Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Liar
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and a theologian in WWII Germany. He openly opposed the Nazi dictatorship, founded the confessing church, was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, and in some of his later writings on ethics he described a scenario where he believed that lying was the right thing to do (hence the title). Eventually, Bonhoeffer was put into a concentration camp and killed. It was within these extreme conditions that Bonhoeffer chose to write on Ethics.
Imagine you are at home one day and a friend comes to the door and says, “someone is chasing me and they want to kill me! Can I please hide here?”
Of course, you let them inside, they’re your friend and you care for them. But, a few moments later there is a knock at your door. When you answer it, there is a person standing outside and they tell you that they are looking for your friend and they intend to murder them. Then they ask this question: “Is your friend here?”
What do you do?
I’ve posed it as a question, but I think most of us know what we would do. If only given the option of a yes or no answer, we would tell the lie to preserve the life of our friend. I have a certain level of discomfort with this. It doesn’t sit right with me to say that the right thing to do in any given scenario is to sin. I want to think of some way to strip the sinfulness of this action from the action. To be able to help my own friend while maintaining my own moral high ground. Bonhoeffer has some scathing words for people who think like me on this point,
“I come into conflict with my responsibility that is grounded in reality when I refuse to become guilty of violating the principles of truthfulness for the sake of my friend, refusing in this case to lie energetically for the sake of my friend—and any attempt to deny that we are lying here is once again the work of a legalistic and self-righteous conscience — refusing, in other words, to take on and bear guilt out of love for my neighbour.” (p. 652)
So, it’s sin… but you should do it?
That seems to be what Bonhoeffer is saying. He is bringing attention to a tension that exists between the conscience and moral law. He goes on to make the argument that as Christians we have been freed from the bondage of the law and have been enabled to make a decision that is contrary to the law in response to conscience. To put it simply,
“Whenever conscience and concrete responsibility clash, we must therefore freely decide in favour of Jesus Christ.” (p. 654)
Being like Jesus
Bonhoeffer takes this logic one step farther by writing about something called ‘vicarious representation.’ This was hinted at in the end of the first quote when he describes lying as bearing guilt out of love for your neighbour.
This is what Jesus did for all of humanity. He came down and bore our sins. As Christians we are called to be like Jesus to those around us and maybe, in this scenario, lying is the way that we can accomplish that. We take upon ourselves a burden of guilt and set aside our own righteousness for the sake of another and in doing so we show them a true picture of the selfless love of Christ.
Guilt and grace
I think a really important part of this whole idea is that there is real guilt that comes into play. Lying has not magically become okay, we rely entirely upon grace when we take this step. Bonhoeffer puts it this way,
“Those who act out of free responsibility are justified before others by dire necessity; before themselves they are acquitted by their conscience, but before God they hope only for grace.” (p. 655)
Other people will understand the decision to lie and absolutely forgive us (though they may not forgive you if you choose to tell the truth and to see someone killed), you can take solace in the fact that you acted according to your conscience and preserved the life of a friend, but before God we simply hope for grace.
This is the freedom of the grace of God. No longer tied up with laws and instead freed to act.
Bonhoeffer was a vocal pacifist and found himself involved in the attempted assassination of Hitler. He was justified before us and acquitted by his own conscience in this scenario by the necessity of the situation. Before God, he simply asked for grace.
Thank God for that amazing grace.
Intellectually, Bonhoeffer’s arguments make a lot of sense to me. I actually think that this whole idea of vicarious representation is quite beautiful but, it leaves me feeling a little bit uncomfortable. I still feel a little bit funny saying that it would be right to commit sin in any circumstance.
What do you think? Do you agree with what Bonhoeffer has to say? Maybe you think he’s totally wrong. Or, maybe you’re a fence sitter like me and you think it sounds good but you’re not super happy about it. The comment section is open below and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “History and Good.” In The Bonhoeffer Reader, Edited by Clifford J. Green and Michael P. DeJonge, 636–667. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. Kindle Edition.