A little MCQ for you:
Which of the following was pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer doing while he wrote his book on ethics?
a) Planning to assassinate Hitler
b) Courting a girl twenty-odd years younger than he
c) Acting as a triple agent for a secret intelligence agency
d) All of the above
I think it's time for a long over due post on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There's so much food for thought in his writing that's fueled my brain for a good while now. I need to at least start getting some of it out of my head and into the open.
Most of his ideas on ethics he discussed in a book cleverly entitled Ethics, but I haven't read that one yet, so I'm mainly going on what was in Letters and Papers from Prison. Still, I need to use a quote from Ethics to explain to the main concept behind his ethical decision making paradigm. As an aside, the book is unfinished because he was arrested by the SS and executed before he could finish.
The quote: "When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it...Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace."
That is to say, his ethical theory can be summed up as such: Be responsible and pray to God for mercy.
When he was in prison, he wrote an essay on morality, and expounded on seven different ways people deal with ethics, and why they all end up swept off their feet. I'll run through them quickly.
1. The first group of people are the "reasonable people", of which I am one. Basically, reasonable people are those who try to be sensible and figure that everyone, when presented with the sensible thing to do, will also do it. The reason they eventually fail is because the world is not so sensible a place, and the irrationality of it all wears the person down, causing them either to give up or to be crushed by those opposing them. He describes them as having the "best intentions and a naive lack of realism."
2. The second group of people are the moral fanatics. Fanatics are single-minded and believe they can do battle with evil, but tend to attack the idea and forget the people behind the idea. In Bonhoeffer's words, "like a bull he rushes at the red cloak instead of the person holding it". They tire themselves out by chasing after non-essentials and are easily tripped up.
3. People of conscience live by - you guessed it - conscience. As soon as an ethical dilemma is posed, these people are hosed. "Evil approaches him in so many respectable and seductive disguises that his conscience becomes nervous and vacillating." At best they get by with a salved conscience, not a clean one, though a bad conscious is more honest and telling than a soothed one.
4. And then he describes those who just worry about their duty. These people do what they are told and put the responsibility on who told them to do it. It's not hard to see how duty can be twisted. Bonhoeffer warns, "The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty by the devil, too."
5. Those who most assert their freedom are very pragmatic. They are free of things they must do or may not do and so will sacrifice one principle to achieve something greater - a sort of "choose the lesser evil" approach. These people run into trouble because you cannot always tell what is worse. Bonhoeffer says this paradigm contains the "raw materials of tragedy."
6. The sixth group are those who retreat into their own sanctuary of virtuousness. The people in this group make little to no effort to better the world, but only try to keep their own hands clean. They have to shut their eyes to all the problems around them, and are tormented by all they leave undone. Eventually they are either torn apart by their distress or become "the most hypocritical of Pharisees."
7. The final option is really the only good option, he says. "Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God - the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life and answer to the question and call of God."
But how does that work? It sounds a lot being pragmatic to me - not all that different from those who assert their freedom. But he says here that you have to sacrifice your freedom. Actually, I can see the reasonable person and the person of conscience being closely related to the freedom fighter, as well. When push comes to shove, and there is no "good" option, people of conscience will take the path that makes them less afflicted by guilt, and the reasonable person will see that sometimes a trade-off is necessary, even though it speeds up the process of defeat. The paradox is the same for all of them. Is it possible that doing something wrong can ever be the right thing to do? By definition, no. But in effect, is this the case?
Maybe that's the difference. Perhaps responsible people are different not due to the actual actions they perform, but due to the way in which they claim the actions. A reasonable person, a person of conscience, and a freedom fighter all in the end say that they did the least objectionable thing possible at the time and so they should not be held accountable for the evil it involved. They say that it is in effect the right thing to do, even if it's technically wrong. The person who does it claims to be absolved.
The responsible person says that they did what was necessary (or best?) but that the evil is still their own. They are responsible for their actions (or inactions, as the case may be), and do not lay the blame on the people who created the hopeless situation for them. The severity of the crime is not lessened by the fact that it is the least poisonous of the options. In this understanding, doing something wrong is still bad, but may be ethically required. Which just sounds nuts.
It seems like a kind of fatalistic and angsty way of viewing things. I like the sound of "I did what I saw was best, and if God wants to punish me for it, so be it" as opposed to "I did what I saw was best and oh, God, please forgive me for it!" The former is so much more confident and "case closed" like, but it's also terrifying insomuch as we definitely make mistakes, and if we ask for God's judgement, we can be sure we're going to get it.
And yet, in a sense, being responsible for one's own actions also takes the responsibility off us. We know we're sinners, and we know we need mercy. We also know that God gives mercy to those who ask for it. Though we are responsible for our behaviour, God is responsible for our salvation. Perhaps this is what is meant by "freed from sin", which is a concept I've never quite understood to my liking. On the other hand, if we claim that we are not responsible for the evil we do, then we are claiming that we do not need mercy. And if we do not believe we need mercy, why would we ask for it? Though we may not acknowledge it, we are responsible for our own demise.
It doesn't seem fair that there may be no possible way to get out of a situation without condemning ourselves. Biblically, it seems there must be a way, seeing as how Christ managed. But barring a sudden endowment of the same power, wisdom, and foreknowledge that Christ possesses, it would be only blind, blundering luck that gets us through life unstained, and not our own cleverness. And we know that due to our sin nature, that's not going to happen.
Does Bonhoeffer's analysis of the situation make it impossible for someone to be morally excellent or praiseworthy? In comparison to God, clearly yes. It doesn't allow for even the hypothetical possibility. But as he states, we can be justified to our society and at peace with ourselves that we saw no better option. I see no reason to believe that we cannot be thought excellent by our society, though as soon as we believe ourselves to be excellent, we are in danger of condemning ourselves. And though the situation may sometimes prove (to us) to be a no-win circumstance, we are still called to, and able to, strive to be more like Christ. We are assured forgiveness, so there is no reason to wallow in misery over our inability. What is that verse? 2 Cor. 12:9 "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me."
Not that this gives us leave to go around sinning in order that grace may multiply, of course. Not finding a way to get out of sinning and purposefully sinning are two different things entirely. We are still called to be the best we can be.
I guess this is a self-maintaining view of things, at any rate (I think I agree with it). After all, even if it's entirely wrong, then we accept responsibility for being wrong, and therefore are in a place to beg to God for mercy.
Although the movie Kingdom of Heaven and Dietrich Bonhoeffer aren't really on the same level, I really like this quote by King Baldwin IV:
"None of us chose our end really. A king may move a man, a father may claim a son. But remember that even when those who move you be kings or men of power, your soul is in your keeping alone. When you stand before God you cannot say 'but I was told by others to do thus' or that 'virtue was not convenient at the time'. This will not suffice. Remember that."
Oh, and the answer to the question at the start of the post is, of course, D.