We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds. We have been drenched by many storms. We have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense… Are we still of any use?
One of the little things about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story that I had somehow forgotten over the years was the fact that he took a second teaching position in New York prior to the outbreak of World War II. As Bonhoeffer walked around the streets of the city, he became convinced that, like Jonah fleeing from Ninevah, he had refused the call of God to fight the Nazis from within Germany. And he knew what that call meant — after all, he once wrote: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
Convinced that he must return to his homeland, Bonhoeffer boarded a ship in America and sailed back toward Germany. It was the last ship to sail for Europe before the outbreak of the war.
I’ve always been intrigued by Bonhoeffer’s inner confliction about his role as a Christian caught in the horror of Nazi Germany. The state had engulfed and bent the church, as an entity, to its will. The church leadership was all compromised, helpless, or willing participants. And those church leaders who spoke out against the villainy pre- and post-Kristallnacht were either brutally murdered or sent to concentration camps.
Bonhoeffer and his allies made the decision to act, as members of a faith-based resistance, to do whatever they could in this horrible situation. They committed themselves to jamming a spoke in the wheel of the state:
“[T]here are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state: the first place, as has been said, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and accordance with its character as state; i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibility. Second, it can aid the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to Christian community – “Do good to all people.” In both these courses of action, the church serves the free state in its free way, and at times when laws are changed the church may in no way withdraw itself from these two tasks. The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”
Bonhoeffer was still, at root, an avowed Pacifist. But while he worked in peaceful ways as a double agent of the Nazis, helping 14 Jews escape from Germany, he knew that work was insufficient. He refused to be a silent witness — so he began to aid the efforts of the resistance to assassinate Hitler.
One day he asked his pupils an ethical question: whether the murderer of a tyrant could receive absolution. Could it be right for a Christian to kill an evil man in the defense of others?
Bonhoeffer could not reconcile his non-violent beliefs and the calling of the church to worship God and minister to mankind on this earth with his desire to end another’s life — even if it was the life of a vile murdering dictator. But he did know that God calls us to work His will, not ours. So Bonhoeffer labored seeking the death of another man, the ending of the Holocaust.
It is in that labor that he was caught, jailed, and eventually executed — in April, 1945, one last casualty of a dying Reich stabbing from hell’s heart.
Yet Bonhoeffer’s question remains a valid one today. Can a believer act in violence against his fellow man consistent with his faith? Not in one’s self defense (there is a wealth of Biblical justification for self-defense), but in the defense of others – of your neighbor.
I think the way to find an answer is to look at Christ’s own teachings – in Matthew 10, He explicitly tells us:
“Think not that I came to bring peace on the earth, for I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Christ is the Lamb of God, who comes to take away the sins of the world. But He is also the Lion of Judah, who sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, and who will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead. He is not a non-divisive figure – He turns men against each other, and brings the conflict between good and evil to its zenith. C.S. Lewis’s dictum still holds: the Christ is not a tame lion.
Ultimately, Bonhoeffer recognized this truth. As a double agent, he was familiar with Hitler’s works – he knew the true degree of Nazi atrocities long before the rest of the world did. And he knew that the only way of stopping the Reich was by undertaking a mission that would require him to shed the blood of another man – a man who, while consumed with evil, was just as much his neighbor.
Yet I firmly believe that Bonhoeffer’s decision, as emotionally wracked as it was, to be a fundamentally righteous position. There will always be evil men, and there will always be good men. For both, it is up to God to judge their salvation or damnation. But do not allow yourself to believe that He stands neutral between them.
As it is written in John 3:
“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
Bonhoeffer made the right choice. He took the last ship. Had he taken it to the success he imagined, we might remember him today as a hero, a man of God who averted the greatest tragedy in the history of modern man. He took the last ship instead to martyrdom, to the concentration camp, to the grave – but he was no less a hero, and no less a man of God.