Guilty Deputyship: Bonhoeffer’s Justification for Trying to Kill Hitler

One of the abiding questions about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is: How did a theologian with pacifist leanings choose to join a conspiratorial effort to kill Adolf Hitler? How could he justify his action, let alone feel compelled to seek the life of another human?

Larry L. Rasmussen explores the question in his amazing book Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance. (See my earlier book note here.)

In the section I’ve been reading recently, Rasmussen draws on two key concepts for Bonhoeffer: deputyship and guilt.

Deputyship is “the master mark of responsibility” (38). It is vicarious being and action. As Rasmussen puts it, “Man is not man [sic] in and by himself but only in responsibility to and for another” (38). And Jesus Christ is “the Responsible Man par excellence” (51), the ultimate “deputy” through his sacrifice-for-others on the cross.

Then there is guilt. Rasmussen writes:

If deputyship is the master mark of responsibility, acceptance of guilt (Schulduebernahme) is the heart of deputyship. …Jesus did not seek first of all to be good or to preserve his innocence. Rather, he freely took upon himself the guilt of others. (51)

Rasmussen concludes, “Responsible men should do the same.”

230113_1_ftcYou can see where this is going: the concepts of deputyship and guilt have a great deal of explanatory power when it comes to Bonhoeffer’s attempt to take Hitler’s life.

I love this idea of Bonhoeffer’s that Rasmussen describes, namely, that preservation of our sinlessness, innocence, or purity is not to be our primary motivation in acting in the world. Rather, our deputyship (responsibility for the other) should drive us. This means for Bonhoeffer that we may need to get our hands dirty if a tyrant is threatening the well-being of the “others” on whose behalf we act.

But this notion of guilt is difficult for me to fully grasp, and I wonder how we can still leave room for the fact that Jesus, even if not seeking to preserve his innocence, did preserve his innocence.

1 Peter 2:22 quotes Isaiah 53:9 when it says, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” The verse before even says that Christ’s suffering for us in this way leaves us “an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

Specifically in 1 Peter the example we are to follow is Jesus’s suffering for doing good and enduring it (1 Peter 2:20). But Jesus also suffered innocently and is lauded for so doing. 1 Peter 2:23 says:

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

Are we called to follow Jesus’s example in patient suffering on behalf of others (Bonhoeffer’s deputyship) and in emulating Jesus’s innocence when we suffer on behalf of others?

Yet we will never be like Jesus who “committed no sin.” Should we cut our losses and leave room for our guilt—as Rasmussen seems to read Bonhoeffer—when it comes to suffering for others?

(If so, it could be important to distinguish between the guilt Jesus took on through the crucifixion (not a direct consequence of his own impure action) and any guilt a co-conspirator has (presumably a direct consequence of the “impurity” of conspiratorial involvement)).

Bonhoeffer’s idea of deputyship, and acceptance of any guilt deputyship entails, leads Rasmussen to this utterly astounding summary of Bonhoeffer’s thought:

To maintain one’s innocence in a setting such as that of the Third Reich, even to the point of not plotting Hitler’s death, would be irresponsible action. (51)

It’s as if Bonhoeffer thought one could not resist in Nazi Germany in a sinless, innocent, or pure way. This was no longer the non-violent resistance in The Cost of Discipleship. Again: “To maintain one’s innocence in a setting such as that of the Third Reich, even to the point of not plotting Hitler’s death, would be irresponsible action” (51).

If that’s not enough, here’s where Rasmussen, describing Bonhoeffer, gets really intense. (How’s this for a take on martyrdom?)

To refuse to stand with others trying desperately to topple the perpetrators of mass crimes, to refuse to engage oneself in the demands of necessità [where necessity transcends law], would be the selfish act of one who cared for his own innocence, who cared for his own guiltlessness, more than he cared for his guilty brothers. It would be a rejection of deputyship as the form of the responsible life and of acceptance of guilt as the heart of deputyship. If responsible men have no choice but to infiltrate Hitler’s war machinery, the Christian does not forsake them but joins them. And if in the process he becomes a martyr he will not be a saintly martyr but a guilty one. He may have to forfeit every taint of perfectionism in his pacifism. He may have to join the grotesque, evil enterprises of his very enemy. He may even have to consider and carry out tyrannicide, or actively support those who do. He will bear his colleagues’ burdens and share their sinfulness even when they are not related directly to his own actions. And he will do so as an extraordinary form of the imitatio Christ in a demonic society. (52)

Amazing. I’m still trying to work through all this. It at least helps shed light on how Bonhoeffer could actively join efforts to take Hitler’s life. And a step further: Rasmussen suggests Bonhoeffer saw his conspiracy to murder as not just permissible, but as a Christian duty of sorts: deputyship with guilt.

What do you think?

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