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Commentary Questions On Bonhoeffer Notes

Theology Notes > Christian Ethics (focus on Medical ethics) Notes

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Bonhoeffer's Ethics

1. 'It is worse to be evil than to do evil. It is worse when a liar tells the truth than when a lover of truth lies, worse when a person who hates humanity practices neighbourly love than when a loving person once falls victim to hatred' (p.77) Preceding this passage, Bonhoeffer proposes that his is a generation 'uninterested' by ethical theory. This, he claims, is a result of 'the pressure of a reality filled with concrete ethical problems', such that, rather than in times when the 'firm orders of life' meant that criminals were ostracised and thus ethics could be devised as an abstract and 'theoretical' problem, Bonhoeffer's Germany is a place wherein extremes of human ethical (or unethical) conduct are 'laid bare', and in 'public view'. Bonhoeffer paints a picture of 'villains', rising from the 'demonic and divine abyss', allowing us to observe their 'suspected secrets', suggesting perhaps analogously that the stark extremes of ethical misconduct that the Nazis display forces the German people to engage with and confront our own morality and perception of ethics. In detailing those ethical 'secrets' that the crimes under Nazi rule have lain bare, Bonhoeffer reveals the influential legacy of Martin Luther upon the later schools of German theology, and particular upon his own work. To suggest that it is worse (and by 'worse', here, we must mean in relation to God's will, or at least by the standard of some divine benchmark) to be evil than merely to do evil impresses upon us the Lutheran belief that it is not one's actions that justify one in the eyes of God, or that can guarantee salvation, but only faith. Equally, in asserting that it is worse for a sinful man to do good than for a good man to sin, Bonhoeffer reiterates that it is the essential characteristics of oneself - whether one is an habitual deceiver or a good man who has erred - that are important to justification, not one's actions. Such a view is echoed shortly afterwards, when Bonhoeffer asserts that the 'darkest weaknesses of the faithful' are not nearly as evil as the virtues of apostates, and we may posit that this is because it is not weaknesses and virtues that justify a man in the eyes of God, but the genuine faith in Christ of what Luther calls the 'inner man'. In the third clause of this extract we can see clear examples of the context out of which Bonhoeffer is writing, and in the midst of the rise of Nazism we can understand why Bonhoeffer might consider it a greater evil when a person who hates humanity (Bonhoeffer later goes on to refer to Hitler almost specifically, as the 'the tyrannical despiser of humanity') makes a show of neighbourly love whilst concealing their underlying aims. Again, Bonhoeffer is scarcely concealing his social commentary when he suggests that evil that appears as 'light' or 'faithfulness' or 'social justice' simply confirms, to the 'commonsense observer', its own evilness by its masquerade. Bonhoeffer later wrote of this concept that it was 'the greatest injustice' that Nazism had successfully clothed itself in a pretence of social justice, such that only a handful could perceive Hitler's true nature, as 'Satan in the form of the angel of light', a reference directly to 2 Cor 11.14. The ethical confusion of Bonhoeffer's generation, then, that allowed Nazism to perpetrate acts of violence without fear of public outcry was a result of Nazism's ability to present itself as a product of historical and social necessity. 'Principles are only tools in the hands of God; they will soon be thrown away when they are no longer useful. This liberated view of God and of reality, as it is real only in God, unites simplicity and wisdom'

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