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Nonviolence: An Impossible Ideal?

A Reading from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer


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Seventy years ago, the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed in the Flossenbürg concentration camp on Hitler’s orders. Today he is often lionized as a hero of the armed resistance to Nazism – perhaps too uncritically (see our Summer 2014 issue). Wherever the biographical truth may lie, Bonhoeffer’s passionate call for Christian nonviolence cannot be just passed over. He asks us: Are we ready to take up our cross as Jesus did, or not?

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matt. 5:38–42)

The right way to requite evil, according to Jesus, is not to resist it.

We are concerned not with evil in the abstract, but with the evil person. Jesus bluntly calls the evil person evil. If I am assailed, I am not to condone or justify aggression. Patient endurance of evil does not mean a recognition of its rights. That is sheer sentimentality, and Jesus will have nothing to do with it. The shameful assault, the deed of violence, and the act of exploitation are still evil. The disciple must realize this, and bear witness to it as Jesus did, just because this is the only way evil can be met and overcome. The very fact that the evil which assaults him is unjustifiable makes it imperative that he should not resist it, but play it out and overcome it by patiently enduring the evil person. Suffering willingly endured is stronger than evil; it spells death to evil.

There is no deed on earth so outrageous as to justify a different attitude. The worse the evil, the readier must the Christian be to suffer; he must let the evil person fall into Jesus’ hands.

The Reformers . . . distinguished between personal sufferings and those incurred by Christians in the performance of duty as bearers of an office ordained by God, maintaining that the precept of nonviolence applies to the first but not to the second. In the second case we are not only freed from obligation to eschew violence, but if we want to act in a genuine spirit of love we must do the very opposite, and meet force with force in order to check the assault of evil. It was along these lines that the Reformers justified war and other legal sanctions against evil. But this distinction between person and office is totally alien to the teaching of Jesus. He says nothing about that. He addresses his disciples as men who have left all to follow him, and the precept of nonviolence applies equally to private life and official duty. He is the Lord of all life, and demands undivided allegiance. Furthermore, when it comes to practice, this distinction raises insoluble difficulties. Am I ever acting only as a private person or only in an official capacity? If I am attacked am I not at once the father of my children, the pastor of my flock, and e.g. a government official? Am I not bound for that very reason to defend myself against every attack, for reason of responsibility to my office? And am I not also always an individual, face to face with Jesus, even in the performance of my official duties? Am I not therefore obliged to resist every attack just because of my responsibility for my office? Is it right to forget that the follower of Jesus is always utterly alone, always the individual, who in the last resort can only decide and act for himself? Don’t we act most responsibly on behalf of those entrusted to our care if we act in this aloneness?

How then can the precept of Jesus be justified in the light of experience? It is obvious that weakness and defenselessness only invite aggression. Is then the demand of Jesus nothing but an impracticable ideal? Does he refuse to face up to realities – or shall we say, to the sin of the world? There may of course be a legitimate place for such an ideal in the inner life of the Christian community, but in the outside world such an ideal appears to wear the blinkers of perfectionism and to take no account of sin. Living as we do in a world of sin and evil, we can have no truck with anything as impracticable as that.

Jesus, however, tells us that it is just because we live in the world, and just because the world is evil, that the precept of nonresistance must be put into practice. Surely we do not wish to accuse Jesus of ignoring the reality and power of evil! Why, the whole of his life was one long conflict with the devil. He calls evil evil, and that is the very reason why he speaks to his followers in this way. How is that possible?

If we took the precept of nonresistance as an ethical blueprint for general application, we should indeed be indulging in idealistic dreams: we should be dreaming of a utopia with laws which the world would never obey. To make nonresistance a principle for secular life is to deny God by undermining his gracious ordinance for the preservation of the world. But Jesus is no draftsman of political blueprints; he is the one who vanquished evil through suffering. It looked as though evil had triumphed on the cross, but the real victory belonged to Jesus. And the cross is the only justification for the precept of nonviolence, for it alone can kindle a faith in the victory over evil which will enable people to obey that precept. Only such obedience is blessed with the promise that we shall be partakers of Christ’s victory as well as of his sufferings. . . .

The cross is the only power in the world which proves that suffering love can avenge and vanquish evil.

From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Revenge,” in The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R. H. Fuller (SCM Press, 1959). Used by permission of Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd.

painting of Christ on the cross Antonello da Messina, “Crucifixion”


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Contributed By Dietrich Bonhoeffer Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Unwilling to allow the church to compromise its most fundamental beliefs in the face of Nazism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked tirelessly to keep the true spirit of the church alive in Germany. His resistance cost him his life.

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