Under the heat of the Nazis, in Tegel prison, and surely under the cloud of having participated in a conspiracy to wipe out Hitler, and clearly how he responded in interrogations and concealed the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer wrote a short essay, or a fragment, called “What does it mean to tell the truth?” The essay is found in Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945 (DBW 16, pp. 601-608).
Is it ever right to tell a lie? When? Where? Or, what does it mean to tell the truth?
His concrete example opens up the issues:
A child is asked by a teacher if his father is a drunk. The child, if he or she says Yes (which is true), exposes an embarrassing family reality. If the child says No (which is also true and it means it is wrong for a teacher to invade into that territory), the child does not expose the privacy of the family. Relationship matters, Bonhoeffer says, but the deeper reality also matters.
Joseph Fletcher argued that Bonhoeffer provides an exceptional example of “situation ethics,” but most Bonhoeffer scholars think Fletcher got this one dead wrong. There’s much more at work in Bonhoeffer than situational ethics.
To be sure, Bonhoeffer’s ideas here are not completely developed. But this seems clear:
As lying transcends the contraction of thought and speech, so truth telling transcends words yet searches for the right word at the right time (and he calls the person who tells the truth regardless of the relationship and situation the “cynic”) with an eye to living before the reality of God in Christ.
How does my word become true? 1) By recognizing who calls on me to speak and what authorizes me to speak; 2) by recognizing the place in which I stand; 3) by putting the subject I am speaking about into this context.