Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in Hitler’s Wheel?
Recently here, on this blog, there has been some discussion about the quote often attributed to Bonhoeffer about the Christian’s duty to be or put a “spoke in the wheel” of an unjust government or social order. The quote takes several forms as it gets repeated. But the “gist” of it is that the job of a Christian in relation to an unjust government is to be or put a spoke in the wheel of that government to stop it.
Here some have questioned whether that quote really goes back to Bonhoeffer or if it was invented by someone later and somehow got attributed to Bonhoeffer.
So, over the past two or three days, I have been doing some research and here is what I have found.
First, in Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial biography of Bonhoeffer he quotes or paraphrases Bonhoeffer talking in private, to him and a few friends, about the conspiracy to kill Hitler and how he, Bonhoeffer, was part of it. Bonhoeffer knew he was part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler. Unless Bethge was making it all up. That’s hardly likely. Bethge was by all accounts Bonhoeffer’s best friend and confidant outside his family (and I supposed besides his fiancée).
According to Bethge Bonhoeffer even offered to shoot Hitler himself, but the other conspirators turned him down. Why am I not providing “chapter and verse?” Because anyone who wants to know anything true about Bonhoeffer’s life needs to read the Bethge biography. In my opinion, no other biography of Bonhoeffer is worth reading if you have not first read Bethge’s.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Now, more to the point. I will quote only as much as “fair use” copyright laws allow. According to my publishers that is 300 words although most courts have permitted up to 500 words. In other words, there is some “wiggle room.” Still, I will stick to no more than 300 words just to be on the safe side. This material comes from Bonhoeffer’s book Ethics edited by Bethge and published in English Touchstone Books, a division or imprint of Simon & Schuster (1995). It is the English translation of the sixth German edition of Ethics. The translator is Neville Horton Smith.
In the chapter entitled “’Personal’ and ‘Real’ Ethos” Bonhoeffer debates another German Christian ethicist named Otto Dilschneider who, in Die evangelische Tat (1940) argued that “Protestant ethics is concerned with man’s personality alone.” (316) In contrast and contradiction Bonhoeffer responded with several rhetorical questions put to Dilschneider and those who agreed with him. (Nobody knows the exact date of this essay by Bonhoeffer but it had to be between 1940 and 1944.) Here is Bonhoeffer’s response:
“The question here is whether within the field of Christian ethics any assertions may be made with regard to worldly institutions and conditions, e.g., the state, economics or science, i.e., whether Christian ethics has an interest in worldly institutions and conditions or whether these things fall within ‘the zone of the demands of ethical imperatives.’ In other words, is it the Church’s sole task to practice love and charity within the given worldly institutions, i.e., to inspire these institutions so far as possible with a new outlook, to mitigate hardships, to care for the victims of these institutions, and to establish a new order of her own within the congregation? Or is the Church charged with a mission towards the given worldly orders themselves, a mission of correction, improvement, etc., a mission to work towards a new worldly order? Has the Church merely to gather up those whom the wheel has crushed or has she to prevent the wheel from crushing them?” (316-317) (Italics added.)
Now, combining this quotation from Ethics with Bethge’s clear quotations and paraphrases from Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers and direct, personal statements about the plot to kill Hitler, I do not think it matters whether Bonhoeffer actually advocated Christians putting a “spoke in the wheel” of the Nazi government. He may have or he might not have. (Bethge’s biography is huge and I have not re-read every word of it looking for this particular quote.)
Clearly Bonhoeffer believed it is the church’s “duty” to “prevent the wheel [of government] from crushing” people. By what means? Well, for Bonhoeffer it meant by overthrowing the Nazi government.
Some critics like to point out that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist. I have never denied it. He was. What some of them don’t realize is that he was also a Lutheran and believed it was necessary at times to “sin boldly” (Luther) and throw oneself on God’s mercy for forgiveness. He clearly believed that his “invitation” to join the conspiracy to kill Hitler was no happenstance. In Ethics Bonhoeffer expressed many times that the concrete will of God cannot be known with certainty outside of a concrete situation of ethical decision-making. One has to think of Bonhoeffer’s fellow Lutheran Søren Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical.”
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