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.