Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Birthday Today

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Today we are witnessing the throes of political unrest in an important part of the world. Cries of revolution are all over the news.

Today, it happens, is also the 104th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday. Bonhoeffer famously and courageously determined to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He and his co-conspirators failed. They were arrested and executed. Their execution occurred just 23 days before the Allied victory in World War 2. And do you know, Bonhoeffer did not have a high expectation that their plan would succeed? Rather, he believed he was under an obligation, that it was the right thing to do, even should the effort fail. In his case, the verdict of obligation was worked out in thoughtful consideration of the authoritative will of the loving God of the Christian Bible. Not everyone agreed with him then (most disagreed), and many would disagree still. But the point is simply that he acted from a sense of duty and deep moral principle informed by a close study of God’s revealed purposes.

The moral justification of a political revolution, on my view, must be justified on grounds that do not depend on the actual outcome. What do you think?

Note: Today I attended a luncheon at my university where the author of a new biography of Bonhoeffer spoke about the great man’s conviction and self-sacrifice. The biography is Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy, by Eric Metaxas.


About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

3 Responses to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Birthday Today

  1. Brian Livermore says:

    This doesn’t answer your question directly, but what you ask reveals how mired we are in pragmatism and how soft we are on principle. Clearly our culture has placed pragmatism far ahead of principle. “What works” trumps “what is right?”


  2. Alex says:

    The right to revolt requires two components according to some traditional natural law theorists, those who follow St. Thomas Aquinas on this point. The government must perpetrate injustice in a way that vitiates the primary purposes of government. And the revolution must not result in a situation worse off than before (or, perhaps, must result in a situation better than before).

    So suppose someone argues that a government which permits abortion permits murder and so perpetrates injustice that is directly opposed to the purposes of government. Nevertheless, overthrowing that government would unleash catastrophic power struggles and disorder of a terrific magnitude across the globe. There would be, in that situation, no right to revolt but the government under question is still surely unjust.

    You ask about ‘moral justification’ relative to ‘actual outcome’. I take it you mean to say that revolt could be, beforehand, justified by just such considerations (perhaps) as I’ve mentioned. Suppose that afterwards, however, the ‘actual’ (not the expected) outcome is extreme catastrophe, a power vacuum, and a new unjust tyranny in place of the old. So, I’d agree that ‘actual’ outcome in the sense of what happens is irrelevant to the justification of revolt. But surely reference to expected outcome is required above and beyond the injustice of the government in question.

    There is also a further question regarding the right to revolt. Does this imply that if calculated correctly it justifies any individual’s efforts (alone or not) or just that something needs to be done?


  3. J.W. Wartick says:

    Bonhoeffer is an amazing figure. His works have deeply influenced me. A truly Christian man.


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