Bonhoeffer, Just War, and Nonviolence

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".

1Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship p 18
2Dietrich Bonheffer, Ethics p 244



At 4:29 PM, Blogger Jeff said...


Nice blog and great articles.

I hope you don't mind that I blogged about your fine article on atonement here back in June.

God Bless.

At 10:06 PM, Blogger a. steward said...

I appreciate your statement that "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." If Camus really wanted to deal with a paradox, he would have recast Father Paneloux as Bonhoeffer in The Plague. I think Bonhoeffer's participation in the assasination plot is the clearest example of what Kierkegaard talks about in Fear and Trembling, especially in regard to "the argument from without."
"The tragic hero who is the favorite of ethics is the purely human, and him I can understand, and all he does is in the light of the revealed. If I go further, then I stumble upon the paradox, either the divine or the demoniac, for silence is both."

At 10:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

Of course I dont mind :)

I agree with you about liking the stations of the cross. A big thing for me is understanding the cross as art and as drama, which the naritives and things like the stations do. I jump ship when it becomes an airtight legal theory and loses its "passion", sounding more like bookkeeping than a love story.

At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those are interesting references a. steward. Would you care to expand on them? I'm especially interested in what Kierkegaard might say here.

At 9:00 PM, Blogger a. steward said...

I suppose I need to expand by saying that the real place where Bonhoeffer is in continuity with S.K.'s Abraham is in the embrace of paradox - not so much in the particular details of that paradox, but that it is one. S.K. goes to lengths to show that Abraham's action in Gen. 22 is absolutely not justifiable before his fellow humans. His responsibilities are to love, and nourish his child, but in obedience to a greater command, he lifts his hand to kill him. In certain situations, such as the cases of Jephtha and Agammemnon (spelling?), this sort of transgression is required by an overriding responsibility to society. Thus by an appeal to "the ultimate" we can ethically call their action a sacrifice, and comfort them with our sorrow. But Abraham's action allows no sorrow, and can only be called murder when we speak ethically, because he had absolutely no utilitarian warrant. Only when we understand his act religiously can we call it a sacrifice, insofar as the command which he obeys comes from God, "the absolute" from which "the ultimate" proceeds.
What is troubling, what must be wrestled with, is that Bonhoeffer seems, to me at least, to have made this movement in his prior acceptance of the scriptural call to pacifism. Whereas for Abraham, his duty was to love by means of parental nurture, Bonhoeffer's duty, naturally (ethically in S.K.'s terms) speaking, would have been to love by means of violent resistance to the powers of oppression. In his world, non-violence, even one that stands in active solidarity with the sufferings of the oppressed would be called the unjustifiable action.
Here is where Father Paneloux comes in, I think. At the beginning of The Plague, we hear him preach a fire and brimstone sermon essentially naming the buboes as signs of condemnation from God - judgment on the failure of his people to appreciate his gift of life. Rieux and Tarrou essentially aggree with him, but say that only someone who hadn't experienced suffering could speak of it in such a tone.
But as Father Paneloux begins to work on the volunteer teams, handling the dead, standing in the houses of mourning, he has a change of heart, and learns to speak as one who equally suffers and is equally condemned. Eventually, by eschewing precaution and treatment, he ends up dying in solidarity, but (and this is, I think, is Camus' judgment on Christianity), it is ultimately a meaningless death, for to him it is capitulation and not resistance in the face of absurdity.
Bonhoeffer seems to have expressed this willing solidarity when he chooses to remain in Germany rather than flee.
Aparently, somewhere along the line his understanding of what it is to resist. The Word's command to non-violence was his original "teleological suspension of the ethical." What then is his suspension of the suspension? He says he will bear the guilt before God. I don't know how to proceed from here. Perhaps S.K. is right and his action is hidden, bound to silence.
Perhaps this has bearing on what it means that Christ took on our sins, that maybe he did so in such a manner that he simultaneously acted in obedience and disobedience (if such a statement isn't nonsense) to God - saying "thy will be done" by "becoming sin for us." At any rate, from what I've seen at this blog, you're much more prepared than I to speak of the implications of all this on the atonement.
Hope these ramblings weren't too long or incoherent.


At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think it is important that Bonhoeffer was not trying to justify what he did, but plainly say that it was sin. It was the lesser of two evils, but still an evil for which he bears the real guilt. I think of it as comparable to amputation. There may be situations where there seems no other medical recourse but to amputate, but this is at the same time Representative of a grave failure to act sooner to stop the infection.

As far as how it relates to the Atonement, the cross is the story og how God overcomes evil through love of enemies. We are to follow in that way. Bonhoeffer is an example of a courageous and loving fallible man struggling to be faithful to that call in the face of profound evil.

I'll post More about this in my next blog entry.


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