Bonhoeffer’s Dilemma

illustration depicting Christ crucified, next to dynamite attached to clock, and abstract depiction of bodies intertwined
Illustration by Nathan Wagoner

In July 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant young Lutheran theologian and pastor, left New York almost as soon as he had arrived there, to return to the rising chaos in his native Germany. War was imminent. Bonhoeffer had already been hounded and silenced by the Nazi regime for his vocal opposition to its persecution of Jews. He had been offered safe haven by American friends, and had accepted it, only to change his mind.

"I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America," he wrote. "I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people."

Back in Germany, Bonhoeffer joined the small resistance movement, one of whose leaders was Hans von Dohnanyi, who was married to Bonhoeffer's sister. Soon Bonhoeffer—an avowed pacifist agreed to join a conspiracy whose aim was to assassinate Hitler.

In the spring of 1943, after using his church contacts to help a group of 14 Jews escape to Switzerland, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo. For two years he waited in prison, quietly ministering to his fellow prisoners, writing a series of letters that survive as both a poignant testament to faith and a fragmented vision for a viable post-war Christianity. On July 20, 1944, the long-planned attempt against Hitler was finally made; a bomb smuggled into the Fuehrer's headquarters exploded but failed to kill him. There followed a vicious spasm of retribution in which some 5,000 people were killed: some summarily shot, others repeatedly strangled and revived, their agonies filmed for Hitler's pleasure. One of those condemned to die was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Over the next few months, he was moved first to the Gestapo prison in Berlin, then to Buchenwald, then to the concentration camp at Flossenburg. Finally, on April 9, 1945, 11 days before Flossenburg was liberated by U.S. troops, Bonhoeffer was hanged. He was 39 years old. His last act was to lead and share in a liturgy of communion with his fellow prisoners. His last words, according to one who survived, were better than scripted: This is the end, for me the beginning of life.

The two-act opera, Bonhoeffer, by Robert Hatten, formerly of Penn State and now professor of music theory at Indiana University, and Ann Gebuhr, a professor at Houston Baptist University, had its world premiere, in concert version, last October on Penn State's University Park campus.

"Ann's idea for this goes back 25 years," Hatten said, taking a break from a rehearsal three nights before that first performance. It was after ten. He and Gebuhr, who had flown in that afternoon, sat at facing desks in an echoey classroom in one of the music buildings, while in a large practice room a few doors away an orchestra was running through the complete opera for the first time. They seemed excited, and tired, and a little nervous.

"It was my junior year in college," Gebuhr remembered. "I was a pre-med major at the time, but that summer I decided that music was where my heart, and mind, and soul, were."

"It was a spiritually hungry time for me. A woman I had met, who turned out to be a nun, began giving me all these books to read, Catholic books at first, but I'm a Lutheran, and one day she came in and said, Here, read something from your own denomination. It was Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship.

"Well, I started it, and then I put it away. I didn't want to read it, because then I'd be responsible for it." She smiled. "Six months later I took it out and read it. Since then, I've been totally fascinated with Bonhoeffer."

When a few years later Gebuhr met Hatten, both were doctoral students in music theory at Indiana. "So of course we decided to become a composer and a librettist in our spare time," Hatten joked. Their first attempt at opera, a work based on the legendary Irish king Brian Boru, "was a kind of warm-up," he said. The two kept in touch as their academic careers took off, and around 1990 they began working together on Bonhoeffer.

For Hatten, the first step was to immerse himself in Bonhoeffer's writings, and the large literature that surrounds him. Then Hatten, as librettist, sketched out a series of short scenes, while Gebuhr, the composer, began to write the music that would become the opera's prelude. Hatten next wrote a play-length libretto, "which Ann condensed down to just what had to be said with words, as opposed to music."

There were detours, as the two struggled with the conventions of opera. At one point, they even thought they might set the piece in the year 2045, "as a science fantasy, with the lead character a woman, a scholar struggling to apply Bonhoeffer's ideas in a time of similar crisis," Hatten said.

"The point of all this was to get a balance of vocal types," he explained. "But finally Ann wanted to do justice to the very rich historical setting. And we did have a female role we could develop"—that of Maria von Wedemyer, Bonhoeffer's fiancée, with whom he kept correspondence while in prison.

"We went through a lot of scenarios," Gebuhr acknowledged. Finally, they decided to set the opera entirely in Bonhoeffer's prison cell, using dream sequences and lyrics excerpted from his letters to draw in Wedemyer and other characters, and to illuminate the conflicts that shaped his final months. The final scene is that last, interrupted communion at Flossenburg, with Bonhoeffer delivered to the waiting van that will carry him to death.

The composers took special care to layer the ending, Hatten said, "to make it tragic and transcendent at once. His last act on earth was really a pastoral act, and Ann handles that as almost a liturgical chant, in D major, with the string bass playing a low D throughout. Instead of a wrenching tragedy, it becomes almost sublime. The music swells . . . But then it returns, finally, to that quiet meditative tone, almost a benediction.

"But the real climax of the opera comes much earlier, at the end of Act One," he went on. Here, in an intense 20-minute confession, Bonhoeffer awakens to a hellish dream of Nazi atrocities; flashes of light reveal mangled limbs and swastikas rising out of a blue-black fog. Struggling at first to get his bearings, torn between his commitment to non-violence and the suffering of his fellow human beings, he resolves at last to strike back, pledging himself to violent action against the evil engulfing the world. He does so not with a sense of righteousness, but of anguish.

I stand on the edge of an abyss, the baritone Bonhoeffer sings.

It is not enough merely to risk one's life.

Our blood, if we have the courage to spill it,

Will not be innocent . . .

He sees no alternative to the sins he now confesses: treason, conspiracy, murder. His decision is forced, he tells God, and still he is guilty.

"It's a remarkable scene," Hatten said, "because while so many times human beings will try to justify violence, or evil, or choosing the lesser of two evils, Bonhoeffer would not. He took full responsibility for the wrong he knew he was doing."

It is this struggle, said Hatten, that is the crux of the opera. The decision to return violence for violence, however justified it might seem in the circumstances, was for Bonhoeffer a repudiation of all that was worth living for. "The sacrifice more painful than that of his life is that of his ethical purity." This is Bonhoeffer's dilemma.

And, it would seem, our dilemma as well. For Hatten, a frequent attender at the local Friends Meeting, active in community work for peace, the son of a World War II pilot who was shot down and spent time in a German prison camp, Bonhoeffer's story had resonance in a broader context. When is violence morally justified? What is the right response to evil?

As a Term Fellow of Penn State's Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, Hatten had become acquainted with Institute Fellow Paul Rose, professor of history and Mitrani chair in Jewish Studies. One day in 1996, Hatten remembers, "I mentioned the libretto in conversation with Paul at the Faculty Club, and he suggested the possibility of combining a performance of the opera with a conference on the ethical issues." Together, the two met with Robert Edwards, the Institute's director, to propose the idea.

"Bob was very enthusiastic," Hatten remembers, "and helped us develop the idea around the issue of violence as a response to evil." A faculty group was convened, to plan the program and suggest speakers. Over the next two years, with support from various units across the University, community groups, and several outside agencies, the Institute put together an international conference; an accompanying teaching initiative, in which a dozen or more faculty members in art, history, literature, and philosophy would incorporate Bonhoeffer's dilemma into their classes for the fall 1999 semester; and a series of presentations, from dramatic readings to alternatives-to-violence workshops. The "Bonhoeffer Project" would culminate, on the last night of the conference, in the performance of the opera.

The meeting room in the basement of the Nittany Lion Inn was packed and buzzing for the conference's opening session. Some 200 people eventually squeezed into seats, an assortment of faculty, community members, and undergraduates, with a healthy smattering of clerical collars. After the general welcome, Hatten stood to introduce one of the gathering's distinguished guests: former Bishop Albrecht Schoenherr of Berlin.

Schoenherr, a Lutheran colleague of Bonhoeffer's at an underground seminary at Finkenwalde in Pomerania during the mid-1930s, had survived the war and gone on to serve for 52 years as dean of the Brandenburg Cathedral. Tall and white-haired, his impressive frame now a little stooped, he advanced to the podium in the company of Barbara Green, executive director of the Churches Center for Theology and Public Policy in Washington, D.C. Together, Green said, the two would try to sketch something of Bonhoeffer's essence. Bonhoeffer, Green began, was a highly cultivated man, the son of a leading family, a lover of music and an accomplished pianist. Also a formidable scholar, who began teaching at Berlin University at age 24; he was "one of the few figures of the 1930s with a comprehensive grasp of both German- and English-language theology."

"I met him in 1932," Schoenherr offered, "when I came to Berlin as a student. What impressed me was that what he said and what he did were in profound agreement." Bonhoeffer, Schoenherr was eager to add, "was a complete human being," not an idealist. "He outran us on the hand-ball court. He loved to play table tennis, and losing put him in a bad mood. . . . His greatest joy was when he could be helpful."

At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer introduced his confreres to the power of African-American church music—"a kind of music none of us had ever heard before," Schoenherr said—via the 78-rpm records of black spirituals he brought back from a year at Union Theological Seminary in New York. " At Union," Green noted, the young man who had trained in the rigorous systematic theology of the German academy "encountered for the first time the Social Gospel, the need for moral responsibility in this world." He was also exposed to issues of race and civil rights. His American experience, Schoenherr said, seeded a transformation that would play out for the remainder of his life. Its final outcome was expressed in what Schoenherr called "his last testament," a letter that Bonhoeffer wrote the day after the failed attempt on Hitler. In the letter, Bonhoeffer explained for the first time his concept of the essential "this-worldliness" of Christianity, an idea which at that time seemed close to heresy. The authentic Christian witness, he argued, must reject the pursuit of personal salvation as its first aim, and focus instead on "sharing God's sufferings in the world."

"I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life," Bonhoeffer wrote. "I discovered later, and I am still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith."

Most German church leaders considered Bonhoeffer's criticism of the Nazi regime to be unpatriotic, Schoenherr said. Some even suggested that Hitler was God's in-strument, a scourge that must be endured. "Bonhoeffer vehemently rejected these views, and bitterly deplored the church's paralysis," said Klemens von Klemperer, professor emeritus of history at Smith College. For Bonhoeffer, von Klemperer added, "The this-worldliness of Christianity is crucial. 'The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.' Thus the sharpness of his condemnation of the church's failure."

But the same Bonhoeffer had written, in 1932, that the Sermon on the Mount made Christian pacifism "self-evident" to him. How did he come to embrace the resort to violence? Did his ethical views radically change? Did he simply abandon them?

No, von Klemperer said. "What moved him to action was his awareness of a Christian's paramount duty to act responsibly in the world—even when that action comes into conflict with conventional ethics. It may mean lying, breaking the law; even murder can be justified. Bonhoeffer wrote this in the late 1920s."

Victoria Barnett, of the Churches Center for Theology and Public Policy, quoted a letter Bonhoeffer's brother and co-conspirator Klaus wrote from prison: "I am not afraid of being hanged, but I don't want to see those faces"—i.e., those of his torturers—"again. So much depravity. I would rather die. I have seen the devil, and I can't forget it." "The question that Bonhoeffer wrestled with," Barnett said, "was how to resist this kind of evil. How to retain his humanity in the face of people who seem utterly devoid of humanity."

Conventional tactics would not be enough. In 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his close friends in the resistance, describing their situation as he perceived it. After ten years, he wrote, "the great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts." The standard responses to evil—reason, principle, conscience, freedom, and virtue—had all failed in the crisis of Nazi tyranny. For Bonhoeffer, said Clifford Green, professor of theology at the University of Hartford, there remained only one moral weapon that could endure: what Bonhoeffer calls "free responsibility."

"Who stands fast?" Bonhoeffer asks. "Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action."

"According to Bonhoeffer," Green explained, "in such a situation the Christian must reject the traditional consideration of good and evil, and instead try to determine what is the will of God."

Answerable only to God is a concept that sounds frightening to secular ears, particularly in an age when religiously motivated violence—suicide bombings, abortion-clinic attacks—is an all-too-frequent occurrence. But to Bonhoeffer, moral fanaticism was only one more of those conventional ethical responses, both easily corruptible and doomed to failure in a crisis. The fanatic, he wrote, "thinks that his single-minded principles qualify him to do battle with the powers of evil; but like a bull he rushes at the red cloak instead of at the person who is holding it."

And if "free responsibility" sounds too much like courting anarchy, Bonhoeffer pointed out, it can be equally disastrous to rely on the rule of law. The obedient German whose excuse was, I was only following orders, "misjudged the world; he did not realize that his submissiveness and self-sacrifice could be exploited for evil ends."

Bonhoeffer's, it would seem, is an argument for ethical maturity—and courage—enough to risk setting aside abstract solutions when concrete circumstances demand it. "For Bonhoeffer, ethics is a matter of history and blood," said James H. Evans, president of Colgate Rochester Divinity School. "There is no universal ethics. There are no principles to resort to. Yesterday's ethical decisions can't be prescriptive—every situation is unique. You have to seek God's will anew each day. It is through this freedom that Christians become creative in ethical actions."

Moral authority for this creativity, it follows, has to be earned. Evans, an expert on African-American theology, noted that both Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King were demonstrably committed, to the limit of their lives, "to causes that could justifiably be called not their own," both having come from comfortable middle-class backgrounds. Furthermore, "both were deeply rooted in spiritual connectedness. It was only by being in touch with God that you could reduce the risk of ethical decisions."

J. Deotis Roberts, professor of Christian theology at Duke University, also brought up the importance of "the values that people draw on when they make ethical decisions." Bonhoeffer, Roberts said, "was not a situationalist or a relativist but a contextualist," the difference being that "contextual is thoughtful, careful, prayerful, based in long, deep experience."

Within his particular context, Roberts noted, King clung unequivocally to his own non-violent roots, influenced by both his theological training (during which he had read Bonhoeffer) and the powerful example of Mahatma Gandhi. "Put these together," Roberts said, "and non-violence became a formal absolute principle for him, consistent with natural and divine law. It was non- negotiable. He was consistent in emphasizing this, even when non-violence didn't work. This was King's dilemma."

King's context, of course, was markedly different from Bonhoeffer's. While Bonhoeffer faced what Roberts called "a kingdom of evil," King, noted John de Gruchy, lived in a democracy: "The problem was the democracy wasn't working." De Gruchy, a professor of religion at the University of Cape Town who was active in the South African anti-apartheid movement, outlined parallels between Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela, long-time leader of the African National Congress. Although, "the comparison must not be unduly forced," de Gruchy said. The ANC, since its founding in 1912, had been committed to non-violence, he noted, for both strategic and moral reasons. "Peaceful resistance had again and again been rebuffed, met with increasing force. It was only when all else failed . . . that the decision was taken to embark on violent forms of political struggle. 'We did not choose,' Mandela told the court when he was tried for treason in 1961; 'The government gave us no choice.' He felt morally obliged to do what he did. But he had an acute awareness of the need for control of the violence that would be unleashed, of the danger of all-out civil war. The cycle of violence had to be broken, not perpetuated.

De Gruchy went on to emphasize, in his concluding remarks, "the need for careful contextual analysis, and not romanticizing violent resistance." Both Bonhoeffer and Mandela, he said, "carefully weighed the contexts of their actions, and were willing to accept responsibility for them, and for their consequences. . . ."

"Only those genuinely committed to peacemaking," he argued—who devote and even risk their lives, who are clearly acting for the sake of others—"have the moral authority to resort to violence as a last resort."

Ought there to be other considerations as well? Nathan Stoltzfus, professor of history at Florida State University, began his talk by paraphrasing the Dalai Lama, "who said that although the use of violence may be all right morally, it is not effective." Bonhoeffer himself, Stoltzfus noted, wrote of the ethical significance of success. "He warned of going out like a Don Quixote," with no hope of success. "The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask," Bonhoeffer wrote, "is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live."

Were there non-violent avenues that could have been a more effective means of resistance against Hitler? Stoltzfus pointed to the case of intermarried German women, "non-Jewish women who rescued their Jewish partners from death by refusing to divorce or isolate them and leave them vulnerable." While others acquiesced to ostracize or even denounce their Jewish neighbors, he explained, "These women had the courage to resist Nazi authority openly. In this sense, they 'stood fast' like Bonhoeffer—but their methods were much different. And they were effective."

This effectiveness, Stoltzfus said, points to a larger possibility "that the Nazi regime may not have advanced to Holocaust in the absence of social acceptance. The Nazis built on social norms and social pressures. It was the passivity of the large majority of Germans that gave the government the green light."

By 1938, it was too late for nonviolent resistance. "The 'community' between the people and Hitler was strong," Stoltzfus said. "Brute force was the standard method of control."

"As Bonhoeffer moved more deeply into the conspiracy," concurred Wayne Whitson Floyd, "he realized that the time for any moral solution to Hitler had passed. He and other responsible Germans were faced with only immoral choices": to let it happen, or to renounce the principle of non-violence. "Guilt would have to be incurred."

Floyd, who is canon theologian at St. Stephen's Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg, argued that the decision for violence does represent a profound failure for Bonhoeffer. "For Bonhoeffer, violence is always evidence of human brokenness," he said. "Concern for the ethics of violence is not a boundary issue. Rather, it touches on our most basic assumption about what it means to be human."

Clear in Bonhoeffer's early writing, Floyd said, is that, "What is extraordinary about the Christian story is the command to love our enemies—as God on the cross did, accepting the punishment due to our enemy, with our greatest concern being for the enemy's redemption." This concept is, for Bonhoeffer, "the absolute center of Christianity. . . . It is the way by which we affirm the other as of the very same value as ourselves. Bonhoeffer leaves no room for ambiguity" on this point, Floyd said. "The human desire for revenge is stronger than any other, and giving up that desire is probably the hardest sacrifice we are asked to make, but there can be no retributive justice. This is the cost of discipleship.

"He never attempted to justify his action," Floyd concluded. In fact, Bonhoeffer told friends that he considered that his participation in the conspiracy had made him unfit for the pulpit should he survive the war.

On our blood lies the heavy guilt

Of the useless servant, cast out into darkness, he sings, in Robert Hatten's libretto.

I cannot escape guilt by evading my responsibility.

And, finally,

It is better to do evil than to be evil.

These lines are Bonhoeffer's own, Hatten had noted a few nights earlier, outside the room where the orchestra was playing. The last "is more of a concession than a proclamation," he had said.

"He is throwing himself on God's mercy."

Bonhoeffer's Dilemma: The Ethics of Violence, an outreach program of Penn State's Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, was held October 28-31, 1999, on the University Park campus. The conference was sponsored by the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies; Intercollege Research Programs; the Colleges of Arts and Architecture, Communications, Education, and the Liberal Arts; the School of Music; the Departments of Comparative Literature, English, German and Slavic Languages and Literatures, History, Philosophy, and Political Science; the Jewish Studies and Religious Studies programs; the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs; the Offices of Continuing Education and Student Activities; the Community for Peace Education; the Laine Family Foundation; the Institute of International Education/Ford Foundation; and an anonymous foundation grant. Robert Edwards, Ph.D., is director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, Ihlseng Cottage, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-0495; rre1@psu.edu. Robert S. Hatten, Ph.D., is professor of music theory at Indiana University. Ann K. Gebuhr, Ph.D., is professor of music and director of the School of Music at Houston Baptist University.

Last Updated May 01, 2000