Monday, May 16, 2011

On Ethics, Pacifism and Bonhoeffer

Some of the discussions around the death of bin Laden last week got me to thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian/pastor who during World War II participated in a plot to kill Hitler. Back in the early 70s when I was first introduced to Bonhoeffer's writing I was also struggling with the "practical" applications of my pacifist tendencies. At the time I was introduced to an example that a theology professor said Bonhoeffer used.

If a truck were barreling out of control down a street toward a child or group of children and the only way to stop it from its deadly mission was to kill the driver, would you?

Bonhoeffer's ethic says yes. That's the way it was explained to me in 1971 as part of a discussion of pacifism and ethics at a church camp in the midst of the Vietnam War. I don't remember if the speaker was advocating a move away from peaceful protest or not, but it was a striking moment for this 20-something pacifist.

All that came back to me quite forcefully last week as I discovered Christians debating and responding to the death of bin Laden with ambivalence and concern. Not so much about his death, but the response to it. As I reflected on it myself I said that the apparent triumph of good over evil in bin Laden's death does not call for celebration, but relief. We had no choice; we are grateful that he is no longer a threat; but we need to be cautious that our sense of victory doesn't overcome our humanity.

We are also filled with sadness over the ongoing tragedies of wars of all kinds and violence of all styles. Even justified violence is still violence and makes us less than we can truly be. I am glad for Obama and the defeat of bin Laden. But I do not rejoice at death. Not that kind of death. Even when it is necessary.

So I wanted to figure out a little bit of where Bonhoeffer was. I went Googling and found some thoughts.

First, from the BBC:
In Ethics, Bonhoeffer wrestles with the essential problem: how can a Christian, essentially a pacifist, justify murder? His argument can be summarised thus:

  • Responsible action is how Christians act in accordance with the will of God.
  • The demand for responsible action - that is, acting in accordance with God's will - is one that no Christian can ignore.
  • Christians are, therefore, faced with a dilemma: when assaulted by evil, they must oppose it through direct action. They have no other option. Any failure to act is simply to condone evil.
What a difficult position, but one that must be addressed. Is there a time and place when the failure to act against evil would in and of itself be evil? Is there a point when pacifism may actually be wrong?

Over at the blog Ten-Minute Theology, I found this bit of insight:
[Bonhoeffer] also takes on a famous example from another German intellectual titan, Kant. Imagine someone intends to kill the friend that you are hiding in your house. One day that person barges in and demands to know if the friend is hiding there. Kant had argued that in the interest of truthfulness, the ethical act is to answer in the honest affirmative. Bonhoeffer passionately disagrees, thinking this is a monstrous distortion of what it means to act ethically. The problem with the Kantian line of thinking, he argues, is that it reduces the ethical to an unchanging list of right and wrong behaviors, instead of recognizing that
Ethical discourse cannot be conducted in a vacuum, in the abstract, but only in a concrete context. Ethical discourse, therefore, is not a system of propositions which are correct in themselves, a system which is available for anyone to apply at any time and in any place, but it is inseparably linked with particular persons, times, and places.
The key word for Bonhoeffer, which he stresses repeatedly, is concrete. An action is not ethical according to some timeless principle, but only in a specific given situation. This is because life is lived in the here and now, in the world of given circumstances, and not in the ideal world of mental reflection. Life is lived, in other words, in human society, with all the messiness that that entails.
I came away from this brief research with an uneasy feeling. Perhaps at the heart of it is the question of how do we deal with real-world situations. Conscientious objectors were often asked the hypothetical question, not unlike Bonhoeffer's- "What would you do if your family was being attacked? Would you fight, even kill, the attacker?

None of us know what we would do. But here, with the death of bin Laden we have for us in the United States a real world example. Watching President Obama on TV it was abundantly clear that he believed, beyond any shadow of doubt, that he had done the right thing. It had to be done. Even with my pacifism I have to agree. Sometime we are left no option as Bonhoeffer so clearly argued.

Yes, I feel conflicted. Yes, it is much too much of a paradox for me to deal with in any rational way. 

There was massive evil that needed to be confronted because, as Bonhoeffer would have said, we want a safer and better world to leave our children. A last-resort situation may have left us no other concrete options.

Then as a PS to my wanderings and ramblings I came across this: The modern man of peace, the Dalai Lama was recently reported on NPR to have said:
As a human being, Bin Laden may have deserved compassion and even forgiveness, the Dalai Lama said in answer to a question about the assassination of the Al Qaeda leader. But, he said, "Forgiveness doesn't mean forget what happened. ... If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures."

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