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Public Theology: Civil Courage and Public Responsibility
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Civil Courage and Public Responsibility
Here is a segment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's last writings in prison before he was hanged by the Nazis. He speaks against moral fanaticism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran theologian who participated in a plot on the life Adolph Hitler. The group engaged in the plot was discovered. Bonhoeffer spent his last years in prison and was hanged on April 9, 1945, shortly before the end of World War II. The following is the opening segment of a book of his writings in prison, available online. We have placed the title above on this segment, "Civil Courage and Public Responsibility".

The reason we are reproducing this here at this time is because anti-abortion terrorists often use Bonhoeffer's example to justify their use of violence. As you read the following, compare the thinking of these terrorists with that of Bonhoeffer as he reflected on his political involvement. Notice what he says about moral fanaticism.

Were Bonhoeffer writing today I am sure he would use inclusive language. Here readers can do their own interpretations when references are made exclusively to "man".

After Ten Years

TEN YEARS is a long stretch in a man's life. Time is the most precious gift in our possession, for it is the most irrevocable. This is what makes it so disturbing to look back upon time we have lost. Time lost is time when we have not lived a full human life, time unenriched by experience, creative endeavour, enjoyment and suffering. Time lost is time we have not filled, time left empty. The past ten years have not been like that. Our losses have been immeasurable, but we have not lost time. True, knowledge and experience, which are realized only in retrospect, are mere abstractions compared with the reality, compared with the life we have actually lived. But just as the capacity to forget is a gift of grace, so memory, the recalling of the lessons we have learnt, is an essential element in responsible living.

In the following pages I hope to put on record some of the lessons we have learnt and the experiences we have shared during the past ten years. These are not just individual experiences; they are not arranged in an orderly way, there is no attempt to discuss them or to theorize about them. All I have done is to jot down as they come some of the discoveries made by a circle of like-minded friends, dis coveries about the business of human life. The only connexion between them is that of concrete experience. There is nothing new or startling about them, for they have been known long before. But to us has been granted the privilege of learning them anew by first-hand experience. I cannot write a single word about these things without a deep sense of gratitude for the fellowship of spirit and community of life we have been allowed to enjoy and preserve throughout these years.

No Ground beneath our Feet

Surely there has never been a generation in the course of human history with so little ground under its feet as our own. Every conceivable alternative seems equally intolerable. We try to escape from the present by looking entirely to the past or the future for our inspiration, and yet, without indulging in fanciful dreams, we are able to wait for the success of our cause in quietness and confidence. It may be however that the responsible, thinking people of earlier generations who stood at a turning-point of history felt just as we do, for the very reason that something new was being born which was not discernible in the alternatives of the present.

Who Stands his Ground?

The great masquerade of evil has wrought havoc with all our ethical preconceptions. This appearance of evil in the guise of light, beneficence and historical necessity is uttetrly bewildering to anyone nurtured in our traditional ethical systems. But for the Christian who frames his life on the Bible it simply confirms the radical evilness of evil.

The failure of rationalism is evident. With the best of intentions, but with a naive lack of realism, the rationalist imagines that a small dose of reason will be enough to put the world right. In his short-sightedness he wants to do justice to all sides, but in the mele of conflicting forces he gets trampled upon without having achieved the slightest effect. Disappointed by the irrationality of the world, he realizes at last his futility, retires from the fray, and weakly surrenders to the winning side.

Worse still is the total collapse of moral fanaticism. The fanatic imagines that his moral purity will prove a match for the power of evil, but like a bull he goes for the red rag instead of the man who carries it, grows weary and succumbs. He becomes entangled with non-essentials and falls into the trap set by the superior ingenuity of his adversary.

Then there is the man with a conscience. He fights single- handed against overwhelming odds in situations which demand a decision. But there are so many conflicts going on, all of which demand some vital choice with no advice or support save that of his own conscience that he is torn to pieces. Evil approaches him in so many specious and deceptive guises that his conscience becomes nervous and vacillating. In the end he contents himself with a salved instead of a clear conscience, and starts lying to his conscience as a means of avoiding despair. If a man relies exclusively on his conscience he fails to see how a bad conscience is sometimes more wholesome and strong than a deluded one.

When men are confronted by a bewildering variety of alternatives, the path of duty seems to offer a sure way out. They grasp at the imperative as the one certainty. The responsibility for the imperative rests upon its author, not upon its executor. But when men are confined to the limits of duty, they never risk a daring deed on their own responsibility, which is the only way to score a bull's eye against evil and defeat it. The man of duty will in the end be forced to give the devil his due.

What then of the man of freedom? He is the man who aspires to stand his ground in the world, who values the necessary deed more highly than a clear conscience or the duties of his calling, who is ready to sacrifice a barren principle for a fruitful compromise or a barren mediocrity for a fruitful radicalism. What then of him? He must beware lest his freedom should become his own undoing. For in choosing the lesser of two evils he may fail to see that the greater evil he seeks to avoid may prove the lesser. Here we have the raw material of tragedy.

Some seek refuge from the rough-and-tumble of public life in the sanctuary of their own private virtue. Such men how- ever are compelled to seal their lips and shut their eyes to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep themselves pure from the defilements incurred by responsible action. For all that they achieve, that which they leave undone will still torment their peace of mind. They will either go to pieces in face of this disquiet, or develop into the most hypocritical of all Pharisees.

Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not in his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God.

Civil Courage?

What lies behind the complaint about the dearth of civil courage? The last ten years have produced a rich harvest of bravery and self-sacrifice, but hardly any civil courage, even among ourselves. To attribute this to personal cowardice would be an all too facile psychology. Its background must be sought elsewhere. In the course of a long history we Germans have had to learn the necessity and the power of obedience. The subordination of all individual desires and opinions to the call of duty has given meaning and nobility to life. We have looked upwards, not in servile fear, but in free trust, seeing our duty as a call, and the call as a vocation. This readiness to follow a command from above rather than our own private opinion of what was best was a sign of a legitimate self- distrust. Who can deny that in obedience, duty and calling we Germans have again and again excelled in bravery and self- sacrifice? But the German has preserved his freedom what nation has talked so passionately of freedom as we have, from Luther to the idealists? by seeking deliverance from his owji will through service to the community. Calling and freedom were two sides of the same thing. The trouble was, he did not understand his world. He forgot that submissiveness and self-sacrifice could be exploited for evil ends. Once that happened, once the exercise of the calling itself became ques- tionable, all the ideals of the German would begin to totter. Inevitably he was convicted of a fundamental failure: he could not see that in certain circumstances free and responsible action might have to take precedence over duty and calling. As a compensation he developed in one direction an irresponsible unscrupulousness, and in another an agonising scrupulosity which invariably frustrated action. Civil courage however can only grow out of the free responsibility of free men. Only now are we Germans beginning to discover the meaning of free responsibility. It depends upon a God who demands bold action as the free response of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in the process.

Of Success

Though success can never justify an evil deed or the use of questionable means, it is not an ethically neutral thing. All the same it remains true that historical success creates the only basis for the continuance of life, and it is still a moot point whether it is ethically more responsible to behave like Don Quixote and enter the lists against a new age, or to admit one's defeat, accept the new age and agree to serve it. In the last resort success makes history, and the Disposer of history is always bringing good out of evil over the heads of the history- makers. To ignore the ethical significance of success is to betray a superficial acquaintance with history and a defective sense of responsibility. So it is all to the good that we have been forced for once to grapple seriously with this problem of the ethics of success. All the time goodness is successful we can afford the luxury of regarding success as having no ethical significance. But the problem arises when success is achieved by evil means. It is no good then behaving as an arm-chair critic and disputing the issue, for that is to refuse to face the facts. Nor is opportunism any help, for that is to capitulate before success. We must be determined not to be outraged critics or mere opportunists. We must take our full share of responsibility for the moulding of history, whether it be as victors or vanquished. It is only by refusing to allow any event to deprive us of our responsibility for history, because we know that is a responsibility laid upon us by God, that we shall achieve a relation to the events of history far more fruitful than criticism or opportunism. To talk about going down fighting like heroes in face of certain defeat is not really heroic at all, but a failure to face up to the future. The ultimate question the man of responsibility asks is not, How can I extricate myself heroically from the affair? but, How is the coming generation to live? It is only in this way that fruitful solutions can arise, even if for the time being they are humiliating. In short it is easier by far to act on abstract principle than from concrete responsibility. The rising generation will always instinctively discern which of the two we are acting upon. For it is their future which is at stake.

Of Folly

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than malice. You can protest against malice, you can unmask it or prevent it by force. Malice always contains the seeds of its own destruction, for it always makes men uncomfortable, if nothing worse. There is no defence against folly. Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason. If facts contradict personal prejudices, there is no need to believe them, and if they are undeniable, they can simply be pushed aside as exceptions. Thus the fool, as compared with the scoundrel, is invariably self-complacent. And he can easily become dangerous, for it does not take much to make him aggressive. Hence folly requires much more cautious handling than malice. We shall never again try to reason with the fool, for it is both useless and dangerous.

To deal adequately with folly it is essential to recognize it for what it is. This much is certain, it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect. There are men of great intellect who are fools, and men of low intellect who are anything but fools, a discovery we make to our surprise as a result of particular circumstances. The impression we derive is that folly is acquired rather than congenital; it is acquired in certain cir- cumstances where men make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them. We observe further that folly is less common in the unsociable or the solitary than in individuals or groups who are inclined or condemned to sociability. From this it would appear that folly is a sociological problem rather than one of psychology. It is a special form of the operation of historical circumstances upon men, a psycho- logical by-product of definite external factors. On closer inspection it would seem that any violent revolution, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind. Indeed, it would seem to be almost a law of psychology and sociology. The power of one needs the folly of the other. It is not that certain aptitudes of men, intellectual aptitudes for instance, become stunted or destroyed. Rather, the upsurge of power is so terrific that it deprives men of an independent judgement, and they give up trying more or less unconsciously to assess the new state of affairs for them- selves. The fool can often be stubborn, but this must not mislead us into thinking he is independent. One feels somehow, especially in conversation with him, that it is impossible to talk to the man himself, to talk to him personally. Instead, one is confronted with a series of slogans, watchwords, and the like, which have acquired power over him. He is under a curse, he is blinded, his very humanity is being prostituted and exploited. Once he has surrendered his will and become a mere tool, there are no lengths of evil to which the fool will not go, yet all the time he is unable to see that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation of humanity, which can do irreparable damage to the human character.

But it is just at this point that we realize that the fool cannot be saved by education. What he needs is redemption. There is nothing else for it. Until then it is no earthly good trying to convince him by rational argument. In this state of affairs we can well understand why it is no use trying to find out what 'the people' really think, and why this question is also so superfluous for the man who thinks and acts responsibly. As the Bible says, 'the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom'. In other words, the only cure for folly is spiritual redemption, for that alone can enable a man to live as a responsible person in the sight of God.

But there is a grain of consolation in these reflections on human folly. There is no reason for us to think that the majority of men are fools under all circumstances. What matters in the long run is whether our rulers hope to gain more from the folly of men, or from their independence of judgement and their shrewdness of mind.

Contempt for Humanity?

There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity. We know full well that it would be very wrong, and that it would lead to a sterile relationship with our fellow men. Perhaps the following considerations will save us from this temptation. The trouble about it is that it lands us into the worst mistake of our enemies. The man who despises others can never hope to do anything with them. The faults we despise in others are always, to some extent at least, our own too. How often have we expected from others more than we are prepared to do ourselves! Why have we until now held such lofty views about human nature? Why have we not recognized its frailty and liability to temptation? We -must form our estimate of men less from their achievements and failures, and more from their sufferings. The only profitable relationship to others and especially to our weaker brethren is one of love, that is the will to hold fellowship with them. Even God did not despise humanity, but became Man for man's sake.

Immanent Righteousness

It is one of the most astounding discoveries, but one of the most incontrovertible, that evil often in a surprisingly short time proves its own folly and defeats its own object. That is not to say that every evil deed is at once followed automatically by retribution. But it does mean that the deliberate transgression of the divine law on the plea of self-preservation has the opposite effect of self-destruction. This is something we have learnt from our own experience, and it can be interpreted in various ways. But one certain conclusion we can draw from it seems to be that social life is governed by certain laws more powerful than any other factors which may claim to be determinative. Hence it is not only unjust, but positively unwise to ignore these laws. Perhaps that is why Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas made prudence one of the cardinal virtues. Prudence and folly are not ethical adiaphora, as some Neo-protestant and Gesinnungs-ethics have tried to make out. The prudent man sees not only the possibilities of every concrete situation, but also the limits to human behaviour which are set by the eternal laws of social life. The prudent man acts virtuously and the virtuous man prudently.

It is true that all great historical action is constantly disregarding these laws. But it makes all the difference in the world whether it does so on principle, as though it contained a justification of its own, or whether it is still realized that to break these laws is sin, even if it be unavoidable, and that it can only be justified if the law is at once re-instated and respected. It is not necessarily hypocrisy when the declared aim of political action is the restoration of the law and not just Blatant self-preservation. The world is simply ordered in such a way that a profound respect for the absolute laws and human rights is also the best means of self-preservation. While these laws may on occasion be broken in case of necessity, to proclaim that necessity as a principle and to take the law into our own hands is bound to bring retribution sooner or later. The immanent righteousness of history only rewards and punishes the deeds of men, the eternal righteousness of God tries and judges their hearts.

A Few Articles of Faith on the Sovereignty of God in History

I believe that God both can and will bring good out of evil. For that purpose he needs men who make the best use of everything. I believe God will give us all the power we need to resist in all time of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely upon ourselves and not on him alone. A faith as strong as this should allay all our fears for the future. I believe that even our errors and mistakes are turned to good account. It is no harder for God to cope with them than with what we imagine to be our good deeds. I believe God is not just timeless fate, but that he waits upon and answers sincere prayer and responsible action.

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Date Added: 6/7/2009 Date Revised: 6/7/2009

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