One of my Christian heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I even asked my wife if we could name our son Dietrich. For some reason she didn’t like that idea. Go figure.
Bonhoeffer is a fascinating figure for all sorts of reasons, but one of those is that his ministry took place during the rise of Nazism in Germany. Born into an upper-middle class family in Germany and studying at some of finest schools, he ended up rejecting the German national church, which was controlled by the Nazi party. Instead he threw his energy behind the Confessing Church, a church that resisted the Nazi party.
Ultimately Dietrich Bonhoeffer would do more than theologically resist the Nazi party; he would actively participate in helping Jews escape and would ultimately be party to an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler.[i]
Although, for obvious reasons, Bonhoeffer never discussed the plot nor his reasons for the decision, it is clear in his letters that he expended a lot of energy working through what his ethical responsibilities were throughout the war. Those who believe he participated in the assassination conspiracy point to his words in Ethics where he says, “the structure of responsible action includes both readiness to accept guilt and freedom.”[ii] Is Bonhoeffer saying that there are times where following Christ means that we might actually be called into guilt (and therefore to sin)?
One need look no further than God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac than to come face to face with this difficult question. As Soren Kierkegaard reflects on this story, he says our jaws ought to drop when we see what God asks Abraham to do. God calls Abraham to murder Isaac. Obedience to this request is “the first movement of faith, the infinite resignation.”[iii] That is, Abraham must resign himself to trust God even in the face of the paradox that the law-giver is asking Abraham to break the law.
In the story of Abraham and Isaac, God ends up preventing Abraham from taking Isaac’s life. It is a test of the supremacy of God in Abraham’s life.
But Bonhoeffer’s conspiracy takes this one step further. The attempt on Hitler’s life was made. Was the understandable moral calculus that taking one life to save millions was the right thing to do behind Bonhoeffer’s thinking? We don’t know. But it’s certainly a difficult question to wrestle with. How do we choose what is right? Do the ends ever justify the means? When should you fight evil with evil?
Let’s consider a similar moral conundrum in the Bible. Saul is hunting down David and his men in the Israeli wilderness. Saul slips into a cave to relieve himself –the same cave that David and six hundred of his men are hiding in.
David’s men’s hearts leap: our days of being on the run are over! It’s David’s time to claim the throne! They whisper to David, “Here is the day when the LORD said to you, ‘Behold I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you.’”[iv]
There’s one problem. There is no evidence God ever said that to David. Pressed by his men, David creeps toward Saul, knife in hand. He reaches Saul, knife in the air. But when he brings the knife down, he cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe, not his neck.
David slinks back to his men, they are crushed. But to their surprise, David is conscience-stricken “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed…”[v] David hasn’t laid a finger on Saul, and yet he still is racked with guilt.
David’s conscience is pricked because his heart is set on God and trusts in God. He recognizes that God is the one who places kings on thrones and, as Paul will affirm a thousand years later with the wicked Nero on the throne, we must give “honor to whom honor is owed.”[vi]
So, the answer to when we should fight evil with evil is simple: we may never fight evil with evil. The answer to when the ends justify the means is never. Bonhoeffer navigated one of the most difficult ethical situations with incredible integrity. He surely was a much more honorable and righteous man than I am. But, if it is true that he participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler, I believe that he acted in an ungodly way.
The destination to righteousness is only ever found by traveling the road of righteousness. Justice acquired through injustice is no justice at all.
[i] There has been some recent pushback regarding Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy for more, see: https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/nonviolence/was-bonhoeffer-willing-to-kill.
[ii] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 209.
[iii] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 48.
[iv] 1 Samuel 24:4
[v] 1 Samuel 24:6
[vi] Romans 13:7