Tomorrow night I’ll be hosting a viewing and discussion of the documentary Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister here at Northwest University (HSC 104 at 7pm, if you’re interested). As for many Christians, Bonhoeffer has become for me a hero of faith and a real 20th century saint. The fact that he’s German doesn’t hurt either.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a complex man: top-notch and innovative theologian, caring pastor, political protester, and would be assassin. One of the things for which he is best remembered is, of course, his complicity in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. For this involvement he was arrested and executed in the waning days of the Third Reich.
The story of his journey to this point is a fascinating one, but in general I’d like to think that it was his very deep sense of discipleship and identification with Christ that led him to his murderous decision.
Three quotations attributed to Bonhoeffer:
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
“If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”
As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes:
To share in Christ’s reality is to become a responsible person, a person who performs actions in accordance with reality and the fulfilled will of God (Ethics, p.224). There are two guides for determining the will of God in any concrete situation: 1) the need of one’s neighbor, and 2) the model of Jesus of Nazareth. There are no other guides, since Bonhoeffer denies that we can have knowledge of good and evil (Ethics, p.231). There is no moral certainty in this world. 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. “Before God self-justification is quite simply sin” (Ethics, p.167). Responsible action, in other words, is a highly risky venture.
In this way, I see Bonhoeffer’s assassination ethic as one that might be considered supremely Christian. He quite literally took on sin–sin that he would neither downplay or deny–in order to save his people (and the world) from the terror that was Adolf Hitler. I suspect that even if Bonhoeffer knew he would be eternally condemned for such sin he would have willing taken the punishment, because it was worth it to save his people. In serving the will of God in this way, we might literally say he was “beyond good and evil.” Thus turning the Nietszchean/Nazi ideal on its head, Bonhoeffer became a very different kind of Übermensch. Indeed, it is quite possible that in that moment he may have been more truly “Christlike” than most of us can ever dream.
I know that there are a host of issues with looking at ethics in this way, not the least of which being that it could lead to the theoretical justification of any action in the name of God. But all the same, I can’t help feeling that in this one instance, Bonhoeffer modeled Christ is a truly unique way.
Let me know your thoughts. There’s a lot of room for discussion and disagreement here, but it is a conversation worth having.