Many know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my personal heroes and one to whom I seek guidance from in issues of ethics. Bonhoeffer is one of the reasons I adhere to the pacifist movement.

Many have wondered how Bonhoeffer was able to reconcile his position on nonviolence to his choice to involve himself in an assassination plot of Adolf Hitler. I have answered such inquiries by stating that Bonhoeffer enacted a practical teleological suspension of the ethical. This is an idea posited originally by Soren Kierkegaard in his famed book, Fear and Trembling. The word teleology comes from the root “telos” which means an ultimate aim or objective. Thus, to suspend one’s ethical judgment is for the purpose of aiming it something greater. Thus, the basic conditions for Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical are (1) there must be a great moral good for which one is trying to achieve and (2), the act undertaken to make (1) obtain must be an act which is in all other circumstances morally blameworthy. Kierkegaard writes at length on this relating it to the biblical account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. I assert that Bonhoeffer enacted this two conditions.

While there are objections to Kierkegaard’s theory which I cannot here address (I hope to largely center my dissertation on this issue), I do posit that Bonhoeffer’s willingness to assassinate Hitler is a literal and practical example of Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical. It is for this reason that I believe that Bonhoeffer was not only strongly influenced by Kierkegaard, but also that Bonhoeffer remained consistent in his conviction of nonviolence while remaining steadfast in what he believed God wanted him to do.

Theologian Greg Boyd answers in much of the same manner as I do, although he does not discuss Kierkegaard’s theory.

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  1. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the interesting post. I have read some Bonhoeffer (Cost of Discipleship, Life Together), and I respect and admire him greatly, mostly because of his awareness of and engagement with the critical political issues of his time.

    The idea of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” is new to me and it raises some questions. First, how are we to determine what actions are morally greater than others? Perhaps practicing nonviolence is morally greater than suspending the ethical to attempt to assassinate Hitler. I struggle to place moral issues on a continuum from good to better to best. Is it even possible to do this?

    Second, how do we know that employing “suspension of the ethical” is not just a way of excusing inconsistencies in our beliefs and contradictions in our actions? From my perspective, if Bonhoeffer truly believed in a nonviolent worldview, by plotting to kill Hitler he committed the very sin he was opposed to, thus propagating that which he believed to be wrong. His actions seem to be hypocritical and a moral evil that might outweigh the moral good he was trying to achieve (especially if others imitate him). Maybe Bonhoeffer was wrong in believing that God was calling him to be involved in assassinating Hitler. As a counter example, I would hold up MLK Jr. who was consistent in his nonviolent beliefs and actions through the Civil Rights Movement even though he faced terrible racism, death threats, violence, and finally death. If anyone had a justification for suspending the ethical it was MLK, yet he didn’t (and we have examples of the Black Panthers and their active embrace of violent measures; clearly the Civil Right’s Movement was won because of the likes of MLK, not the Black Panthers).

    Third, how do we know when it is appropriate to suspend the ethical and when it is not? If only used in extreme cases, this might be ok (like Bonhoeffer and Hitler). But what if it gets out of control and one defers to this idea for many issues on a continual basis? If one suspends the ethical and engages in immoral actions enough, one’s life could become dominated by immoral and sinful living. This is not only inconsistent, but wrong.

    An example of suspending the ethical that I have wrestled with is preferential affirmative action. Affirmative action in this sense discriminates against the majority (say, whites), to increase the chances of the minorities (black, latinos, immigrants, even women). This is justified by saying that discriminating like this is the only way to actually bring about equality of results. It seems to me this is an example of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” in order to bring about the greater good of equality. However, I disagree with such a stance because embracing (reverse) discrimination to bring about equality is to live out and approve of the very wrong that you condemn and which created the problem in the first place. This not only makes you hypocritical, but also makes you just as guilty as those who discriminated originally (in this case whites against minorities), and I would think it creates a cycle of discrimination. Since discrimination led to inequality in the first place, it doesn’t make any sense to believe that it will now led to equality. I think it is better to treat all people equal ontologically, strive for equal opportunity, and seek to overcome preferential treatment of specific groups or individuals.

    I haven’t studied Kierkegaard or his idea of the teleological suspension of the ethical, so it could be that my questions are answered by him or others. Also, I know you said there were objections which you weren’t going to cover in this post. Sorry if I’m raising some of those questions/objections. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues.

    [PS – I was a little confused by the last couple sentences in the second paragraph where you talk about Kierkegaard’s conditions for the teleological suspension of the ethical. It almost seems like you are saying Kierkegaard had three conditions and you just mis-numbered them (1-2-1 instead of 1-2-3). But when I re-read it I understood that you are referencing condition #1 in condition #2.]

    Ben Crenshaw

    1. Thanks for the response, Ben.

      SK’s teleological suspension of the ethical is quite difficult to wrap the mind around, let alone practically implement. Many assert that it cannot rightly be placed into practice. I disagree, as I believe that Abraham did so in the Genesis account mentioned in my post. To get a firm grasp on this, read SK’s “Fear and Trembling.”

      In response to how one knows when and how to suspend the ethical, the Bonhoeffer and Abraham examples rest on the claim that each thought that it is what God wanted them to do. Many look at Abraham and DB as great men of faith and thus people seem to trust their judgment more than others. But if a Christian that we know personally today were to make a claim as rash as Abraham or DB regarding the killing of another person, we would hesitate to think that God himself influenced the decision. It is difficult to speculate how to know when to suspend the ethical, but I think you are right when you say it may be extreme situations (DB, MLK, etc.).

      I would push back on calling DB’s suspension of his convicted moral norms hypocritical. As Boyd said in the brief clip, DB was willing to accept the penalty for his action. He made a choice, a decision which went outside his moral conscience, to stop an evil man through an evil means – assassination. DB did not know how God would judge him for it, or if he would at all. DB seemed to take the “leap of faith” that SK discussed so much. To quote DB from his letters from prison, it seems that DB took the leap into his involvement in the Hitler plot. He says, “Who stands firm? 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: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call.”

      This quote has definite epistemological questions embedded with it, and I do not adhere to SK’s leap of faith, but this may testify to DB’s state of mind in his decision.

  2. The angle from which I have viewed this conundrum centers on God’s sovereignty [something Christians challenging the pacifist witness lose sight of, in my view]. Despite Bonhoeffer’s certitude about God’s call, how, in God’s sovereign plan, did HItler die? Was the assassination plot blessed by God?

    DB remains a hero in my book, and like all heroes and humans–not perfect.

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