I recently finished an entire class on the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German pastor and theologian during the rise of Hitler and National Socialism in Germany. As a pacifist, he later joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. As you might imagine, there are lots of complexities to all of this and we have numerous books he wrote to unpack his thinking along the way. One of my favorites is his book Ethics. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions in this book but I find his arguments intriguing and worth spending time considering. Some of his comments in the book even seem to help us understand the rise of guys like Donald Trump (see: The Successful Man).
Ethics gets into the gray area between right and wrong and looks at the complexities of how to live out our faith in the midst of trying times. Bonhoeffer didn’t argue that it was okay to kill Hitler because Hitler was extra evil. Rather, he argued that he willingly assumed guilt for his part in the assassination attempt because assuming this guilt on behalf of others was ultimately the right thing to do. Parts of the book can get a bit theologically dense, so the following are a few of my favorite quotes from the book to give you a feel for it. I group them into four categories: Jesus, assuming guilt, the will of God, and general thoughts.
Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on Jesus (which are beautiful):
God is love; that is to say not a human attitude, a conviction or a deed, but God Himself is love. Only he who knows God knows what love is; it is not the other way round; it is not that we first of all by nature know what love is and therefore know also what God is. No one knows God unless God reveals Himself to him. And so no one knows what love is except in the self-revelation of God. Love, then, is the revelation of God. And the revelation of God is Jesus Christ.
The New Testament answers the question “What is love?” quite unambiguously by pointing solely and entirely to Jesus Christ. He is the only definition of love. But again it would be a complete misunderstanding if we were to derive a general definition of love from our view of Jesus Christ and of His deed and His suffering. Love is not what He does and what He suffers, but it is what He does and what He suffers. Love is always He Himself. Love is always God Himself. Love is always the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
It is not by its overthrowing but by its reconciliation that the world is subdued. It is not by ideals and programmes or by conscience, duty, responsibility and virtue that reality can be confronted and overcome, but simply and solely by the perfect love of God. Here again it is not by a general idea of love that this is achieved, but by the really lived love of God in Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on assuming guilt for others:
If any man tries to escape guilt in responsibility he detaches himself from the ultimate reality of human existence, and what is more 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.
Real innocence shows itself precisely in a man’s entering into the fellowship of guilt for the sake of other men.
Thus it is Jesus Christ who sets conscience free for the service of God and of our neighbour; He sets conscience free even and especially when man enters into the fellowship of human guilt.
From the principle of truthfulness Kant draws the grotesque conclusion that I must even return an honest “yes” to the enquiry of the murderer who breaks into my house and asks whether my friend whom he is pursuing has taken refuge there; in such a case self-righteousness of conscience has become outrageous presumption and blocks the path of reasonable action. Responsibility is the total and realistic response of man to the claim of God and of our neighbour; but this example shows in its true light how the response of a conscience which is bound by principles is only a partial one. If I refuse to incur guilt against the principle of truthfulness for the sake of my friend, if I refuse to tell a robust lie for the sake of my friend (for it is only the self-righteously lawabiding conscience which will pretend that, in fact, no lie is involved), if, in other words, I refuse to bear guilt for charity’s sake, then my action is in contradiction to my responsibility which has its foundation in reality. Here again it is precisely in the responsible acceptance of guilt that a conscience which is bound solely to Christ will best prove its innocence.
Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on the will of God:
The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be.
Whoever wishes to take up the problem of a Christian ethic must be confronted at once with a demand which is quite without parallel. He must from the outset discard as irrelevant the two questions which alone impel him to concern himself with the problem of ethics, “How can I be good?” and “How can I do good?,” and instead of these he must ask the utterly and totally different question “What is the will of God?”
But the will of God is nothing other than the becoming real of the reality of Christ with us and in our world. The will of God, therefore, is not an idea, still demanding to become real; it is itself a reality already in the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
Other thoughts from Ethics:
Some who seek to escape from taking a stand publicly find a place of refuge in a private virtuousness. Such a man does not steal. He does not commit murder. He does not commit adultery. Within the limits of his powers he does good. But in his voluntary renunciation of publicity he knows how to remain punctiliously within the permitted bounds which preserve him from involvement in conflict. He must be blind and deaf to the wrongs which surround him. It is only at the price of an act of self-deception that he can safeguard his private blamelessness against contamination through responsible action in the world.
To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depths of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.
The hungry man needs bread and the homeless man needs a roof; the dispossessed need justice and the lonely need fellowship; the undisciplined need order and the slave needs freedom. To allow the hungry man to remain hungry would be blasphemy against God and one’s neighbour, for what is nearest to God is precisely the need of one’s neighbour. It is for the love of Christ, which belongs as much to the hungry man as to myself, that I share my bread with him and that I share my dwelling with the homeless. If the hungry man does not attain to faith, then the guilt falls on those who refused him bread. To provide the hungry man with bread is to prepare the way for the coming of grace.
The Church is the place where testimony and serious thought are given to God’s reconciliation of the world with Himself in Christ, to His having so loved the world that He gave His Son for its sake. The space of the Church is not there in order to try to deprive the world of a piece of its territory, but precisely in order to prove to the world that it is still the world, the world which is loved by God and reconciled with Him. The Church has neither the wish nor the obligation to extend her space to cover the space of the world. She asks for no more space than she needs for the purpose of serving the world by bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to the reconciliation of the world with God through Him. The only way in which the Church can defend her own territory is by fighting not for it but for the salvation of the world. Otherwise the church becomes a “religious society” which fights in its own interest and thereby ceases at once to be the Church of God and of the world.