Bonhoeffer exposed the illusion of moral neutrality


ietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. He was a bright light in a dark time. Hitler had him executed shortly after his 39th birthday.

On the Sunday after Easter in 1945, a hastily assembled tribunal sentenced him to death. Hours later, in the predawn twilight, soldiers waited at his cell while he finished his prayers and removed his prison clothes. Then they led him to the gallows where he gave his life to the risen Lord.

Allied forces were rapidly approaching Berlin, and the Nazi’s were all but defeated. Only three weeks later, Hitler would kill himself and thus end the war. Regardless, the Fuehrer would have his revenge for Bonhoeffer’s part in the failed Valkyrie assassination attempt.

Some say that this fact disqualifies Bonhoeffer from the title of martyr. Pastors should not intrude into the political realm, they say. Most especially, they should not take up the sword. But those who say this misjudge both the nature of politics and the details of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Other notable German theologians, like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, abandoned Germany for the safety of Switzerland and America, respectively. Bonhoeffer’s friends advised this, too, and arranged his passage to America. But when Germany made the first moves of war, he knew he could not abandon the German people to the Nazi regime.

“Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act,” said Bonhoeffer. Those who left their posts in Germany to criticize the Nazi regime from afar, gave up their birthright as German citizens. Bonhoeffer did not know what awaited him in Germany, only that he must be within its borders to live out his God-given vocation.

The speech and action that he had in mind was to train Lutheran pastors. However, that door was closed to him when he was conscripted into the Nazi army as an intelligence officer. Unable to escape this calling, his choice was narrowed by God. He could discharge his office faithful to God, or faithful to the Fuehrer.

Thousands of German officers were grappling with the same choice. Day in and day out, ordinary Germans who had been conscripted into the service of a madman were given hideous orders and forced to choose between God and man. Some disobeyed them and died. Others committed the atrocities under the cover of “duty” and “obedience to authority.” These, latter, bore the consequences of their actions as life-long scars on the conscience.

Bonhoeffer reasoned, “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” This led to the choice of his life.

Generals and government ministers who understood their responsibility to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of a madman approached Bonhoeffer. They asked him to use his position to query the Allied forces secretly. The German officials wanted him to ask the Allies if they would spare the German people if the officials could remove Hitler from power to end his illegal war.

Simply by asking Bonhoeffer this question, they had placed him on the horns of a dilemma, and they had trusted their lives into his hands. His duty as a Nazi officer was to report this traitorous question to his superior officer. But what was his duty as a human being under God?

What would you do? Would you report the question to your Nazi overlords, or would you join the conspiracy? This stark dilemma is unacceptable to most Americans — as it was unacceptable to most Germans. The modern mind hates binary choices and wants to forge a third path of its own choosing.

Moral relativists pride themselves in avoiding the fray and seeking neutral territory. Bonhoeffer considered this path. Theoretically, he could neither report the question to his Nazi superiors, nor convey the conspirators’ question to the Allied forces. But what at first seems to be morally neutral is, in fact, an act of double betrayal.

Merely knowing the existence of the conspiracy already made Bonhoeffer a co-conspirator. Silence would not exonerate him; only revealing the secret could do that. On the other hand, refusing to convey the question to Allied forces would be actively opposing the generals and government officials who had concluded that their duty to the German people required them to use their God-given office in opposition to the evil war.

While far too many of Bonhoeffer’s countrymen participated in evil by pretending moral neutrality, he could not. It was faithfulness to his calling as a human being that led this pacifist to join the conspirators. His commitment to God gave no other option.

If you have ever asked yourself how an entire nation could allow the holocaust to happen, you now have the answer. It was enabled by the false belief that neutrality is possible. This justified a million acts of silence and proved Bonhoeffer’s most famous words, “silence in the face of evil is itself evil.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a martyr in the pure sense. By his own blood he testified that moral neutrality is illusory. The 75th anniversary of his martyrdom invites us to learn that message anew.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at


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