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July 15, 2024

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, WWII, and WWJD

By Bernie Pilarski

A recent BBC article, "A Hitler Dilemma," by Andrew Walker marked the centennial of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who was executed in 1945 for his part in helping Jews escape from Germany. He was also a member of a secret organization that plotted the assassination of Hitler. Today, Bonhoeffer is considered a hero, and his statue stands at Westminster in London as one of the ten 20th Century martyrs.

The article poses an interesting and very relevant question: how does Bonhoeffer's intention to kill differ from that of militants who kill in the name of their faith?

That question piqued my interest.

I have been, from my first recollections on the subject, a pacifist.

When I was young, WW II movies were the rage, and every Sunday, a WW II movie could be seen on the local TV channels. My father, who was not a Vet, would watch each and every one. I think he did this out of a sense of duty. He had tried to enlist when the war broke out, but his employer intervened.

Dad was a welder and a top notch one, apparently. He welded, among other things, propellers. I forget the exact numbers, but he was able to revamp the process to boost production from two or three propellers per shift per welder to something like fifteen. He worked twelve or more hours a day, often seven days a week. He was, like many others, one of the non-military heroes. And while he was proud of his contribution to the war effort, he held those in combat in the highest regard, and was deeply grateful for the sacrifice they made.

Probably, like all of us, he wondered how he would have done in combat, although he never talked about this.

As Dad watched the movies, there was never any doubt about his opinion on the war -- the Reich was evil, Germans were complicit in the evil, and anything that killed a German and aided in the defeat of the Reich was justifiable. As I watched the movies, I could only see the War and victims of war.

I am not now, nor was I then, a utopian that believed that if we just all loved one another war would end. I am, now as then, a bit more of a pessimist -- I see war as an inevitable part of human existence. War is yet another expression of Original Sin, another example of the human tendency to attempt to impose our own order on Creation.

War is, in the parlance of mortal sin, serious matter. War, especially modern warfare, is the embracing of destruction over creation; it is chaos in place of order. Weapons are designed for no other reason than to kill and destroy, and the power of our weapons allows us to rain destruction over vast areas, making them indiscriminate killers.

War is always wrong. Always.

Killing is always wrong. Always.

And yet we may find ourselves, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, facing circumstances that are so terrible that they literally overwhelm our ability to choose freely. Shove someone's hand in an open flame, and they will cry out. Once it became obvious what Hitler was, I am sure that it burned Bonhoeffer just as surely as if it were fire.

I can not find fault with Bonhoeffer's response. What he chose to do was wrong, but I would find no culpability there as the War and the Reich pushed everyone past the limits of sane deliberation.

The danger of Bonhoeffer's response (as it portrayed in the article) is the equating of a personal decision to the will of God. Having arrived (understandably) at a plan that at any other time or place would be unthinkable, Bonhoeffer seems to have then attempted to justify it as God's will and further appears to have suggested that it was mandatory for others.

The demand for responsible action - that is, acting in accordance with God's will - 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.

BBC NEWS article "A Hitler Dilemma"

Christianity is ultimately a personal choice and a personal accountability. Christ forced no one to believe in him, and imposed no laws on anyone who did not want them. Indeed, while he spoke out clearly and eloquently about the truth, in his own confrontation with evil, he chose to die rather than kill, and in so doing, turned the whole concept of winning upside-down.

"One may never do evil so that good may result from it."
Catechism of the Catholic Church -- no. 1789

Originally appeared 2006-05-22

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-04-13
Image(s) are public domain.
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