“Enemy Disappears in Love”
“Enemy Disappears in Love”
The fourth article in the “Unordinary Fascism” series: theologian Dmitry Lebedev on the fate of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his resistance against German Nazism

— The anti-fascist resistance is an inspiring example of radical action. A considerable number of those who took part in it were devout Christians and clergymen. What was the Christian resistance in Nazi Germany and how does this example relate to the Russian situation?

— The motives of the Christian resistance were somewhat different from those of the laical resistance. At that time, Christians in Germany were discontent with the church being bound to the state, but more importantly, they could not reconcile what was going on around with what’s written in the Gospel. One can recall the “White Rose” group — it consisted of students from the University of Munich, who in 1942-43 wrote anti-Nazi leaflets and put them into mailboxes at night. The group existed for about a year; the Nazis couldn’t catch them. Among the participants were Catholics, Protestants and one Orthodox: as Christians, they couldn’t accept what was taking place.

As for the Protestants who were in the majority in Germany, in the 1930s there already was a schism within the German church. It began in 1932, when a pro-Nazi movement known as “German Christians” emerged; apart from antisemitism and Nazism it also had an intention to create a unitary imperial church. Before that the German Protestant church was similar to a confederation of dioceses which were de-facto independent from each other. Naturally, it’s very hard for the state to subdue such an organization or push its ideology onto it: you settle things with one bishop, but another one is a different matter. This idea of a rigid church hierarchy was already an impetus for the crack, but the schism between the German Christians and the Confessing Church, the opposition church of Protestant Germany, was caused by the disagreements over the Jewish question. In the spring of 1933, the Aryan paragraph appeared, and in the autumn, on the 5th and 6th of September, the Prussian General Synod (so-called “Brown Synod”) took place, which banned Jews from becoming clergymen. “German Christians” constituted the majority within this Synod, because in July of the same year they won the church elections thanks to the state propaganda and the support of Hitler himself.

On the same evening, a young Lutheran priest Dietrich Bonhoeffer summoned pastors in Berlin and told them: “We must leave this church, we can’t be priests in it.” For a whole year he tried to persuade other oppositional pastors, but they were hesitant: many thought, that by remaining on the inside of the church, they could do something. Then repressions against the dissenters began, and by summer ’34 there were only several dioceses independent from the Nazi vertical left. They were soon brought under control by literal bandit raids: police forces came and arrested the bishops. Parish councils were dismissed, and Nazi “commissioners” were appointed.

“For a whole year he tried to persuade other oppositional pastors, but they were hesitant: many thought, that by remaining on the inside of the church, they could do something”

Reacting to this outrage, the oppositional clergy issued the so-called Barmen Declaration. It contained a relentless critique of the Führerprinzip and a clear point: we listen to Jesus Christ, and if someone says something contradicting his words, we shan’t listen to him. A political and organizational division emerged between the oppositional Confessing Church [Die Bekennende Kierche] and the “German”, now Reichkirche, controlled by national socialists. For the Confessing Church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer organized underground seminaries, where oppositional protestants could learn theology and where Jews could study.

— What is the peculiarity of Bonhoeffer’s own experience as an activist and as a Christian opposing the war?

— At first, he had a naïve young man’s understanding of war as an almost unavoidable evil, which follows from the obligation to stand for one’s neighbor. But by the beginning of the 30s his views changed. While in America, he learnt from French comrades of Tolstoy’s pacifism. He was shocked by the thought that the principle of nonresistance to evil can be taken literally –turn the other cheek, don’t reciprocate evil with evil. He read a sermon – not really a sermon, but rather a tale about how Germans lived through World War I and the postwar years – and called on the American congregation to do everything possible so that war would never happen again. We are all brothers and sisters who have one father – God. There are no separate countries, all of us are one. And we can make it so there is no war.

In Germany Bonhoeffer took part in ecumenical peacemaking efforts. For many people it was clear back then that the state of affairs that established after the World War I was unstable. Tensions between countries were growing, German revanchism was ripening, enmity was spreading everywhere. European Christian were trying to unite, to create an international Christian union in order to promote peacemaking, the idea of peace between people. Bonhoeffer joined this ecumenical union, expressing the frustration about the absence of  consistent contemporary peacemaking theology. We say that there mustn’t no war. But why, if mankind has waged wars throughout its entire history? He tried to answer this question in his own way, and as for a Christian, for him the most important thing was that contemporary war required deification.

“We are all brothers and sisters who have one father – God. There are no separate countries, all of us are one. And we can make it so there is no war“

— Deification of what? Of a nation? Of a leader?

— Of itself. To wage a war, we need to see ourselves as light elves who stand for good and fight total evil. And war itself is a deity, a deity, demanding sacrifices in its name, including human sacrifices. It replaces God, and those fighting sacrifice themselves not for the sake of a neighbor, but for the sake of war itself.

In one of the ecumenical conferences in 1932 Bonhoeffer interprets the commandment that there must be no war as something that God tells us today. It is not some common place “war is bad”, but a warning and an invocation: there must be no war right now. Humanity reached a specific point in its history, where God demands that we do everything we can so that the next war does not happen.

He polemicizes here, among other things, with some classical Lutheran ideas, according to which the church and the state have different areas of responsibility. This, surprisingly, is what “German Christians” and in general Christians who supported the national socialists relied on. They said: “Maybe something is going wrong, but we’re outside politics, we don’t get involved. If the state considers that it’s beneficial to annihilate the Jews, then maybe it really is so”. And Bonhoeffer says: “No! The Gospel is the same for everyone, and Christ lays claim for the whole world. Not a part of it, but the whole world”. One can’t get involved in politics and ignore what’s written in the Gospel. Therefore, the church has the right to interfere in politics and speak its mind. Politicians can of course ignore it, but the church has the right to make its own political statements.

— And how does the struggle of the resistance that used violence come along with Bonhoeffer’s pacifist sentiment? Didn’t he take part in a conspiracy against Hitler which was later uncovered? How did he get involved in this in the first place?

— In the end of 1930s Bonhoeffer started to get banned from publishing and giving public talks. In 1939 he moved to the USA, invited by friends. They found a department where he could teach. But he went back to Germany in a month, writing in his diary: “I am glad that I’ve been here, in the USA, and I’m glad that I am heading back home. I feel like in this last month I discovered more for myself than the last nine years. At least I came to realize something important, something on which I can ground all my upcoming decisions”. And the next day: “Since I’ve been on the ship, I’m not feeling any internal discord about the future.” He was returning with the understanding that he couldn’t exist separately from his country, while in his country evil was unfolding.

Soon after he returned from the US, Bonhoeffer got into contact with resistance conspirators – mostly from Abwehr – who were planning an attempt on Hitler. All in all, there were three attempts to assassinate Hitler, none were successful. Bonhoeffer himself at the time was mostly preoccupied with two things. Firstly, he kept contact with Christians in other countries of Europe, England in particular. From time to time, he left Germany or sent letters to his comrades, thereby supporting communication between the conspirators and important actors from other European states. Secondly, he helped rescue Jews, assisting them in escaping Germany. For instance, in 1941 the conspirators evacuated 14 Jews into Switzerland, but to get a permission from the Swiss government to cross the border, they had to also contraband a significant sum of money for subsistence of these refugees. Later it was this event that came to the attention of the Gestapo (the conspiracy against Hitler was to be discovered later), and Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned.  

When we discuss Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy, we need to take into consideration that Bonhoeffer’s pacifism differs from Tolstoy’s pacifism on the point of freedom. For Tolstoy peace is a goal in itself, it’s a mark of the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. For Bonhoeffer peace is a constitution of the world that points towards Christ. But it cannot happen if the external world is based on lies or injustice.

If this is the case, the actual state of affairs can be dismantled, a struggle can take place. But struggle is not war. Struggle as a civilized mode of conflict is wholly acceptable for Bonhoeffer, while war is something completely unacceptable. Struggle is the way not to sweep the problems under the rug, to expose the wounds, not to be hypocritical, not to ignore the injustice and lies. Whereas war doesn’t make it possible to restore justice or protect one’s rights, because contemporary war leads to the annihilation of both sides.

However, in the beginning of 1940s, Bonhoeffer did get involved in a conspiracy aimed at assassination. And that contradicted what he was saying in the middle of the 1930s. As far as I understand, he decided to take part in it relying on his ethics, ethics of free responsibility. It’s also known as “ethics of the moment.”

— What does this ethics consist of?

— It is based on the idea that for a Christian there are no fixed norms, rules, or universal truths. If there is a list of rules such that if I follow them, I go to heaven, then I don’t need God – I have the instruction. Ethics of norms and principles, according to Bonhoeffer, resemble the Tower of Babel: we built it ourselves and reach heaven on our own. The essence of New Testament ethics is that Jesus liberates man from law of this kind, and a Christian becomes free. He is restrained only by the awareness of responsibility, responsibility to God and to his neighbor. Responsibility is a crucial concept of Bonhoeffer’s “ethics of the moment”: I address God in a concrete moment and try not to rely on some principles and figure out how I am to act right now. It is a moment of ethical decision, in which I ask the question “ what is to be done now” and I get an answer. When you love a person, when you know him or her well, you know without any instruction what he or she would want or wouldn’t want. It seems that in Bonhoeffer, a Christian develops precisely this kind of loving intuition. And beneath it lies the possibility of communication and personal address, without an unambiguous answer but the possibility of a dialogue. And this is the reference point.

Since the end of 1939 and until his arrest in 1943, Bonhoeffer works on “Ethics”. On the one hand, it is a universal theological work, on the other hand, it is in the book that he reflects on his decision to participate in the conspiracy. It is full of reflections about making a choice between the bigger and the lesser evil and what it all means. There is, for example, Kant ethics, which says that one mustn’t lie, not in any case, even for the sake of saving a friend – the categorical imperative doesn’t allow one to lie. Bonhoeffer in turn considers such an approach irresponsible: with ethics like this, my own white coat is more important to me than my neighbor is. Christ, Bonhoeffer writes, liberated our fearful consciousness for the cause of love. Sometimes our conscience tells us that we mustn’t lie, but for the love of neighbor I have to sacrifice my white coat. Yes, I will commit an ill act, will traumatize myself and so on, but this act will have been committed on grounds of responsibility. And when I stand before God, I will not try to justify myself, which is what I would be doing if I relied on principles and laws – look, you said so, and I followed your instructions, acted in accordance with the list and the plan. My position will be completely different, and I’ll say: I thought that this was what had to be done and acted accordingly – and now You judge. From this perspective, having taken the responsibility upon himself, Bonhoeffer decided to join the conspirators, who were preparing the assassination.

— In 1937 Bonhoeffer publishes “The Cost of Discipleship” (“Nachfolge”), placing the sermon of love for one’s enemy at the center of Christianity, which he calls “exceptionality.” I shall note that five years before that Carl Schmitt published “The Concept of the Political”: there the intention of physical annihilation of one’s enemy becomes the ultimate truth of politics. Schmitt stated that love for one’s enemy is impossible — this impossibility rooted in the very capacity to distinguish between one and the other. How did Bonhoeffer, in his striving to turn the world away from the war and at the same time to call on the clergy to participate in politics, understand love for one’s enemy?

— The point is that for Bonhoeffer the commandment of love for one’s enemy, as much as any commandment in the Gospel, is not an “eternal” principle which we can use as a slogan to put on a flag and wave around, applying it to everything and anything. For him what is much more important is the spirit of commandments, through which we enter into a personal relationship with Christ, and trying to understand what we are supposed to do right here, right now. He is constantly thinking: so Christians ended up in here, in this particular historical situation. What do they do in it?

Love for one’s enemy and love for one’s neighbor is what Bonhoeffer’s pacifism is grounded in, and Christian pacifism in general, which he develops, too. Christ, who sacrificed himself for the sake of all human beings, doesn’t leave any possibility for murdering or attacking other people for some private benefit. Who are we to kill those for the sake of whom Christ died? In a sermon in 1930 Bonhoeffer said: “If you ask me what Christianity is, I’ll answer: Christianity is a great assembly of man who humbled themselves in the face of God, who rely in all their hopes, in their faith on the God’s love and aid.” It seems to me that pacifism that goes beyond national interests is based on a sort of a Christian cosmopolitism. Why? Because we were given the commandment of love.

In this sense for Bonhoeffer the enemy as such disappears in love, in the awareness of universal brotherhood. If we are all brothers in Jesus Christ, then we have no enemies. We actually can’t make a distinction between an enemy and a friend. Moreover, in Bonhoeffer there’s no zero-sum game where there’s someone whom I must destroy or else he destroys me. Of course, in the everyday sense national socialists were Bonhoeffer’s enemies who did kill him in the end.

“If you ask me what Christianity is, I’ll answer: Christianity is a great assembly of man who humbled themselves in the face of God, who rely in all their hopes, in their faith on the God’s love and aid”

— What did it mean then, for Bonhoeffer, to engage in politics?

— In one of his talks, dedicated by the way to the Jewish question, he asks: is the church outside of politics or not? On the one hand, it actually is. But what does that mean? If the church begins to function as a party, it will be integrated into the mechanism of the state and become one of the cogwheels in this mechanism. It will lose its autonomy. There can be Christian parties like “Christian Democrats” but not a party church. There can be individual Christian activists, and that’s great, that’s wonderful. But the church as such must ask the state only one political question – that of the legitimacy of the state. Bonhoeffer thought that the church has three modes of political action. The first one is this – questioning the legitimacy of the state’s actions. The second one is to “bandage the wounds of those who were smashed by the wheels of the state machine”. When the state changes the laws or something like that, there are always those who benefit from it too much. And the church must serve those who are the victims. And the third, immediate mode: in a situation when the state turns out to be illegitimate – to impede the functioning of this state machine.

At the same time, when Bonhoeffer made contact with the conspirators against Hitler, he didn’t act on behalf of the church. He made the choice himself, committing a political act immediately. Having joined the Abwehr and connected with the conspirators, he even began to sometimes pretend to be a model Nazi. To jump up with the distinctive exclamation and gesture; he thought the time for open statements was gone and the conspiracy became the main task.

— Let’s also talk about freedom – it is one of the key categories of Bonhoeffer’s protestant theology. When participating in politics, especially if we are dealing with a fascist or a Nazi regime, one needs some convictions and principles to stick to. For Bonhoeffer the ethics of principles is the path to unfreedom, it makes one a slave of the principle as law. So how does his freedom, the freedom of “men in dark times”, work?

If a man is not free at all, then he is a programmed machine, and then it’s not quite clear, what God is expecting of him. For Bonhoeffer man is perfectly free, and it is here that we approach his political position. He criticizes universal principles, but it is not a rejection of values. It is not a suspension, not “everything is allowed”, but it’s also not a definiteness of the sort that’s given by precise instructions. 

Bonhoeffer left an interesting collection of notes, “After Ten Years”, among them there is a note on stupidity. He writes that stupidity is not a psychological phenomenon but a sociological one. People become stupid when they suffer a strong influence by power. They lose motivation, the capacity to think independently. Stupidity in this case is a disinterest in one’s surroundings, an inability to make a sober judgement about the things going on around. But actual internal liberation for the most part happens through external liberation. And as long as there is no external political freedom, there’s little use in demanding from people an internal freedom.

— To what extent can we rely today on such ethics and are there any nuances?

— Responding to the concrete historical moment, Bonhoeffer creates some kind of an “anti-principal” methodology, on which one can rely in any situation. At the same time he doesn’t at all suggest a lapse into relativism – since there seem to be no principles and no values, and everyone thinks as he or she sees fit. In our times, when we face two extremes – on the one hand, an attempt to spell out everything in the same definite fashion for everyone, on the other hand, discourse like “we’ll never know the whole truth” – his ethics can serve as solid ground.

“Stupidity in this case is a disinterest in one’s surroundings, an inability to make a sober judgement about the things going on around. But actual internal liberation for the most part happens through external liberation. And as long as there is no external political freedom, there’s little use in demanding from people an internal freedom”

If we talk about antimilitarism of contemporary Christians, then here his take on pacifism can also be of use. Today, at least in the Russian speaking milieu, a sort of a legalistic Tolstoyan pacifism is widespread. And nobody realizes that there are other pacifist models. And if a person criticizes Tolstoy and his pacifism, he’s automatically taken for a bloodthirsty militarist, practically with blood dropping from his fangs. The example of Bonhoeffer widens our perspective on pacifism. As we see, one can be a legalist and a militarist, and one can be a pacifist while not being a legalist — and resist. That’s what’s valuable today.

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“Enemy Disappears in Love”
“Enemy Disappears in Love”
The fourth article in the “Unordinary Fascism” series: theologian Dmitry Lebedev on the fate of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his resistance against German Nazism

— The anti-fascist resistance is an inspiring example of radical action. A considerable number of those who took part in it were devout Christians and clergymen. What was the Christian resistance in Nazi Germany and how does this example relate to the Russian situation?

— The motives of the Christian resistance were somewhat different from those of the laical resistance. At that time, Christians in Germany were discontent with the church being bound to the state, but more importantly, they could not reconcile what was going on around with what’s written in the Gospel. One can recall the “White Rose” group — it consisted of students from the University of Munich, who in 1942-43 wrote anti-Nazi leaflets and put them into mailboxes at night. The group existed for about a year; the Nazis couldn’t catch them. Among the participants were Catholics, Protestants and one Orthodox: as Christians, they couldn’t accept what was taking place.

As for the Protestants who were in the majority in Germany, in the 1930s there already was a schism within the German church. It began in 1932, when a pro-Nazi movement known as “German Christians” emerged; apart from antisemitism and Nazism it also had an intention to create a unitary imperial church. Before that the German Protestant church was similar to a confederation of dioceses which were de-facto independent from each other. Naturally, it’s very hard for the state to subdue such an organization or push its ideology onto it: you settle things with one bishop, but another one is a different matter. This idea of a rigid church hierarchy was already an impetus for the crack, but the schism between the German Christians and the Confessing Church, the opposition church of Protestant Germany, was caused by the disagreements over the Jewish question. In the spring of 1933, the Aryan paragraph appeared, and in the autumn, on the 5th and 6th of September, the Prussian General Synod (so-called “Brown Synod”) took place, which banned Jews from becoming clergymen. “German Christians” constituted the majority within this Synod, because in July of the same year they won the church elections thanks to the state propaganda and the support of Hitler himself.

On the same evening, a young Lutheran priest Dietrich Bonhoeffer summoned pastors in Berlin and told them: “We must leave this church, we can’t be priests in it.” For a whole year he tried to persuade other oppositional pastors, but they were hesitant: many thought, that by remaining on the inside of the church, they could do something. Then repressions against the dissenters began, and by summer ’34 there were only several dioceses independent from the Nazi vertical left. They were soon brought under control by literal bandit raids: police forces came and arrested the bishops. Parish councils were dismissed, and Nazi “commissioners” were appointed.

“For a whole year he tried to persuade other oppositional pastors, but they were hesitant: many thought, that by remaining on the inside of the church, they could do something”

Reacting to this outrage, the oppositional clergy issued the so-called Barmen Declaration. It contained a relentless critique of the Führerprinzip and a clear point: we listen to Jesus Christ, and if someone says something contradicting his words, we shan’t listen to him. A political and organizational division emerged between the oppositional Confessing Church [Die Bekennende Kierche] and the “German”, now Reichkirche, controlled by national socialists. For the Confessing Church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer organized underground seminaries, where oppositional protestants could learn theology and where Jews could study.

— What is the peculiarity of Bonhoeffer’s own experience as an activist and as a Christian opposing the war?

— At first, he had a naïve young man’s understanding of war as an almost unavoidable evil, which follows from the obligation to stand for one’s neighbor. But by the beginning of the 30s his views changed. While in America, he learnt from French comrades of Tolstoy’s pacifism. He was shocked by the thought that the principle of nonresistance to evil can be taken literally –turn the other cheek, don’t reciprocate evil with evil. He read a sermon – not really a sermon, but rather a tale about how Germans lived through World War I and the postwar years – and called on the American congregation to do everything possible so that war would never happen again. We are all brothers and sisters who have one father – God. There are no separate countries, all of us are one. And we can make it so there is no war.

In Germany Bonhoeffer took part in ecumenical peacemaking efforts. For many people it was clear back then that the state of affairs that established after the World War I was unstable. Tensions between countries were growing, German revanchism was ripening, enmity was spreading everywhere. European Christian were trying to unite, to create an international Christian union in order to promote peacemaking, the idea of peace between people. Bonhoeffer joined this ecumenical union, expressing the frustration about the absence of  consistent contemporary peacemaking theology. We say that there mustn’t no war. But why, if mankind has waged wars throughout its entire history? He tried to answer this question in his own way, and as for a Christian, for him the most important thing was that contemporary war required deification.

“We are all brothers and sisters who have one father – God. There are no separate countries, all of us are one. And we can make it so there is no war“

— Deification of what? Of a nation? Of a leader?

— Of itself. To wage a war, we need to see ourselves as light elves who stand for good and fight total evil. And war itself is a deity, a deity, demanding sacrifices in its name, including human sacrifices. It replaces God, and those fighting sacrifice themselves not for the sake of a neighbor, but for the sake of war itself.

In one of the ecumenical conferences in 1932 Bonhoeffer interprets the commandment that there must be no war as something that God tells us today. It is not some common place “war is bad”, but a warning and an invocation: there must be no war right now. Humanity reached a specific point in its history, where God demands that we do everything we can so that the next war does not happen.

He polemicizes here, among other things, with some classical Lutheran ideas, according to which the church and the state have different areas of responsibility. This, surprisingly, is what “German Christians” and in general Christians who supported the national socialists relied on. They said: “Maybe something is going wrong, but we’re outside politics, we don’t get involved. If the state considers that it’s beneficial to annihilate the Jews, then maybe it really is so”. And Bonhoeffer says: “No! The Gospel is the same for everyone, and Christ lays claim for the whole world. Not a part of it, but the whole world”. One can’t get involved in politics and ignore what’s written in the Gospel. Therefore, the church has the right to interfere in politics and speak its mind. Politicians can of course ignore it, but the church has the right to make its own political statements.

— And how does the struggle of the resistance that used violence come along with Bonhoeffer’s pacifist sentiment? Didn’t he take part in a conspiracy against Hitler which was later uncovered? How did he get involved in this in the first place?

— In the end of 1930s Bonhoeffer started to get banned from publishing and giving public talks. In 1939 he moved to the USA, invited by friends. They found a department where he could teach. But he went back to Germany in a month, writing in his diary: “I am glad that I’ve been here, in the USA, and I’m glad that I am heading back home. I feel like in this last month I discovered more for myself than the last nine years. At least I came to realize something important, something on which I can ground all my upcoming decisions”. And the next day: “Since I’ve been on the ship, I’m not feeling any internal discord about the future.” He was returning with the understanding that he couldn’t exist separately from his country, while in his country evil was unfolding.

Soon after he returned from the US, Bonhoeffer got into contact with resistance conspirators – mostly from Abwehr – who were planning an attempt on Hitler. All in all, there were three attempts to assassinate Hitler, none were successful. Bonhoeffer himself at the time was mostly preoccupied with two things. Firstly, he kept contact with Christians in other countries of Europe, England in particular. From time to time, he left Germany or sent letters to his comrades, thereby supporting communication between the conspirators and important actors from other European states. Secondly, he helped rescue Jews, assisting them in escaping Germany. For instance, in 1941 the conspirators evacuated 14 Jews into Switzerland, but to get a permission from the Swiss government to cross the border, they had to also contraband a significant sum of money for subsistence of these refugees. Later it was this event that came to the attention of the Gestapo (the conspiracy against Hitler was to be discovered later), and Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned.  

When we discuss Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy, we need to take into consideration that Bonhoeffer’s pacifism differs from Tolstoy’s pacifism on the point of freedom. For Tolstoy peace is a goal in itself, it’s a mark of the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. For Bonhoeffer peace is a constitution of the world that points towards Christ. But it cannot happen if the external world is based on lies or injustice.

If this is the case, the actual state of affairs can be dismantled, a struggle can take place. But struggle is not war. Struggle as a civilized mode of conflict is wholly acceptable for Bonhoeffer, while war is something completely unacceptable. Struggle is the way not to sweep the problems under the rug, to expose the wounds, not to be hypocritical, not to ignore the injustice and lies. Whereas war doesn’t make it possible to restore justice or protect one’s rights, because contemporary war leads to the annihilation of both sides.

However, in the beginning of 1940s, Bonhoeffer did get involved in a conspiracy aimed at assassination. And that contradicted what he was saying in the middle of the 1930s. As far as I understand, he decided to take part in it relying on his ethics, ethics of free responsibility. It’s also known as “ethics of the moment.”

— What does this ethics consist of?

— It is based on the idea that for a Christian there are no fixed norms, rules, or universal truths. If there is a list of rules such that if I follow them, I go to heaven, then I don’t need God – I have the instruction. Ethics of norms and principles, according to Bonhoeffer, resemble the Tower of Babel: we built it ourselves and reach heaven on our own. The essence of New Testament ethics is that Jesus liberates man from law of this kind, and a Christian becomes free. He is restrained only by the awareness of responsibility, responsibility to God and to his neighbor. Responsibility is a crucial concept of Bonhoeffer’s “ethics of the moment”: I address God in a concrete moment and try not to rely on some principles and figure out how I am to act right now. It is a moment of ethical decision, in which I ask the question “ what is to be done now” and I get an answer. When you love a person, when you know him or her well, you know without any instruction what he or she would want or wouldn’t want. It seems that in Bonhoeffer, a Christian develops precisely this kind of loving intuition. And beneath it lies the possibility of communication and personal address, without an unambiguous answer but the possibility of a dialogue. And this is the reference point.

Since the end of 1939 and until his arrest in 1943, Bonhoeffer works on “Ethics”. On the one hand, it is a universal theological work, on the other hand, it is in the book that he reflects on his decision to participate in the conspiracy. It is full of reflections about making a choice between the bigger and the lesser evil and what it all means. There is, for example, Kant ethics, which says that one mustn’t lie, not in any case, even for the sake of saving a friend – the categorical imperative doesn’t allow one to lie. Bonhoeffer in turn considers such an approach irresponsible: with ethics like this, my own white coat is more important to me than my neighbor is. Christ, Bonhoeffer writes, liberated our fearful consciousness for the cause of love. Sometimes our conscience tells us that we mustn’t lie, but for the love of neighbor I have to sacrifice my white coat. Yes, I will commit an ill act, will traumatize myself and so on, but this act will have been committed on grounds of responsibility. And when I stand before God, I will not try to justify myself, which is what I would be doing if I relied on principles and laws – look, you said so, and I followed your instructions, acted in accordance with the list and the plan. My position will be completely different, and I’ll say: I thought that this was what had to be done and acted accordingly – and now You judge. From this perspective, having taken the responsibility upon himself, Bonhoeffer decided to join the conspirators, who were preparing the assassination.

— In 1937 Bonhoeffer publishes “The Cost of Discipleship” (“Nachfolge”), placing the sermon of love for one’s enemy at the center of Christianity, which he calls “exceptionality.” I shall note that five years before that Carl Schmitt published “The Concept of the Political”: there the intention of physical annihilation of one’s enemy becomes the ultimate truth of politics. Schmitt stated that love for one’s enemy is impossible — this impossibility rooted in the very capacity to distinguish between one and the other. How did Bonhoeffer, in his striving to turn the world away from the war and at the same time to call on the clergy to participate in politics, understand love for one’s enemy?

— The point is that for Bonhoeffer the commandment of love for one’s enemy, as much as any commandment in the Gospel, is not an “eternal” principle which we can use as a slogan to put on a flag and wave around, applying it to everything and anything. For him what is much more important is the spirit of commandments, through which we enter into a personal relationship with Christ, and trying to understand what we are supposed to do right here, right now. He is constantly thinking: so Christians ended up in here, in this particular historical situation. What do they do in it?

Love for one’s enemy and love for one’s neighbor is what Bonhoeffer’s pacifism is grounded in, and Christian pacifism in general, which he develops, too. Christ, who sacrificed himself for the sake of all human beings, doesn’t leave any possibility for murdering or attacking other people for some private benefit. Who are we to kill those for the sake of whom Christ died? In a sermon in 1930 Bonhoeffer said: “If you ask me what Christianity is, I’ll answer: Christianity is a great assembly of man who humbled themselves in the face of God, who rely in all their hopes, in their faith on the God’s love and aid.” It seems to me that pacifism that goes beyond national interests is based on a sort of a Christian cosmopolitism. Why? Because we were given the commandment of love.

In this sense for Bonhoeffer the enemy as such disappears in love, in the awareness of universal brotherhood. If we are all brothers in Jesus Christ, then we have no enemies. We actually can’t make a distinction between an enemy and a friend. Moreover, in Bonhoeffer there’s no zero-sum game where there’s someone whom I must destroy or else he destroys me. Of course, in the everyday sense national socialists were Bonhoeffer’s enemies who did kill him in the end.

“If you ask me what Christianity is, I’ll answer: Christianity is a great assembly of man who humbled themselves in the face of God, who rely in all their hopes, in their faith on the God’s love and aid”

— What did it mean then, for Bonhoeffer, to engage in politics?

— In one of his talks, dedicated by the way to the Jewish question, he asks: is the church outside of politics or not? On the one hand, it actually is. But what does that mean? If the church begins to function as a party, it will be integrated into the mechanism of the state and become one of the cogwheels in this mechanism. It will lose its autonomy. There can be Christian parties like “Christian Democrats” but not a party church. There can be individual Christian activists, and that’s great, that’s wonderful. But the church as such must ask the state only one political question – that of the legitimacy of the state. Bonhoeffer thought that the church has three modes of political action. The first one is this – questioning the legitimacy of the state’s actions. The second one is to “bandage the wounds of those who were smashed by the wheels of the state machine”. When the state changes the laws or something like that, there are always those who benefit from it too much. And the church must serve those who are the victims. And the third, immediate mode: in a situation when the state turns out to be illegitimate – to impede the functioning of this state machine.

At the same time, when Bonhoeffer made contact with the conspirators against Hitler, he didn’t act on behalf of the church. He made the choice himself, committing a political act immediately. Having joined the Abwehr and connected with the conspirators, he even began to sometimes pretend to be a model Nazi. To jump up with the distinctive exclamation and gesture; he thought the time for open statements was gone and the conspiracy became the main task.

— Let’s also talk about freedom – it is one of the key categories of Bonhoeffer’s protestant theology. When participating in politics, especially if we are dealing with a fascist or a Nazi regime, one needs some convictions and principles to stick to. For Bonhoeffer the ethics of principles is the path to unfreedom, it makes one a slave of the principle as law. So how does his freedom, the freedom of “men in dark times”, work?

If a man is not free at all, then he is a programmed machine, and then it’s not quite clear, what God is expecting of him. For Bonhoeffer man is perfectly free, and it is here that we approach his political position. He criticizes universal principles, but it is not a rejection of values. It is not a suspension, not “everything is allowed”, but it’s also not a definiteness of the sort that’s given by precise instructions. 

Bonhoeffer left an interesting collection of notes, “After Ten Years”, among them there is a note on stupidity. He writes that stupidity is not a psychological phenomenon but a sociological one. People become stupid when they suffer a strong influence by power. They lose motivation, the capacity to think independently. Stupidity in this case is a disinterest in one’s surroundings, an inability to make a sober judgement about the things going on around. But actual internal liberation for the most part happens through external liberation. And as long as there is no external political freedom, there’s little use in demanding from people an internal freedom.

— To what extent can we rely today on such ethics and are there any nuances?

— Responding to the concrete historical moment, Bonhoeffer creates some kind of an “anti-principal” methodology, on which one can rely in any situation. At the same time he doesn’t at all suggest a lapse into relativism – since there seem to be no principles and no values, and everyone thinks as he or she sees fit. In our times, when we face two extremes – on the one hand, an attempt to spell out everything in the same definite fashion for everyone, on the other hand, discourse like “we’ll never know the whole truth” – his ethics can serve as solid ground.

“Stupidity in this case is a disinterest in one’s surroundings, an inability to make a sober judgement about the things going on around. But actual internal liberation for the most part happens through external liberation. And as long as there is no external political freedom, there’s little use in demanding from people an internal freedom”

If we talk about antimilitarism of contemporary Christians, then here his take on pacifism can also be of use. Today, at least in the Russian speaking milieu, a sort of a legalistic Tolstoyan pacifism is widespread. And nobody realizes that there are other pacifist models. And if a person criticizes Tolstoy and his pacifism, he’s automatically taken for a bloodthirsty militarist, practically with blood dropping from his fangs. The example of Bonhoeffer widens our perspective on pacifism. As we see, one can be a legalist and a militarist, and one can be a pacifist while not being a legalist — and resist. That’s what’s valuable today.

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