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Bonhoeffer and truth's gray area

Dohnanyi’s boss, General Oster, had said that National Socialism was “an ideology of such sinister immorality that traditional values and loyalties no longer applied.”

~ “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas, p. 367

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the legendary German theologian, was one of the central figures in two separate and complex plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler – Operation 7 and Operation Valkyrie. This hero paid the ultimate price in fighting against Nazism, fascism and against Hitler’s so-called “German Christian,” movement leading inevitably to his martyrdom at Flossenbürg concentration camp exactly two weeks before it was liberated by the U.S. Army 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions and three weeks before Hitler committed suicide inside his underground secret bunker in Berlin. After preaching his last sermon, Bonhoeffer was hanged with piano wire and his body unceremoniously burned on April 9, 1945.

In his magnum opus, “Ethics,” Bonhoeffer wrote these immortal lines:

“In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done. … With a frankness and off-handedness which no other earthly power could permit itself, history appeals in its own cause to the dictum that the end justifies the means. … The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.”

Bonhoeffer once told a student that every sermon must contain “a shot of heresy,” meaning that to state the truth invariably necessitates one to use a measure of hyperbole or express ideas in a manner that will sound heretical. Bonhoeffer clearly intended that those opposed to Hitler must alter their strategy to effectively battle this new, grotesque zeitgeist in Germany.

How does a Christian faithfully live out the teachings of Jesus? Find out in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, “The Cost of Discipleship”

Deception was key. Bonhoeffer’s motivation to embrace this deception originated not from a cavalier attitude about the truth, but from a profound reverence for the truth that was so intense, it compelled him beyond the self-serving legalism of truth-telling.

Bonhoeffer wrote the essay “What Does It Mean to Tell the Truth?” while in Tegel prison where he expounded on the subject of truth. “From the moment of our lives in which we become capable of speech,” it begins, “we are taught that our words must be true. What does this mean? What does ‘telling the truth’ mean? Who requires this of us?”

Bonhoeffer understood God’s standard of truth meant more than merely “not lying.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard it said … but I say unto you.” Jesus took the Old Testament laws to a deeper level of meaning and obedience, from the “letter of the Law” to the “Spirit of the Law.” Following the letter of the law was the dead “religion” Bonhoeffer’s intellectual mentor Karl Barth had criticized. This truth, rooted in religiosity, was man’s efforts to deceive God by pretending to be obedient. God’s standard of truth was much deeper than mere religious legalism.

In the above essay, Bonhoeffer cited an example of a girl whose teacher openly questions her in front of the class about whether her father is a drunkard. She says no. “Of course,” Bonhoeffer said, “one could call the child’s answer a lie; all the same, this lie contains more truth – i.e., it corresponds more closely to the truth – than if the child had revealed the father’s weakness before the class.” One cannot order “the truth” at any price, and for this girl to confess in front of the class that her father is a drunkard is to disgrace him. In extreme circumstances, when fighting demonic evil like Hitler and the Nazis, truth can be relative. Bonhoeffer wrote about a “living truth” which bordered on the heretical and “arouses the suspicion that the truth can and may be adapted to the given situation, so that the concept of truth utterly dissolves, and falsehood and truth draw indistinguishably close to each other.”

Bonhoeffer further wrote of that living truth in “Ethics”:

It is only the cynic who claims “to speak the truth” at all times and in all places to all men in the same way, but who, in fact, displays nothing but a lifeless image of the truth. … He dons the halo of the fanatical devotee of truth who can make no allowance for human weaknesses; but, in fact, he is destroying the living truth between men. He wounds shame, desecrates mystery, breaks confidence, betrays the community in which he lives, and laughs arrogantly at the devastation he has wrought and at the human weakness which “cannot bear the truth.”

For Bonhoeffer, the connection with God ordered and dictated what the Germans called Weltanschauung (worldview), including everything else around it. Bonhoeffer understood that God possessed the solutions to every problem, and he was seeking to recognize God’s will in his surreptitious fight against Hitler and Nazism. He had graduated beyond mere “confession” to the realm of conspiracy, which involved a degree of duplicity that many of his Confessing Church colleagues would have found repugnant. In time, when he became a double agent for military intelligence in a counterpart of the Gestapo called Abwehr, under the command of Admiral Canaris, Bonhoeffer had indeed graduated into a state of perpetual loneliness.

In conclusion, truth isn’t as black and white as we may think. In extreme historical cases, there are a lot of gray areas. If you lived in Hitler’s Germany during the 1930s and ’40s and the Gestapo hammered on your door in the middle of the night demanding to know if you harbored any Jews, would you lie or tell the truth if Jews secretly lived in your attic? This scenario occurred thousands of times throughout Europe during World War II, including in the house of Miep Gies, the Austrian-born Dutch heroine and protector of the family of Anne Frank who wrote perhaps the most famous diary in the world published posthumously after she died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in early March 1945.

Miep Gies lied repeatedly to the Gestapo so that Anne Franks’ story of heroism, redemption and liberty would live on for the ages.