Courage and cruelty, honor and horror, miraculous escapes and damning coincidences are the stuff of film and novel, but also — at singular moments of history, for some few people — the stuff of life. In the wild days of World War II, a mild-mannered young German pastor, a theologian of some note and a staunch pacifist, joined a group of conspirators plotting to assassinate Hitler. When the attempt failed, he was brought to Flossenburg concentration camp and there executed on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before the camp was liberated. The example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s action is inspiring, but it would be a mistake to study it without paying attention to the thought that lay behind it. His decision to participate in the resistance movement was not a simple one; even under Hitler’s dictatorship he does not admit easy answers to the problem of responding to the competing claims of personal holiness and worldly justice. Bonhoeffer’s rationale for resistance is a profoundly complicated rejection both of the categorical refusal of all violence whatsoever and of the acceptance of violence as an ordinary part of life. Such a nuanced discussion is necessary in our time as much as ever.

The key to Bonhoeffer’s thought is an understanding of what he means by “deeds of free responsibility for the sake of the other.” [1] The necessity of a situation can call for acts of violence (hence, an individual is called to be “responsible”), but this does not mitigate the sin entailed in violence (hence, the act is “free”, not ordered by the law of God).

There is now no law behind which the responsible man can take cover, and there is, therefore, also no law which can compel the responsible man to take any particular decision in the face of such necessities. In this situation there can only be the complete renunciation of every law, together with the knowledge that here one must make one’s decision as a free venture, together also with the open admission that here the law is being infringed and violated and that necessity knows no commandment. [2]

Bonhoeffer here is talking about “law” in two different senses. In the first sentence, he points out that violence cannot be mandated as part of the normal course of life. The decision to take violent steps for “the greater good” can never be formulated as a strict law to be followed; all violence must be seen as nonnormative action. Choosing the lesser of two evils should not be the course charted out in everyday life; it is reserved for extraordinary circumstances, when all other choices fail. The second sentence takes law instead to mean both “generally accepted moral principles” [3] and the call of conscience, which traces itself back to some “universal law of good.” [4] Although these laws must sometimes be broken by the responsible person, necessity does not expiate the guilt of their violation. Bonhoeffer rejects the attitude that places the individual’s own holiness and guiltlessness at the center of his action, rather than the well-being of others.

Living for the other, Bonhoeffer says, is simply following the example of Christ, who is the perfect “man for others” [5]. Because Christ did not live for himself, but lived for us, so too we must not live for ourselves. Bonhoeffer points out, “Jesus is not concerned with the proclamation and realization of new ethical ideals; he is not concerned with Himself being good (Matt. 19:17); he is concerned solely with love for the real man, and for that reason he is able to enter into the fellowship of the guilt of men and take the burden of their guilt upon Himself.” [6] However, Bonhoeffer’s explanation is deeply problematic. The fact remains that Christ was “tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin” (Heb 4:15). Moreover, He calls us to be “perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). If this is so, how can we justify breaking God’s law? How is any possible rationalization of violence adequate?

This is a difficult objection and cannot be sidestepped. It is not right to say that we must give up our convictions and break God’s laws for the sake of the “greatest good.” Similar arguments have been used to justify atrocities. On the other hand, the Great Commandment, to love others as you love yourself, is “the entire law summed up in a single command” (Galatians 5:14). There seems no clear way to decide what to do when absolute purity and love for the other conflict. Bonhoeffer’s answer is that “this does not mean an everlasting conflict, but the winning of ultimate unity; for indeed the foundation, the essence and the goal of concrete responsibility is the same Jesus Christ who is the Lord of conscience.” [7] If one’s conscience, which is bound to the law, is subservient to Christ, who is the ultimate example of free responsibility, then somehow the two can be reconciled. Bonhoeffer points not to ideals or principles, but to the person of Jesus, our example and Lord. It is by looking to Him alone, not to a formula, that we can resolve the tension inherent in the decision to violate laws for the sake of others.

How, then, can Bonhoeffer’s thought help us to live our lives? After all, as Bonhoeffer points out, there can be no concrete guidelines set out beforehand to govern when violence should be used. He cannot help us to decide when we must use it, and when to abstain. Perhaps the greatest benefit of Bonhoeffer’s argument is not to give practical help on deciding when violence must be used, but to guard against two different, competing views. The first is the argument of strict pacifists, that we must never stoop to any sort of violence whatsoever, even if it seems to be for the most just cause. Bonhoeffer argues that to refuse to take on guilt for the sake of others is to refuse to follow the example of Christ. On the other hand, his argument also guards against the mistake of those who say that violence should simply be another ordinary aspect of life. Violence of necessity must be used under only extraordinary circumstances. It must not be countenanced except when absolutely necessary for the good of others, and even then it is not a morally easy choice. The difficulty of this is, of course, in the contingency of it all; it would be much easier to simply say that either violence is never acceptable or that it is always acceptable, provided it is used in a well-intentioned way.

However, life constantly presents situations that are not simple or morally clear; the nuance of Bonhoeffer’s thought fits the complexity of the world. Bonhoeffer’s thought, which led to such heroic and costly action done for the sake of others, tells us where we can stand: not fixed in strict obedience to unbending laws, nor in a chaos of relativity without recourse, but looking to the lordship of Jesus Christ.


[1] This concept is elucidated in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance, by Larry

Rasmussen (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. New York: Macmillan, 1955, pp. 208-209.

[3] Ethics p. 207.

[4] Ethics p. 212.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Macmillan, 1953,

p. 210.

[6] Ethics, pp. 209-210.

[7] Ethics, p. 216.


Anne Goetz ‘ll, an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House, is Books & Arts Editor of The Ichthus.