A Complex Obedience

By Lovin, Robin W. | The Christian Century, April 26, 1995 | Go to article overview

A Complex Obedience


Lovin, Robin W., The Christian Century


Most of those who have been inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life and thought admire him first for what he rejected. His steadfast resistance to Nazism, which led eventually to his death, made him a modern hero of faith, who knew how to say no to evil even when it cloaked itself as a kind of political messianism. Bonhoeffer taught us how to translate the Apostles' declaration that "we must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29) into resistance to a modern totalitarian state.

Only later do we learn to appreciate his affirmations. That happens first as we come to know something of his biography and personality. He was immensely talented, and exuberant in his enjoyment of music, tennis and travel, not to mention intellectual duels and parliamentary strategy. He knew how to refute the theology of the pro-Nazi "German Christians." He also knew how to outwit them at ecumenical conferences. His opposition to Nazism was serious and determined. He could, like many gifted, reflective people, drift into a state that we today might call "depression." (He preferred the term accidie, from medieval spirituality.) But he was never grim.

For most people who are attracted to Bonhoeffer's life and thought, it is the affirmations of his Ethics that they learn to appreciate last. This difficult book, which he left unfinished at the time of his arrest in 1943, maintains a complex dialogue with contemporary philosophy, Barthian theology and German social and legal theory. It is full of references to contemporary events and problems which, under the circumstances, Bonhoeffer could not make explicit. When you are engaged in a conspiracy against the leaders of a totalitarian state that is engaged in a global war, it will not do to carry around a notebook full of ethical reflections on what you have seen. Fifty years later, much of the Ethics remains a puzzle for us until it is explicated by good editors who can relate the cryptic passages to the events amid which they were written. Such a presentation of the Ethics is now available in the German critical edition and will soon be published in English.

Even a brief, unguided reading of the Ethics makes one essential point clear, however. Bonhoeffer maintained his moral clarity along with a full appreciation of the complexity of reality. We are apt to over-simplify his time: The Nazis were always obviously evil. Bonhoeffer saw this and was brave enough to say so. End of story. Ethics and other occasional writings from the war years raise more difficult questions: What are the limits of loyalty to one's people and one's nation when the government is corrupt? Can we use lies and violence to fend off the evil of a tyrant and not become brutalized and deceptive ourselves? Those were the questions that Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries faced. He saw his way clearly and steadily to a resolution that we can still see as right, after 50 years of hindsight, while many of his contemporaries in the church, the military or the civil service drifted into blind patriotism or futile attempts to preserve their own moral purity. …

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