I have a question.
Do you believe Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have repented of... or celebrated over... his action of killing Hitler had it really been successful? You recall he was part of the planning of an assassination of Adolph Hitler, along with the members of the Abwehr, [The German Military Intelligence Office] and was arrested and ultimately executed for his part in the unsucessful plan. My question is an attempt to see if there is a valid reason ethically or morally for a Christian to ever celebrate the death of anyone no matter the seriousness or savagery of their actions.
The story of Bonhoeffer is fascinating. In the late Nineteen thirties Germany was under the control of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party and war was imminent. A movement had arisen in Germany among some Christians called the "Confessing Church" and, though not large, the group was opposed to Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a part of that movement. He was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who had graduated summa cum laude from the University of Berlin in 1927 and had earned his doctorate in theology at the age of 21. He had then come to America and studied some at the Union Seminary in New York but wasn't impressed with it and returned to Germany for his ministry.
In June of 1939 Bonhoeffer was invited by Union Seminary to return to New York to lecture. The situation in Germany was already intolerable however, and it was not an easy decision for him to make. He finally accepted and came to the States and was encouraged to remain, but quickly regretted his decision to come at all. This is clearly seen in his letter to Reinhold Niebuhr on faculty at Union Seminary where he said, "I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany...I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with her people.." So he returned to his homeland on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic to Germany prior to the war.
Four years later he was executed, as I said, for his participation in the failed attempt on Hitler's assassination.
Bonhoeffer himself, apparently, did not think killing Hitler was an altogether righteous thing to do. There is some question among historians about how much Bonhoeffer actually participated, but he obviously thought of himself as a participant, and struggled with some sense of guilt over it. He did not justify whatever part he played as evidenced by what he wrote when he said this, "When a man takes guilt upon himself [Referring to his part in the plot] in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. he answers for it. Before other men he may be justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he can only hope for grace." So Bonhoeffer did not think of the planned attempt on Hitler's life as a "righteous" thing at all, but he did view it as a "right" thing. He saw a difference in the two. He believed them to be two separate things and I'm thinking he may have been right.
In simple terms, Bonhoeffer saw a difference between something as "just" and something that could be said to be "Justified." His view of the difference would be based on the idea that while fallen creation demands sometimes a person doing the "lesser of two evils," one could never honestly equate any human action as a "righteous action" unless it was from pure love or the character of God. [It is that which would also qualify any anger as a righteous anger.] Bonhoeffer believed that since our actions as human beings can never have that as the basis for them, we are fallen creatures after all and are not God, we may, therefore, perform only justifiable actions, but not just ones.
This could potentially leave us as Christians with a sense of relief or satisfaction or even joy at something accomplished justifiably, like the carrying out of a punishment decided upon by a jury or the personal protection of our loved ones or our nation when at war. The joy we experienced at the ending of the second world war would be in this category. But this is also why we often struggle and disagree with one another when attempting to define a "Justifiable war." This struggle is because we are never completely sure of our justification for an action.
So it could even be that the justifiable death, as Bonhoeffer believed, of an evil perpetrator of crimes as a Hitler might bring great relief or satisfaction. [Or an Osama Ben Laden?] But for Bonhoeffer it would bring a lingering sense of guilt as well.
But in no case, for Bonhoeffer, could there be a celebratory attitude at someone dying. This, because there would always be a sense of moral loss in the action no matter how evil the behavior of the one upon whom death was inflicted. In his mind we may perform "justifiable retribution" upon a person, but never "Just retribution" as that is the preogative of God alone.
Some of you may see this as a minor thing or even a play on words. Perhaps! But, like some other issues that could give us a sense of being godlike in our behavior, unless addressed and even checked, [Abortion for example] this difference may keep us clear minded on things with eternal ends in view. We fallen human beings often must choose between the lesser of two evils but also face our responsibility in bringing about something "justifiable."
But something defined as "Just" would be best left in the hands of the One who knows enough to make the call. Bonhoeffer may have taught us as Christians some valuable lessons whether we agree with all his positions theologically or not.
So, the killing of Osama Ben Laden...relief, gratitude, satisfaction, justifiable end? Perhaps! But celebration? Perhaps Not!