Jared Witt l December 15, 2016
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is a household name in many Christian and political activist circles both for his writing and for his opposition to the Nazi regime, the climax of which was his participation in a failed assassination attempt on Hitler, which ultimately cost him his life. As a Christ follower, he never tried to morally justify his decision to take part in the plot but stood by it, nonetheless, reasoning that there are extreme circumstances where it is better to dirty one’s own hands for the sake of others than to maintain personal moral purity at their expense. In other words, he considered it a broken decision in a broken world, which often deprives us of that option called “the good,” which comes so easily to philosophers when they are removed from the complexities of real history.
Bonhoeffer’s wrestling with that decision is the backdrop for these passages taken from Ethics, the book which he had intended to be his magnum opus and which he wrote in large part while awaiting execution in prison. His best friend, Eberhard Bethge compiled the unfinished book from his notes. It would be considered one of the great theological works of the 20th century regardless but has now taken on the added gravity and aura that comes with martyrdom.
Here, he describes the character of what he calls “the tyrannical despiser of humanity” (for which Hitler would have been the obvious proxy) and the perverse charisma which draws the fearful and the feeble-minded to such a person.
“At such a time [as when a society succumbs to fear as its primary motivator] the tyrannical despiser of humanity makes use of the meanness of the human heart by nourishing it and giving it other names. Anxiety is called responsibility; greed is called industriousness; lack of independence becomes solidarity; brutality becomes masterfulness. By this ingratiating treatment of human weaknesses, what is base and mean is generated and increased ever anew. The basest contempt for humanity carries on its sinister business under the most holy assertions of love for humanity. The meaner the baseness becomes, the more willing and pliant a tool it is in the hand of the tyrant…
“For the tyrannical despiser of humanity, popularity is a sign of the greatest love for humanity. He hides his secret profound distrust of all people behind the stolen words of true community. While he declares himself before the masses to be one of them, he praises himself with repulsive vanity and despises the rights of every individual. He considers the people stupid, and they become stupid; he considers them weak, and they become weak; he considers them criminal, and they become criminal…
“In his deep contempt for humanity, the more he seeks the favor of those he despises, the more certainly he arouses the masses to declare him a god…
“Good people, however, who see through all this, who withdraw in disgust from people and leave them to themselves, and who would rather tend to their own gardens than debase themselves in public life, fall prey to the same temptation to contempt for humanity as do bad people. Their contempt for humanity is of course more noble, more upright, but at the same time more barren, poorer in deeds…
“Deeds, not ideas or intentions are decisive. Success alone justifies injustice done. Guilt is scarred over, or cicatrized, by success. It is pointless to reproach the successful for their methods. This only holds us in the past, while the successful stride on from deed to deed, win the future, and make the past unchangeable. The successful create facts that cannot be reversed. What they destroy cannot be restored. What they construct has, at least in the following generation, the right of existence. No condemnation can make good the wrong that the successful commit. The condemnation is silenced by the course of time; the success remains and determines history…
“Where the figure of a successful person becomes especially prominent, the majority fall into idolizing success. They become blind to right and wrong, truth and lie, decency and malice. They see only the deed, the success. Ethical and intellectual capacity for judgment grow dull before the sheen of success and before the desire somehow to share in it. People even fail to perceive that guilt is scarred over in success, because guilt is no longer recognized as such. Success per se is the good…
“It is a judgment of grace that God in Christ [in contrast to the tyrannical despiser of humanity] brings on human beings. Over against the successful, God sanctifies pain, lowliness, failure, poverty, loneliness, and despair in the cross of Christ. The Yes of God to the cross is judgment on the successful.”
(all quotes taken from the Fortress Press translation, 2005, pp. 85-90).
I’ll just leave his words there, free of commentary, and let the reader decide on their relevance.
Jared Witt (Twitter: @prjwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
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