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.

The Writing Life (Annie Dillard)

 

I have just become aware of Annie Dillard’s funny and smart little book, The Writing Life. She perfectly captures the ebb and flow–the exhilaration and desperation–that awaits any writer who is serious about putting life to paper.

I’ve only read one chapter so far, but look how it begins:

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.

If it is this way for Annie Dillard, I have hope as a writer, too.

Dillard knows the paradoxes of writing, and will help the writer to not feel insane, if only by acknowledging the (hopefully temporary) insanity of all who try to write a book:

Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it? Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays, and poems have this problem, too–the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he. For there is nothing in the material for this book that suggests to anyone but him alone its possibilities for meaning and feeling.

One more:

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

If this piques your interest, Brain Pickings did a lengthier post about this miraculously true book here.

I Love to Run vs. I Love to NOT Run

I Hate Running

 

I have fallen off the wagon a bit these last 10 days or so with regard to running. Nothing to be proud of, I know. Today I realized something frustrating (but true):

I love not going for a run.

It feels good to not have to wake up super-early to exercise, or figure out how I’m going to schedule a jog in a day with multiple other demands.

But then I went for a run today, and remembered:

I love going for a run.

Ah, these blasted competing values. I get caught in the crossfire every time!

 

I Love Running

 

But I do love running, even though I also love not running, and that feeling–as long as I can keep remembering it–will get me out there again in the next day or two.

A Short Review of Bill Mallonee’s “Winnowing”

This review of a Bill Mallonee record transcends the genre of music review. Beautiful, compelling, moving. A more than fitting piece for my first time pushing that little “Reblog” button that WordPress offers.

Quantum Est In Rebus Inane

…[T]he apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together… Jane Austen, Persuasion

I have been listening to Bill Mallonee for a long time. He is one of the most challenging and rewarding songwriters alive. He has crafted song after song, each representing some portion of his steady, integrated-and-integrating vision of things. That vision is complicated, prismatic; it has been salted with fire over years, burning away everything self-indulgent or unrealizable in it. What remains now is a vision that demands comparison with the visions of great religious and literary work: the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, and James of the New; the essays of Montaigne; Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and Rasselas; Eliot’s Four Quartets. Mallonee’s themes are best captured by phrases borrowed from Johnson: the hunger of the imagination…

View original post 997 more words

Fall 2014 New Releases from Zondervan Academic

Zondervan Academic

Zondervan Academic (I’ve reviewed a bunch of their stuff) has some interesting new releases coming this fall. I’m particularly interested in:

I’m especially looking to the Mark volume of the ZECNT series.

The Zondervan Academic Website is here. Their Fall 2014 catalog is here.