Sunday, September 03, 2006
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian was among the few German Christians who was outspoken against the evils of Hitler. After escaping to America, he made the decision to return to Nazi Germany saying,
"I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.”1
Back in Germany he joined the small resistance movement and, himself deeply committed to non-violence, made the agonizing decision to take part in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. For Bonhoeffer this meant making the choice to deliberately sin and risk being condemned to Hell (what he did constituted both 1st degree murder and high treason under German law) rather than do nothing and remain personally “innocent” in the face of the massive evil of the Nazis. Fully accepting the guilt of his actions, Bonhoeffer threw himself on the mercy of God. He writes,
“When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it... Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace”2
Bonhoeffer forces us to wrestle with him, he refuses to allow us to resolve the question of whether he was justified or not, leaving us with him in his tension before God. Bonhoeffer is adamant that we cannot take his decision as a justification for violence, but instead takes the guilt of that upon himself, seeing it like the decision to amputate a limb. While we may understand his decision and respect his courage, Bonhoeffer insists that we cannot ultimately justify or glamorize his choice. We may justify hurtful actions like abortion or divorce or war, but that does not make them "good" or "just". If we wish to join Bonhoeffer, it must be here in that tension trembling before God.
Next time we will examine the shift in Bonhoeffer's thinking that began as a focus on the Sermon on the Mount and a commitment to nonviolence in "The Cost of Discipleship" to his decision to participate in the plot to assassinate Hitler in his "Ethics".