Wednesday, February 28, 2007

[conscience] what will it allow you to do

Andrew Walker wrote an excellent piece on Friday, April 14th, 2006 for BBC News and I'd like to present a severely abridged version of it now:

On 9 April 1945, only weeks before the end of the war in Europe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler, already hiding in his bunker. The liberators arrived just 11 days later.

His crime? He helped a group of Jews to escape from Nazi Germany to Switzerland but much worse, in Hitler's eyes, he was also implicated in the July 1944 plot to kill the Nazi leader.

Coming from a well-heeled family in Breslau, Poland, Bonhoeffer was ordained a pastor in 1931 and was controversial from the start, seeking to convert Jews to Christianity. On the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933, the Pretestant Church split and Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller created the Confessing Church.

Bonhoeffer gave a radio talk which focused on the difference between a leader ("Führer") and a mis-leader ("Verführer") and was was cut-off in mid-sentence. Clearly, he was now a marked man and the Confessing Church was outlawed in 1937 although he himself became an officer in military intelligence, the Abwehr.

He also became a courier and diplomat to the British government on behalf of the resistance and lived for a time at Ettal, a Benedictine monastery outside Munich, where he worked on his book, Ethics, from 1940 until his arrest in 1943. In Ethics, he wrestles with the essential problem: how can a Christian, essentially a pacifist, justify murder?

His argument can be summarised thus: The demand for responsible action is one that no Christian can ignore. Christians are, therefore, faced with a dilemma: when assaulted by evil, they must oppose it through direct action. They have no other option. Any failure to act is simply to condone evil.

Today Bonhoeffer is honoured at Westminster Abbey in London as one of ten 20th Century martyrs, including Martin Luther King Jr and the murdered Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, whose statues now grace the West Front of the famous abbey.

The problem for Bonhoeffer's legacy is that his example is used by everyone from rabid feminists to animal action to justify violence. How do you see the man and his legacy?

4 comments:

The Tin Drummer said...

James, I think Bonhoeffer, who read hymns in jail to keep him sane, was a great man and true; of courage and faith. I'm just not entirely sure (not having studied him) what his faith was. It seems to me more like Tillich than Luther. But who could question the great man's dying words: "This is the end, for me, the beginning of life" or something v similar. I don't see him as justifying anything except goodness and strength. As usual I'd be happy to see my ignorance corrected: but if I were a hundredth of the man Bonhoeffer was, I would die happy.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I see him as a wonderful man and I am sorry that what he went through is used lightly by some who have never had to live in such darkness. I can only echo what td has said.

Guthrum said...

As a layman it would appear to be a conflict between religious sentiment and ethics, which are not always the same beast. As a Christian Bonhoeffer should have not contemplated murder. Turn the other cheek, render unto Ceasar etc, but in terms of ethics- the greatest good for the greatest amount of people the elimination of Hitler was unanswerable. I suspect that Bonhoeffer reconciled the potential murder in religious terms, by believing that he was confronting the devil and pure evil. Both terms have fallen by the wayside in regious debate in recent times. Interesting post, something to get the grey matter moving. Bonhoeffer has been raised to an almost Saint like status in the UK and Germany, however during the war he would have been seen as a traitor.Many modern Germans refuse to countenance that their Fathers and Grandfathers fought for Hitler, but instead they fought to defend their country. They prefer to believe in the concept of an evil genius rather than the combination of social/economic/military forces that brought him to power.

Winchester whisperer said...

He was a great man, cut down in his prime.