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Earlier this week, I watched a documentary film about the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Evangelical pastor hanged by the Nazis for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. The case of Bonhoeffer, who risked his life speaking out against the Nazis (and against Christian pastors who collaborated with them), raises the question: can there ever be a religious duty to kill others?
Joe Loconte touches on this in his Wall Street Journal review of my pal Eric Metaxas’s new biography of Bonhoeffer. Excerpt:
It was a bizarre role for a religious man, and a hitherto loyal German citizen, to play. As Mr. Metaxas notes: “For a pastor to be involved in a plot whose linchpin was the assassination of the head of state during a time of war, when brothers and sons and fathers were giving their lives for their country, was unthinkable.” And yet it became thinkable for Bonhoeffer precisely because his understanding of faith required more than adhering to tidy legalisms about truth-telling and nonviolence.
Mr. Metaxas notes that Bonhoeffer drew deeply from historic Christianity, especially its emphasis on the love of God expressed in the life and teachings of Jesus. Bonhoeffer also had an extraordinary capacity for empathy, responding with ever more horror to the plight of those around him. In his book “Ethics” (1949), he chastised those who imagined they could confine their faith to the sanctuary and still live responsibly in an unjust world. In “The Cost of Discipleship” (1937), he made unreserved obedience to Jesus–in every realm of life–the mark of authentic belief. “If we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path.”
It is here that many who invoke Bonhoeffer for their own causes stumble grievously. Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens praise his “admirable but nebulous humanism.” Liberals exalt his social conscience while setting aside his belief in sin and judgment. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas has even tried to recruit Bonhoeffer for the pacifist cause. But Bonhoeffer argued pointedly in the opposite direction. “Only at the cost of self-deception,” he wrote, can observant Christians preserve a facade of “private blamelessness clean from the stains of responsible action in the world.”
In the Paris Review, a Tibetan monk explains to interviewer William Dalrymple how he was pushed by Chinese brutality into taking up arms against the occupiers of his country, who oppressed the people and tried to eradicate religion.
It’s common for religious people to debate the question, “May one engage in lethal violence?”, but that’s not the same thing as asking if there are conditions under which one is morally compelled to engage in lethal violence. Even if there are, there is something within us that resists. In the Templeton Big Question symposium on the role reason plays in moral decision-making, contributor Jonah Lehrer writes:
But the data on psychopaths demonstrate that our moral decisions often depend on a strong emotional response. Because we can contemplate the pain of others, we’re less likely to inflict pain. Consider the behavior of soldiers during war. On the battlefield, men are explicitly encouraged to kill each other; the crime of murder is turned into an act of heroism. And yet, even in such violent situations, soldiers often struggle to get past their moral instincts.
During World War II, U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall undertook a survey of thousands of American troops right after they’d been in combat. His shocking (and still controversial) conclusion was that less than 20 percent of soldiers actually shot at the enemy, even when under attack. “It is fear of killing,” Marshall wrote, “rather than fear of being killed, that is the most common cause of battle failure in the individual.” When soldiers were forced to confront the possibility of directly harming another human being, they were literally incapacitated by their emotions. “At the most vital point of battle,” Marshall wrote, “the soldier becomes a conscientious objector.”
There are times — terrible times, obviously — when religion itself, far from offering consolation in peaceableness and serenity, may compel one toward acts of self-immolation that may, as in Bonhoeffer’s case, involve complicity in homicide. Anyone who imagines the Christian life, or the religious life, to be about accepting comforting bromides is seriously mistaken (that there are Christians who do this too is a tragedy). Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, alludes to this sort of thing in his thoughtful review of Philip Pullman’s recent critical book on Christianity. Excerpt:
And through the Christian centuries, these unresolved tensions and deliberate ironies in the Bible have gone on prompting people to resist the lure of Pullman’s “Christ” and his anxious religiosity – a Francis of Assisi, a Bonhoeffer; an Óscar Romero, murdered 30 years ago last week for his resistance to state terror in El Salvador. They have seen through the surface froth of religion and heard the voice Pullman himself obviously finds so compelling. That should make us pause before deciding that the New Testament is quite as successful in sanitising an uncomfortable history through religiously convenient “truth” as Pullman implies. It is aware of its own temptations. It trains its readers in self-questioning.