he ultimately decided, I can see the logic of it.
What do you think? I would love to hear your views.