Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dietrich von Bonhoeffer: an Ethic of Resistance - Armed Opposition

Jason Paul Seaux
Fr. Thomas Gwozdz, SDB, Ph. D.
PHI 303 Ethics
19 November 2007

Dietrich von Bonhoeffer: an Ethic of Resistance — Armed Opposition

Hanged at Flossenbürg on the ninth of April 1945, for conspiring to kill Hitler, Dietrich von Bonhoeffer was the spiritual leader of the German antitotalitarian resistance (Mengus S134). He was not predisposed to resistance by his upbringing, his faith, or his national traditions. Nor was his decision to enter Divinity School to prepare for Christian ministry driven by political reasons. He was a deeply spiritual man, who committed himself to a “relentless pursuit of God’s concrete commandment”, who “[if] he drew attention to himself…” “it was more through submission than resistance” (S138-S139). Yet his demeanor would change slowly, moving from a position of passive resistance, as witnessed by his radio broadcast in February 1938, in which he called Hitler the “Verführer” or the seducer (S140), to the decidedly active resistance, which led to his trial and eventual execution (S141). Why this change? How did he, as a Christian, justify the assassination of Hitler? It must be kept in mind that Bonhoeffer’s Ethiks cannot be separated from his involvement in the resistance movement or his involvement with the resistance movement separated from his Ethiks — they are intimately linked.

It all began for Bonhoeffer, while at Union Theological Seminary, in New York, when the Nazi government banned persons of Jewish origin from ministry within the church. He simply could not tolerate this action. Seeing the church as the “most natural ally” of “authentic humanity”, Bonhoeffer writes in a farewell letter to Reinhold Niebuhr: I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. (Gesammelte Schriften 1:320, qtd. in Mengus S142)

So Bonhoeffer sees the Church as the instrument of salvation for the German people from a corrupt and evil government, which will destroy Christian civilization if left unchecked.
It is at this point in his life that he begins to develop and to write his Ethiks (S143). As most philosophers and ethicists begin their works, they discredit or point out those things upon which their theories are not contingent. Bonhoeffer too begins in this way. In the first chapter of his Ethiks, “Ethics as Formation: The Theoretical Ethicist and Reality”, Bonhoeffer gives a litany of concepts by which an ethical choice could be made, each of which he sees as insufficient or altogether incapable of providing the free person with concrete courses of action. “His position [against each of these] is characterized by an unusual search for concreteness and a pronounced attention to reality” (S138).

He says that through reason men have failed to “perceive either the depths of evil or the depths of the holy” and “blind[ed] in their desire to see justice done to both sides they are crushed between the two clashing forces and end in achieving nothing” (“Ethics 4”). Ethical fanaticism he finds even more distressing, because the fanatic, who believes that he can oppose evil “with the purity of his will and of his principle” attacks the symptoms of evil rather than the evil itself (4-5). The man of conscience, says Bonhoeffer, is torn between difficult choices, “becomes timid”, and chooses to bandage his conscience with lies so that he may avoid despair (5). Though it would seem as though duty would bring decisiveness to the “multiplicity of possible decisions”, duty itself cannot lead to an ethical choice, because the burden of responsibility lies, in the end, with its giver and not with its receiver and executioner. “The man of duty,” says Bonhoeffer, “will end by having to fulfil [sic] his obligation even to the devil” (5 emphasis added). Neither can “absolute freedom” be considered as a fruitful means by which to make an ethical choice, because, in his supposed freedom, man may “easily consent to the bad, knowing full well that it is bad” so that he may avoid what is worse (6). However, in so doing, he blinds himself to the worse and to the better, so that his options become ambiguous. Through private virtuousness some try to evade the task of making a public stand. While such a man does not steal or murder, and within his abilities he does what is good, he avoids even needed conflict and so remains deaf and blind — self-deceived about the reality of good and evil, he thinks himself capable of remaining beyond “contamination through responsible action in the world” (6). Bonhoeffer says, “these are the achievements and attitudes of a noble humanity”, comparing them to Don Quixote, who did not see the reality that was before his eyes (6-7).

After Bonhoeffer has discredited those means which he sees as insufficient, he moves on to what he sees as the only truly effective means, saying that we must “replace our rusty swords with sharp ones” (7). He gives as man’s new weapons simplicity and wisdom. For Bonhoeffer,
To be simple is to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted and turned upside-down. It is to be single-hearted and not a man of two souls, an άνήρ δίψυχος (Jas. I.8). Because the simple man knows God, because God is his, he clings to the commandments, the judgments and the mercies which come from God’s mouth every day afresh. (7)

Looking only to God and never to the world, the simple man “is able to look at the reality of the world freely and without prejudice”. The man of simplicity is no longer attached to principles, but is liberated from the troubles of ethical decision (7).

For Bonhoeffer, the man of wisdom sees things as they really are — in their most fundamental and essential aspects. He is wise insomuch as he sees reality in God. “To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things” (7). Bonhoeffer says that the well informed man is not by necessity the man of wisdom. Having too many facts may cloud one’s perception of the truth. “To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom” (7). The wise man knows that reality can be helped by God alone. To look freely at God and at reality is to join simplicity and wisdom together. “There is no true simplicity without wisdom,” says Bonhoeffer, “and there is no wisdom without simplicity” (8).

Having said earlier that it is necessary to look at both God and reality in the same instance, Bonhoeffer offers the further clarification that it is not possible so to do while the two are so violently ripped apart and seemingly set against each other. Fallen man can only look wonderingly from one to the other, but not at both simultaneously. How then is man to achieve the union of simplicity to wisdom? It is at this point, where it seems as though all will fall apart in his Ethiks, that Bonhoeffer drives the wedge deeper between those systems that he earlier discredited and his own. He divorces his Ethiks altogether from secular ethics, and joins it firmly to the Christian faith (8). For him, the operative element of his ethical system is Divine Revelation, but more specifically Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, man can “no longer see God without the world or the world without God. God has joined himself, in an immanent way, to His Creation and cannot thence be separated.

This leaves one to ask, how does this apply to resistance and planned assassination? In the writings of Bonhoeffer, one finds little which denotes anything directly related to the assassination attempts, but copious amounts are found about his concept of resistance — radical resistance. Raymond Mengus opens his essay entitled, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist” with the sentence: “Resistance does not happen unless persons actually resist” (S134). This sentence sums up Bonhoeffer’s frustration with those systems of ethics which he discredits at the beginning of his Ethiks. For him they did not provide concrete answers and did not move people to concrete and real action. We find, in an essay entitled “After Ten Years”, which Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, this explanation: Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not in his reason, his principles, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God. (Letters and Papers from Prison 19 emphasis added)

As a pastor, Bonhoeffer considered it his vocation not only to have compassion on those who were “victims of exalted men”, but also to do what he must to stop them (Letter from Latrimal dated 6 March 1946, qtd. in Mengus S137). As God cannot be separated from his Creation, neither can Christ be separated from his Church (Ethics 9). So therefore, we are not Christs, but if we want to be Christians we must show something of Christ’s breadth of sympathy by acting responsibly, by grasping our “hour,” by facing danger like free men, by displaying a real sympathy which springs not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. To look on without lifting a helping hand is most un-Christian. The Christian does not have to wait until he suffers himself; the sufferings of his brethren for whom Christ died are enough to awaken his active sympathy.
Bonhoeffer, as both a citizen and Christian served his fatherland best through his radical opposition of those who would destroy the Christian society — the very life and morality of the German people. Pastor Bonhoeffer a “practitioner of responsibility for others before God, could do no less…” (Mengus S146).

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