Theology

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Liar

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.

The Scenario

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

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jeffreyswebb

9 Comments

  1. jeffreyswebb
    November 28, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    Thanks, Jeff, for this article. Bonhoeffer’s thoughts are certainly worthy of consideration.

    I take issue with this view of “vicarious representation,” especially in its alleged imitation of Christ. “Bearing guilt” by sinning does not mirror the work of Christ. When Christ bore the sins of humanity, he did not do so by sinning. Rather, he did so by being entirely without sin and offering himself as an atoning sacrifice. This is, of course, something that is unique to Christ and cannot be mirrored by Christians.

    There is some further discussion to be had about the possibility of a ‘good’ sin, or perhaps we should call it a righteous sin. Your presentation of Bonhoeffer’s reasoning (I have not read his work on this subject myself) suggests that he believed in the possibility of a righteous sin. Others would find a contradiction in terms here and would claim that any righteous act cannot be identified as a sin. From this point of view, one must arrive at one of two conclusions: either the described act of lying is righteous and is not a sin (which requires some flexibility in the biblical prohibition against lying), or this act is not righteous and is a sin (which does not require flexibility in the biblical prohibition against lying). Each of these positions carries important implications, and arguments in favour of any of them would have to be extremely careful and detailed. I don’t have such an argument at this point, but i am interested to read the thoughts of anyone who does.

    Dave

    • jeffreyswebb
      November 28, 2017 at 11:32 pm

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment!

      I also find Bonhoeffer’s idea of vicarious representation to be one of the most difficult parts of his writing on this topic. I think that I may have misrepresented Bonhoeffer slightly in the the wording of my own post. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the individual lying takes upon themselves a burden of guilt out of love for a friend. They are not bearing the guilt of another person, obviously they would not be able to do that, but they are making themselves guilty out of love for another and for the preservation of life for another. There is an analogy to be made here to Christ’s death but they cannot be equated because as humans we are unable to pay the price for another person’s sin.

      Regarding your second comment, it appears to me that Bonhoeffer did not believe in the idea of a righteous sin (see the first quote) but, he certainly believed in the potential for ethical sins (which is what he seems presenting in the text). There is a tension that exists in this scenario between what is moral (truth) and what is ethical (preservation of life) and Bonhoeffer’s conclusion is that, in life and death situations like this, the responsible Christian chooses in favour of preserving life and relies on God’s grace for their violation of moral law.

      Putting aside Bonhoeffer for a few minutes, there are examples in scripture of people like Rehab and the Egyptian midwives who lie and are blessed for it. Also, Samuel is told by God to lie to Saul in 1 Samuel 16. In these scenarios, it would be difficult to describe the lies, especially the one commanded by God, as sinful. So, maybe Bonhoeffer is mistaken in saying that the action of the Christian lying to save the friend is sinful but, I think that it would take someone with a more robust understanding of hamartiology to really speak intelligently to that point.

      Thanks again for your comments and insights. I really appreciate you taking the time to read through and reflect on the ideas I presented.

      Jeff

  2. jeffreyswebb
    November 29, 2017 at 4:01 am

    Thanks, Jeff, for response.

    I understand that in Bonhoeffer’s view the liar doesn’t actually bear another person’s guilt. My main concern in the above comment was to challenge the close connection proposed between Christ’s work on the cross on the one hand and, on the other, the decision to lie for someone else’s benefit and therefore take on guilt. While the latter case might stem from a Christ-like attitude of concern for others and a willingness to sacrifice, we must keep in mind that Christ himself did not sin for the sake of others. Therefore, while the motivation might be somewhat Christ-like, I would be cautious in calling the act itself Christ-like.

    I get what you are saying about calling the lie not ‘righteous’ but ‘ethical’. However, I am not sure that we can separate these two terms. This, I suppose, is at the heart of my concern with Bonhoeffer’s thoughts about this topic.

    • jeffreyswebb
      November 30, 2017 at 3:40 am

      Dave,

      Thank you again for your responses and engagement on this post. I wish that I could sit here and respond to your comments with some real hard and fast answers, but to be honest I don’t have any. I think you are raising really legitimate and meaningful concerns about Bonhoeffer’s perspectives on this topic. Personally, I have a real problem with drawing a line between what is righteous and what is ethical. But, I’m not sure how else I would engage the fact that I believe telling the truth in the given scenario would be an action that was profoundly unchristian. The reason I wrote this post is because it almost makes me feel like I’ve been backed into a corner theologically. This is where the theological meets a broken reality and Bonhoeffer makes an effort to make sense of that interaction. It is less than perfect, it has a lot of tension associated with it, but I’m not sure I can come up with anything better without saying that God would want people to tell the truth and live with the consequences (which I don’t think is the case.)

      I’m curious about your thoughts on the scenario (and if it’s too personal of a question, please don’t engage the question). What do you think a Christian should down presented with this scenario? How do you think God would want them to act?

  3. jeffreyswebb
    November 29, 2017 at 4:02 am

    Sorry—”for the response.”

  4. jeffreyswebb
    November 30, 2017 at 12:48 am

    Thank you for including me in this blog post. My perspective is as a lay person who is reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It has broadened my knowledge of the Hitler era and thus the context of his life. The issue of sin committed in dire circumstances and the consequence of the act touched on the nature of issues we are sometimes confronted with in the course of our lives. Hence, my comment would be to the pastoral side of the question as a lay person responding to Bonhoeffer the pastor.
    Bonhoeffer set out the issue of two sins; one sin of the actual sinner or evil person ( Hitler in his life’s example) and his personal sin that Bonhoefger contemplated if he was part of Hitler’s murder. It illuminated for me how when confronted with the clear commandment from the old testament regarding murder that Bonhoeffer chose to offend that law. His justification was that Christ was not just legal but set a new way of deciding a course of action. The greatest commandment was love. So Bonhoeffer ( in my clearly non theological terms) saw love “trumping” pure slavish adherence to the old law.

    However, in a great and enlightening view of these actions he did not feel absolved of his breaking of the Law. He left that to God through Christ and left his (Deitrich’s) final judgement to God through his grace and through Jesus redemption of our sin.

    What a great lesson from a Pastor to a Christion fold.

    We cannot earn or trade on our decisions….or take away from God his right to judge us … by deciding we can trade what law should be used and which one “trumps” the other

    For me it showed our true illumination of our place and
    position in the world. We are free to decide and hopefully we try to understand but must fully acknowledge we are only in small part in the image of God. Despite our best effort to choose the right way we must always ask God for his grace for our forgiveness and redemption.

    • jeffreyswebb
      November 30, 2017 at 3:44 am

      Dave,

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful response!

      I think you’re right to point out the example from Bonhoeffer’s life and the assassination attempt on Hitler to bring the conversation some context. You’ve brought out a beautiful pastoral message from this somewhat technical theological discussion. Jesus’ law of love does need to be considered when we start asking questions about how Christians should react in any scenario.. and no matter what, we will always end up relying on God for His grace, forgiveness, and redemption.

      Jeff

  5. jeffreyswebb
    November 30, 2017 at 12:59 am

    I would suggest there is a difference between lying to save a life and assassinating a leader of an evil regime. That being said, the moral dilemma seems strange to me in the first place. It seems framed in a way that pretends that someone can make their life spotless, avoiding all sin. I think by putting our added level of sin in perspective, the choice becomes easy. How many times have I sinned over the course of my life? More times than I know. What is the impact of one more? How many times have I sacrificed my life to save another? Never. Adding one to that list would seem significant. Not that the act will erase all my offenses, but it certainly wouldn’t be an act I would regret. I don’t think Obadiah seemed too concerned about his deceit either (1 Kgs 18:34).

    To take a life seems to be a different matter all together. You could weigh the life of one vs the life of the many to make you feel better, but ultimately there is no sure way of exonerating yourself. There is something I would be inclined to compare it to though. In OT times, those who violated certain commands were to be put to death/stoned. In those cases, you would have to assume that the one doing the stoning could have a clear conscience before God, since the stoning was commanded. I would be inclined to think that removing the leader of an evil regime could be viewed through a similar lens.

    • jeffreyswebb
      November 30, 2017 at 3:55 am

      Phil,

      Thanks for your reply and for bringing up that passage of scripture from Kings, it is certainly an interesting one!

      As far as the framing of the moral dilemma is concerned, Bonhoeffer wrote previously about the idea that Christians should be striving to live out the sermon on the mount. This was partly a reaction to a popular theological idea of the time that said that the sermon on the mount wasn’t a call to action for Christians but simply set the stage for the message of grace by showing people how impossible it would be to live a life considered good. So, while Bonhoeffer would not say that people are capable of avoiding all sin, he would argue that Christians should be striving to do so. You may have encountered this idea in his message about cheap and costly grace in the cost of discipleship. I think it’s in this place that he finds his big concern with the idea of lying, he believes that he should be striving for perfection, even if it is impossible to achieve.

      Regarding the idea of people stoning others in the OT and having a clear conscience, I think Bonhoeffer would draw a distinction. Even in his pacifistic views, Bonhoeffer believed that the governmental authority systems have been given that authority by God and are therefore allowed to wield the sword to enforce rules of order. In this way, he would believe that a police officer could morally shoot someone in the line of duty on behalf of the government while remaining morally pure while a civilian observing the same situation would be held accountable if they took the shot. This perspective of governmental authority and violence is described in the cost of discipleship.

      I think that understanding Bonhoeffer’s perspective on this adds some depth to his decision to choose to help assassinate the leader of his own country. It was the most dire of circumstances to him because the authority of the government is, in his perspective, divinely ordained. I think this is part of what made the decision to be involved so troubling for him.

      Jeff

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