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Monday, February 28, 2011

Failed Plots to Kill Hitler

Once a month at Chalice the young people watch a movie immediately after the 11:00 a.m. service. This Sunday we watched Valkyrie. As you either already know, or likely guessed from the title of the post, this is a story about a plot to kill Adolf Hilter. We see a man who loved his country enough to leave parts of his own body on the battle field, commit treason. Doing so, he knowingly endangers his wife and children.

On Saturday, my newly formed Breakfast Club had our second meeting to discuss Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant theologian, a pacifist, and someone involved in a plot to kill Hitler. He explained, “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” Bonhoeffer, like all of the semi-fictionalized characters in Valkyrie, was executed for his role in the plot.

One function of Adolf Hitler and Nazis generally in our public discourse is to stand in for ultimate evil. Unfortunately, we often simply use this ultimate evil as something to call our political foes. Goodwin's law only partially sarcastically provides, "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

In my discussion with the youth after Valkyrie and in reading about Bonhoeffer's choice, I find ultimate evil giving rise to a surprisingly subtle question. When is something so evil as to require an exception to your moral code? When does righteousness call you to commit treason, or to turn your back on your life long moral commitment to pacifism?


Bob Howard said...

In (necessarily) detailed response to this important question, I recommend first a part of the article on Bonhoeffer in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which gives his understanding of the ethics of responsible action, which is grounded in his understanding of Jesus, central to all his theology. The article can be found here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/bonhoeff/#H2
Then, going to the original source, Bonhoeffer's book "Ethics," read the section entitled, "The Structure of the Responsible Life," which can be found here (Google Books version of the book): http://books.google.com/books?id=XLqkvQB5oO4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=ethics+%2Bbonhoeffer&source=bl&ots=_ddTu4dAqD&sig=fWo2WvPZEsykXF4A1Cj7KLbLRc8&hl=en&ei=rfBrTeGVNYm-sQPy7e2mBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CDwQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q&f=false
And it is best to start at page 254, to grasp B's definition of "responsibility." By it he embraces the totality of one's response to the "Word" addressed to each person in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the face of the humans who surround us, in the situation in which we find ourselves. We are response-able _to_ God-in-Jesus-Christ, in our responsibility _for_ the well-being of our fellow human beings.
Thus, in any action, we may indeed contradict moral principles, in order to act upon our responsibility toward fellow humans. And we do so fully realizing the contradiction, and accepting the guilt (sin) which our action incurs by violating such moral principles (and laws). We accept, in a word, the "cost of discipleship."
Bonhoeffer summarizes his position, especially in view of his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, in his short piece entitled, "After Ten Years" (found in his "Letters and Papers from Prison).

JimII said...

Thank you, Bob. I knew I could count on your for a thoughtful response.