Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Some Thoughts on Bonhoeffer's Ethical Dilemma

Last Sunday after church we were talking with Pastor Ken and Kit...we were telling them of a show we'd seen about Nazi Germany, and all the frustrated efforts on taking Hitler's life. Pastor Ken asked me if I knew that Bonhoeffer had been involved in such an attempt? Which I knew as a fact, but not well. So as they swept us into the church library (I kind of think it's almost their library, that they've read most of the books there), I asked them, "What would you do if you had the opportunity to kill Hitler?" I got the kind of response that I've gotten so many times before. They don't always try to give me their answer as much as they try to give me some material to come to my own conclusion. Pastor even got down on his hands and knees to get a good look at some of the bottom shelves, trying to find one resource that he wanted to recommend to me. Soon I had a small pile of things to take home, though he never found the one he wanted. At one point he started to hand me a book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, by Renate Wind. I hesitated to take it, thinking I would be overwhelmed with too much to take in. I am so glad I took it; I have already read it. Well, I've read it without total comprehension. There are many terms and names and references that the writer makes that I don't understand, not being German and not being closely acquainted with such political or theological machines as were in operation at that time. Sometimes I had to read a passage through a few times to realize what the writer was saying, and after the third reading I might find that something said the exact opposite of my first impression. But it was impossible not to understand the general overall message of what the writer was saying.
It is clear why Bonhoeffer's name has gone down through history. When all of Germany, including, alas, the churches, participated willfully in the Nazi machine, Bonhoeffer was doing everything he could at great personal cost to stand against it, and to help others do so as well. It was an uphill battle to say the least. I think that in the dictionary, the word "backbone" would have his picture on it. I hate to think how well I understand the tendency of humanity to tolerate or even engage in such audacious evil; there is something self-preserving in us that makes courage an elusive and foreign element. I remember we had a German exchange student staying with us a few years ago. At one point she and Katie and I got talking about Nazi Germany...I guess you could say that Katie and I don't hesitate to go where angels fear to tread! You could see the exchange student get a bit agitated (though I don't remember exactly how the conversation was going), and at one point she leapt from her chair and defended the Germans by saying, "They didn't have a choice!" I hope that I could be excused that the late hour made me dull enough to accept that for the moment...but Katie, on the alert even then, immediately responded with an emphatic but calm "Yes, they did." It startled me and made me realize my stupidity. I had actually had to turn her words over in my brain and realize the truth of them, that the position that could kill a person is not always the same one that could destroy him.
When we learn more about Nazi Germany, it's hard not to think that the same thing could happen again. Mankind is no stronger, no smarter, no better prepared against evil than we were then. To think that people could have let it happen and said they had no choice; or that at the time it seemed like the right thing to do and even to do it in God's name; or for that matter, there are those who even deny that the atrocities ever really heppened...well, those are the elements that make it possible to make the same horrendous mistakes again. When we watched the show on television that explained how Germans were brought to think that the Jews were a threat to them, it was ludicrous to think that the whole campaign could work so absolutely. It would be incredible fiction, but it's history. It happened. One man's hatred became the hatred of a nation, and millions died because of it. We need to make it a caution against our own opinions; we need to be on our guard against such campaigns, to have Scripture remain our primary influence and not to allow media and other human influences color our thinking against any group of people, against any ethnicity or nationality or religion. And we need to decide and pray ahead of time that we would stand against such a campaign, and how we might do so.
The interest that sped my progression through the book was my curiosity to find out what motivated Bonhoeffer to actually become involved in the effort to kill Hitler. I had to learn his justification and whether it were based on Scripture. Well, the book doesn't describe it in such detail to fully satisfy, but Bonhoeffer is quoted,

"Jesus is not concerned with the proclamation and realization of new ethical ideals; he is not concerned with himself being good. He is concerned solely with love for the real man, and for
that reason he is able to enter into the fellowship of the guilt of men and take the burden of their guilt upon himself...If any man tries to escape guilt in responsibility, he cuts himself off from the redeeming mystery of Christ's bearing guilt without sin and he has no share in the divine justification which lies upon this event. He sets his own personal innocence above his responsibility for men, and he is blind to the more irredeemable guilt which he incurs precisely in this..." (1)

What I see this statement to say is that Bonhoeffer had come to the point where he was so concerned with solving the problem of so many people suffering and dying that he wasn't concerned with whether he sinned to bring it to an end; it's a stunning position to take, something akin to Paul saying that he could wish that he himself were accursed for the sake of the Jews (Rom 9:3-5)--and yet Paul did nothing to bring himself to damnation on their behalf, but performed the will of God in continually sharing Christ and His truth. Bonhoeffer faced a huge ethical question, but to weigh this out, as Christians, we still have to look to the Scriptures and use them as the ultimate authority.
There are a number of points in Scripture that I feel apply: The first that came to mind was Paul's exhortation, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!" (Rom 6:1, 2a)The Holy Spirit who inspired Paul knew all the ways throughout man's time on earth that this passage might be applied, and the emphatic never is absolute. I think it applies as much to this great dilemma as to stealing a wallet. We rely on Christ's blood to cover our sin, and we should not spend it willfully.
There's also the consideration that God is the one who places men in positions of authority (Dan 2:21, Rom 13:1, 2). David knew this when he had the opportunity to kill Saul, and restrained his hand. The temptation must have been great! He could have justified it as self-defense, knowing that he had been anointed already to become the next king of Israel; he could have pointed out that Saul was acting as a madman and was ill-equipped to lead a nation. He stood close enough to Saul to cut off a piece of his robe, and he did not kill him.
For that matter, when New Testament Saul was a primary persecutor of the new Christian church, Jesus didn't inspire someone to kill him--Jesus Himself intervened, struck him blind, asked him why he was persecuting Him, showed him a great deal of mercy, and turned him into one of His greatest proponents of the faith...later Saul turned Paul called himself "the very least of all saints" (Eph 3:8), "least of the apostles, not fit to be an apostle" (1 Cor 15:9)...and Paul became a great example for all Christians since that time.
We might also consider, in retrospect, the lack of success that various men faced when they tried to kill Hitler. They worked out plans that would take a year or more to implement, and at their culmination, within the course of a half an hour, each plan would be thwarted even if it was not discovered. Hitler's life seemed to be under God's divine protection for whatever reason...and in the end it was Hitler who ended his own life.
If indeed Bonhoeffer was mistaken in his effort to kill Hitler, I think it was because he didn't seek the wisdom of men who he knew could offer help (Prov 11:14). It seems to me that Bonhoeffer had become stymied and discouraged by the long battle, and he needed to engage the reasoning of other believers before taking such action. He considered it necessary to keep his plans and his reasoning secret, so much so that his friends were stymied at his apparent change of position.
The author says that Bonhoeffer "insisted that there can be situations in which a Christian must become guilty out of love of neighbor."(1) This again fails to take the whole counsel of Scripture, that we are called to also love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us; that our weapons are not those of the world, but have divine power to take down strongholds (2 Cor 10:3-4).
I greatly admire Bonhoeffer's long, courageous stance; I hope that I would imitate it; and yet, I am troubled by his eventual efforts to take the matters of life and death into his own hands. That effort is so understandable but so troubling. The one thing that perhaps most convinces me of my stance on this is that the counsel of Scripture is so opposite my natural thinking; I would on my own of course say it was right to kill Hitler--because he had killed and tortured so many helpless people. To me it's a warning to look to the whole counsel of Scripture; to pray and seek God's face on every issue, and on behalf of those who are persecuted; and to seek wise human counsel as well when the course I would take involves such an ethical quandary.
(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, by Renate Wind, pp. 143-144, quoting Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 209f.
(2) New American Standard Bible (NASB) Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.


Just Jupe said...

I have yet to see this movie, but it is on my list of "must sees"
I'm enjoying how your mind thinks and processes the information you take in. I like your writing style - it makes me smile as I hear your words resonate in my ears in your voice.

NeverAlone said...

I'd be interested in the movie too! Maybe when it comes out on dvd (if it hasn't yet), we could watch it together?
And I appreciate your kind comments. I usually process my more difficult thoughts by writing them out, and some of them get published here. And you'll see some of my great stupidities here in their midst. :O/