Decades ago, I passed some years happily incarcerated in Fuller Theological Seminary’s deepest basement. There, among fine minds living and dead, I encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German, 20th century A.D.). Concerning his earliest works, I wrote a half-dissertation in my abortive doctoral studies. From Bonhoeffer, I learned a lesson. Right conduct frequently confounds our ethical ideas about right conduct.
Bonhoeffer seminally revised the concept of the church. When Lutherans collaborated with Hitler’s Reich, Dietrich jumped to the Confessing Church, which castigated German Lutherans. Bonhoeffer advocated the pacifism of Jesus (Roman, Province of Judea, 1st century A.D.). He corresponded with a genius of nonviolent protest, Mohandas Gandhi (Indian, 20th century A.D.). Bonhoeffer prayed that God would give him strength not to take up arms. He joined Brothers House, a monkish pacifist community.
The Nazi SS forbade Bonhoeffer to speak or write. But as World War II dragged on, the anti-Semitic Holocaust progressed. Bonhoeffer had written, “The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts” (Essay: Who Stands Fast?). Despite pacifist convictions, Dietrich joined a military intelligence conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The Fuehrer survived their July 20, 1944, bomb. Bonhoeffer’s involvement surfaced. The Reich hung Dietrich Bonhoeffer on April 9, 1945, at Flossenbürg Prison, as the Allies pressed into the heart of Germany.
For years, several friends have gathered Saturday mornings to read philosophical ethics at Third Place Books. We call our enterprise the Witless Protection Society, a poke at ourselves. Witless struggles with history’s great minds deliberating on human conduct; we share our ethical puzzlements. Mine are most often bonhoefferian. The resolution a client hires me to fashion demands legal battle. I become a warrior peacemaker. The joy I wish a friend requires I make him cry. I become a torturing comfort. I need to lose weight, which urges me to savor food with friends less exuberantly. I become an ascetic celebrant. I watch others; this is not my dilemma alone. Muds of complexity stain the linen of ethical clarity. Deserving goals may recommend means which give pause.
We walk an ethical razor, in the good company of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pacifist assassin.