Bonhoeffer as Quaker?

“Each particular moment will reveal the nature of [God’s] will. You must merely be perfectly clear that your will must in every instance be accommodated to the divine will; your will must be surrendered if the divine will is to be realized. Hence to the extent that acting before God requires utter renunciation of personal demands and claims from us, Christian ethical acts can be characterized as love. … There are no ethical principles enabling Christians, as it were, to make themselves moral. Instead, one has only the decisive moment at hand …. Never, however, can yesterday decisively influence my moral actions today. … I will do something again today not because it seemed the right thing to do yesterday, but because today, too, God’s will has pointed me in that direction.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “What Is a Christian Ethic?”


While speaking about Elizabeth Gray Vining during worship on 2/2/20, a Friend mentioned World War II. That became the seed of a message that I offered later in the meeting. I can’t reconstruct the ministry exactly, but what follows approximates, if with a little more formality, detail, and nuance, what I said.

– – –

The Friend’s mention of World War II has led me to think of the German pastor, theologian, and pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And that led me to recall the 1660 assertion of pacifism that prominent Friends wrote to King Charles II. I’ll try to explain the connection.

In their letter to the king, which is sometimes called the “Quaker Peace Testimony,” the Friends acknowledged that the state has the responsibility to wield the sword in the service of justice. But they affirmed that “as to our own particulars” — that is, speaking for themselves — the Friends could not participate in any “outward wars and strifes, and fightings with outward weapons.” The reason they gave for that was not that they believed in the sacredness of human life, that “there is that of God in everyone” (as we say today), or that they were observing a commandment or moral principle. It was because, redeemed from “the lusts of men,” they were guided, moment by moment, by the living spirit of Christ within them, and that was a spirit that did not resort to killing. Consequently, they felt it necessary to assure the king that, although they were not following a moral rule, they could be trusted to be consistently nonviolent because “the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again [later] to move [us] unto it.” (See Heb. 13:8.)

Almost three centuries after that, the Lutheran Bonhoeffer took a similarly radical view. He denied that there can be such a thing as a Christian ethic — a set of ethical principles, a “universally valid moral law,”* that Christians are to obey. The Christian, he said, lives and acts in the awful freedom and responsibility of discerning and deciding about God’s will in “each particular moment.” But Bonhoeffer, too, embraced pacifism, perhaps confident that, as the Friends had put it, “the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons.”

Bonhoeffer lived the tension of freedom and responsibility. He was one of the most sincere and morally serious persons I have encountered in my many years of reading — a profoundly honest man. Yet in 1940 he took a position in the Abwehr, a government intelligence agency, specifically in order to lie: he was part of a group there that falsified military intelligence reports, relayed communications for the German resistance as double agents, and provided papers for Jews to escape Germany under false pretenses. He recognized that what he was doing, although necessary and motivated by love, was in some sense wrong, and he accepted that he was taking guilt upon himself.

When his Abwehr activities were discovered, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. Unknown to the authorities at the time, he may also have been involved in a plot to kill Hitler and his top advisors. It appears that he served as spiritual advisor to a group that would plant a bomb in a high-level meeting — another difficult moral choice for which he would have accepted guilt before God. The assassination plan was carried out, but it failed. Before leaving the meeting on a pretext, a colonel positioned his bomb-containing briefcase near Hitler. But someone moved the briefcase farther away during the meeting, and, because the meeting’s location had been changed from the usual bunker to a room with windows, the force of the explosion was not sufficient to seriously harm Hitler. The colonel was shot that night. After investigators discovered documents implicating him in the plot, Bonhoeffer would be stripped naked, led out into the cold prison yard at dawn, and hanged. He was 39 years old. Two weeks later, the prison was liberated by the Allies; a week after that, Hitler killed himself.

Given the Friends’ way of courageous surrender to the Light’s immediate guidance, I have to say — in a trope that is, I feel, as true as it is strange — that the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not only a better pacifist than I am but also a better Quaker.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

* NOTE: “The ongoing relationship to God’s will is the great moral renewal that Jesus brought about, the dismissal of principles, of fundamental rules — in biblical terms, the law. And precisely this dismissal is the consequence of the Christian idea of God. For if there were indeed a universally valid moral law, following it would involve taking the path from human beings to God. If I have principles, I feel that I am secured sub specie aeternitatis. In that case, I could control my own relationship with God, as it were, and there could be ethical action without any immediate relationship with God.” — from Bonhoeffer’s “What Is a Christian Ethic?”

3 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer as Quaker?

  1. Bonhoeffer was one of my heroes in college. I read Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison. He was the father of what became known as situation ethics and the godfather, as it were, of the death of God movement. Not that he did not believe in God, but he challenged the prevailing idea that the religious impulse was an essential aspect of the human being. He had witnessed pure evil and did not shy away from the questions that the presence of pure evil raised in him. Thanks for shining a light on this extraordinary man.

  2. Pingback: Bonhoeffer as Quaker? — The Postmodern Quaker | Philosophy & the Autonomous Revolution Rock

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