Posts Tagged ‘Evil’

It was inevitable that the constant struggle against Nazi evils — made all the worse by the popularity of the Nazi regime in its first ten years — would wear down those who had recognized the  Hitler’s wickedness from the beginning.

Petty people, who define themselves by what they are against rather than what they are for, seem to thrive on conflict and confrontation. Those who are more mature and who know the good they are pursuing, find it to be a great strain when circumstances force them into the unnatural posture of opposition.

When matters are deeply serious and drearily prolonged, death itself becomes no longer an enemy but almost a temptation because it seems to promise relief and rest. “We can no longer hate Death so much; we have discovered something of kindness in his features and are almost reconciled to him. Deep down we seem to feel that we are his already and that each new day is a miracle.”

“Who stands firm?”, Bonhoeffer had asked earlier in After Ten Years. Only the one who stands “in faith and in relationship to God alone,” the one who knows and accepts that he “is called to obedient and responsible action.”

When death becomes a temptation, only a few will stand firm in their active resistance to evil. Bonhoeffer’s hope — and commitment — was that when death came, it would find him “completely engaged in the fullness of life, rather than by accident, suddenly, away from what really matters.”

Or, to put it in language John Wayne* would understand, he wants to die with his boots on.

  • For those outside the US, John Wayne was an film actor who became a symbol of the rugged individualism on which America prided itself in its first two centuries. the attractive ideal of the rugged individualist still lingers in American dreams, though the realities of modern life tie us together in so many and such complex ways that now all we have left is a wistful memory of the good ol’ days.

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In “After Ten Years,” the small set of brief essays written by Bonhoeffer in 1942 as he reflected back on a decade of resisting Hitler, one of the most important passages is entitled “On Stupidity.” It’s point is simple: When fighting against evil, the most difficult opponents are the stupid ones. They may have normal or even high IQs but for one reason or another they have chosen stupidity in the face of evil. Often they have committed themselves to a person or cause, probably for the wrong reasons, and then choose to be senseless rather than to change. Their problem is not in their head but in their heart and must be addressed at that level, if at all.

Try to read the opening paragraph of the mini-essay without thinking of donald trump’s followers:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

This paragraph is taken from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, vol. 8.


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This is the tenth in the series “Ten theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer” by Fuller Professor Ray Anderson. The article was written in 2007 for a guest spot on Ben Myer’s blog  ( http://faith-theology.blogspot.com ). Thanks to Ben for his permission to use Ray’s comments.


There is disagreement over this, of course. His complicity in the conspiracy thrust him directly into political resistance. In the minds of many traditional Lutherans, this excluded him from being a Christian martyr. In a sermon preached in 1932 he had this to say about martyrs: “the blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness” (Bethge 1975, 155). By his own definition, he was a martyr. He never claimed justification for his actions, other than to assume guilt as a necessary component of responsible action. Whether it was true or not, he thought that his actions, to the very end, were those of a Christian disciple in obedience to Christ. Martyrs live for what thy confess to be true, and die for it. Only those who confess the same truth will call a person a martyr.


These are strong words, both Bonhoeffer’s and Ray’s. Earlier (in Thesis 5) Ray called Bonhoeffer a “prophetic theologian.” We can certainly see his prophetic dimension in these words. The sermon was preached in June of 1932. Hitler held no public office and was only the head of the Nazi party. That party was gaining some strength but Hitler was not trusted by the vast majority of Germans. Bonhoeffer, though, already sensed that Hitler or someone quite like him would soon become the most powerful figure in Germany. The desperate situation in Germany following WW I was even worse now and Bonhoeffer realized that a desperate people are ripe for a tyrant, a strong man who will merely “fix things” at whatever cost to some of the people.

Just a few months later, while Bonhoeffer was preparing a radio talk warning the people of their vulnerability to tyranny, Hitler walked into the office of the aged President Hindenburg one afternoon and emerged a few hours later with an appointment as Chancellor (roughly the equivalent of the British Prime Minister).

Perhaps most amazing about Dietrich’s sermon that June morning was that he recognized both that the coming evil could be resisted only by martyrdom and that, in words over which we still struggle, the blood to be shed “will not be innocent.” He knew that the evil that was being birthed in Germany would allow no one the luxury of innocence. There would be no innocent bystanders because he who fails to speak out against evil has his own share in the guilt.

And perhaps Bonhoeffer was also thinking that the coming of the blood-thirsty tyrant would be no unfortunate evil thrust upon the people. Having abandoned justice, all the nation was already becoming guilty of the sin which would be the tyrant’s foundation. It was, as Bonhoeffer already knew, sin against civilization (i.e., the aggressive war they had begun), against the Jews (the long-smoldering anti-Semitism which was already being fanned into outright hatred), and against God himself (a greater love for Germany than for God).

Odd, to my way of thinking, is the tendency of many Christians to think of soldiers as heroes while condemning Bonhoeffer for participating in an assassination conspiracy. Is killing people okay as long as you’re following orders? I hope we don’t believe that, in part because that’s the kind of mentality that allowed hundreds of thousands of Germans to actively join in Hitler’s murderous ways. Even helping in a Holocaust can be approved so long as someone else has ordered it. Unthinkable!

(More in the next blog on Ray’s line: “He never claimed justification for his actions . . .”)


[The sermon Ray mentions was delivered in the Kaiser Wilhelm Church in Berlin on June 19, 1932. It is found in DBWE 11, 457.]

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This is the fifth part of a series called “Ten theses about Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” written by Fuller Professor Ray Anderson and first appearing in the Ben Myers blog: < http://faith-theology.blogspot.com >


He was one of the first to recognize and point out the disastrous consequences of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. In June 1933, when the church struggle erupted over the National Bishop (Ludwig Muller) and the opposing General Superintendents were suspended, Bonhoeffer urged an interdict upon all pastoral services (baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.) as a way of confronting the German Christians with their unholy alliance with Hitler. But he could not arouse sympathy for this drastic action. In fact, Barth advised against this radical proposal, suggesting that “we should let the facts speak for themselves.” In September, following the Brown Synod, Bonhoeffer urged the formation of a new Free Church and even wrote to Barth requesting his support. But here again Bonhoeffer was disappointed at Barth’s counsel to wait until the present leaders “discredited themselves” (Bethge 2000, p. 292). It was in April 1933 in his article on “the Church and the Jewish Question” that he suggested that the only way to act responsibly would be by “throwing a spoke in the wheel” of the national government. Prophets often die by their own words; theologians seldom do.


Earlier in this series (entry #2) Anderson had noted that “Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a lonely theologian.” In this entry he shows us another dimension of Bonhoeffer’s loneliness. He respected Karl Barth above all other theologians, in part because of Barth’s courageous move to set theology on a new course after his liberal teachers proved morally inept in resisting the popular ultra-nationalism which marked Germany’s eager entrance into WW I. Now, when Bonhoeffer could see that the evil of Nazi ideology was even greater than the nationalism surrounding WW I, Barth seemed cautious almost to the point of being timid.

A prophet, we have been told, is not without honor except in his own country and kin. Bonhoeffer’s life bears this out. He cried out against Hitler, calling the church to action, but was dismissed as too young, too radical, too un-patriotic. In the essay mentioned by Anderson (“The Church and the Jewish Question”) Bonhoeffer seems at first almost to be thinking on paper, trying to find his way through the barriers of the German political perspective but suddenly his famous trio of responses to state-sponsored evil emerge. We hold the state accountable, we aid those who are wounded by the state, and — if necessary — we do whatever we can to stop the state. Such talk was shocking to the vast majority of German pastors but for Bonhoeffer the conclusion was inescapable: Doing nothing to stop evil makes us complicit in that evil and in its guilt.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though very strongly attracted to pacifism, found that the personification of evil — known as Adolph Hitler– put him in an awful situation. The key to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the moral life was his sense of responsibility: We are responsible, answerable to God for our decisions. In that light, he chose to participate in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, believing that if he did nothing to stop Hitler he would be sharing in the responsibility for the deaths of Hitler’s victims.

Dietrich died for his choice, being hanged in April of 1945, just three weeks before Hitler took his own life. Not all of Hitler’s victims died during those years, however. This past week, two of those victims have passed away at very advanced ages. One was Maria von Trapp, not the Maria played by Julie Andrews but one of the daughters, renamed in the movie as Louisa. Her family escaped the Nazi war machine barely in time and lived long in America. They were victims in only a minor sense, compared to millions of others.

One of those millions was Alice Herz-Sommer, who survived two years in a concentration camp and lived until last week, dying in London at age 110. during Hitler’s years Herz-Sommer lost her husband at Dachau and her mother at Treblinka. Her death has special meaning, however little notice it seems to have received. She was the last surviving victim of Hitler’s terrible plan to imprison, enslave, and murder all Jews. Her time would have come to a close in 1945, along with those other millions, had not the Russian army liberated her camp before the Nazi plans could be fully executed.

She was, according to the BBC, “an accomplished pianist and music teacher and taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory until 1986, when she moved to London.” She is quoted as saying, “Music was our food. Through making music we were kept alive.”  A website devoted to a film about her life (“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life”) includes this line: “I am Jewish but Beethoven is my religion.”

There are two ways the memory of Herz-Sommer and her fellow victims of the Holocaust can be desecrated. First, we can forget the Holocaust and get on with the modern notion that all humans are inherently good. Second, more pernicious, we can deny altogether that the Holocaust even occurred.

We honor those victims when we remember the Holocaust and its sparkling clear lesson that human goodness battles with human evil and often loses. We have great cause for humility and great cause for gratitude that our Creator does not allow our evil to go unbridled. By the grace of God, human goodness survives all our human-caused Holocausts.

And what is our goodness? Just this: The response of the human heart to the love of God, often unconscious but real nonetheless. We are valuable because God values us. We are beautiful because God delights in beholding us. We are loving because God loves us. May we all become people of gratitude and graciousness in response to our loving Lord. . .

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