Bonhoeffer and Human Rights

When we consider the place of Christian faith and human rights, one person of particular relevance is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For those of you who don’t know who Bonhoeffer was, he was a pastor and theologian who was part of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany and who eventually became involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. You may be asking how Bonhoeffer justified his willingness to partake in such an act of violence, especially if you have read any of his earlier pacifist writings. In this blog we will explore his thoughts on responsible action and how they relate to how we can respond when trying to resist the erosion of and loss of human rights in our context today. 

Although Bonhoeffer lived before the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), his life and thought can tell us a lot about how we should respond when rights are lost or eroded. Bonhoeffer does not divide the world in to secular and sacred, he believed that the world is one reality, Christ’s reality, which he refers to as the Christuswerklicht. In his book Ethics he discusses how it is necessary to discern what God’s will is in any situation. Reflecting on Bonhoeffer’s thought it is clear that he does not justify violence as an acceptable form of resistance in every situation.  His justification for being part of the conspiracy was that this was what he referred to as a ‘boundary case’. These are exceptional situations where individuals must act to uphold the law by breaking it. It is part of his theory of responsible action. Bonhoeffer’ actions and any previous actions of resistance cannot act as exact blueprints of how to resist in our context, although we can still learn from them. He also acknowledges that sometimes this responsible action can be a sin and therefore in all of our resistance we must rely on the mercy of God. 

Bonhoeffer invites us to encounter the Christuswerklicht in our situation and discern the will of God. So, when we see human rights being taken away from individuals and with a government that seems intent on gutting human rights legislation, this produces a particular context for resistance for us and requires that we engage with and encounter the Christuswerklicht today. Do we see Christ in the face of the refugee? In the lives of LGBTQ+ people? Or present under the rubble in Gaza? This is the invitation that Bonhoeffer offers us, one which requires deep empathy and for our motivations to come from a place of love. 

There have been people who have used Bonhoeffer’s participation in the conspiracy to kill Hitler to justify horrible actions. These examples fail to properly engage with Bonhoeffer’s thought. Bonhoeffer does not ask us to copy his actions, but rather to discern the will of God in our context to discover how it is that God calls us to resist. One horrible example of where Bonhoeffer’s legacy was used incorrectly was that of Paul Jennings Hill who was an anti-abortion terrorist who tried to use Bonhoeffer to justify the murder of a physician and his bodyguard. Instead of reducing Bonhoeffer’s life to a justification for violence for any political cause we must first encounter the Christuswerklicht and only then can we discern what actions we must take today. 

Yet, it is important that we do act, as Bonhoeffer states “the first confession of the Christian church-community before the world is the deed!... The deed alone is our confession before the world.” In Bonhoeffer’s day, words and language were being hijacked by Nazi ideology, and often had lost their original meaning and power as a result.  So, in our context where the language of human rights is being treated as a privilege rather than a fundamental right, where human rights legislation is belittled and when those who have spent their lives campaigning for human rights are demonised, it becomes even more important not just to speak but to act. When language loses its meaning the only witness we have left is our action. 

In Bonhoeffer’s sermon for the baptism of his godchild, Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge, he wrote this: “So the words we used before must lose their power, be silenced, and we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings.” So, take some time today to consider what type of resistance God is calling you to in our context. Make space in your week to encounter the Christuswerklicht and with empathy and compassion, in prayer discern what it is God is calling you to do to continue to witness to the importance of and need for human rights. 

Call to action: Take time in prayer to discern how God is calling you to resist the loss of and erosion of human rights in the UK today.