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Allan Powell: Combating evil, morally

October 26, 2011

In a preceding article there was a partial account of the rise of the Third Reich led by Adolph Hitler. Also included was a biographical sketch of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a dedicated theologian and pastor, who joined in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler because of his reign of terror with all of its attendant evils. It might be instructive to ponder the inner turmoil Bonhoeffer recorded as he engaged in activities in clear opposition to what he was preaching in his sermons. Yet these violations of his biblical and theological principles became a moral demand in a nation controlled by immoral thugs.

He was keenly aware of the biblical categorical imperatives: Thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not kill, obey the powers that be and the preachments about deceit. He defended their authority, but then came the Nazis with their barbarism and destructive power. Was it moral to do nothing in the face of so much evil?

Bonhoeffer came up with a solution to his moral conflict by the use of what he called "living truth." He wrote: "It is only the cynic who claims to 'speak the truth' at all times in all places to all men in the same way, but who in fact, displays nothing but a lifeless image of the truth — He dons the halo of the fanatical devotee of truth who can make no allowance for human weaknesses; but in fact, he is destroying the living truth between men."

Bonhoeffer, the theologian and teacher, uses a simple story to make the point of "living truth" and relevance of the situation or setting when a judgment of truthfulness is made. A teacher asks a girl if her father is a drunkard in front of the class. She replies, "No," fully aware that her answer is a lie. Bonhoeffer argued that the lie was defensible in that context because the teacher had no right to ask a question which forced the girl to dishonor her father in public.

A stronger case for situational ethics can be made in a setting more charged with danger. Before slavery ended in our nation, there was an "underground railroad" created to secretly help runaway slaves reach Canada and freedom. A sheriff, searching for escaped slaves, knocked on the door of a Quaker farmhouse and asked if they were hiding any runaway slaves. They reply, "No," with the clear realization that they have lied in spite of the absolute demand, "Thou shalt not lie." No rational person would surrender a slave to appease absolutist preachers.

Throughout life we are all forced to make moral judgments in which there is a collision between two values. In the case of Bonhoeffer, he had two bad choices, he could lie and use deceit to murder a psychopathic dictator who invaded and slaughtered at will or piously quote a verse of scripture while the treachery goes on apace. We do not always get the convenience of a clear choice between right and wrong. Sometimes we are forced to choose between two bad choices and realize we then have to choose the lesser of two evils.

What is so admirable about the choice made by Bonhoeffer was that his choice made it almost certain that he would end up a victim of Nazi sadism. He was an able and respected theologian and pastor who could have lived in safe anonymity, enjoying all of the creature comforts associated with that social class. But Bonhoeffer's moral sensitivities were challenged by the Nazi assault on human decency. He could not watch helplessly from the sidelines while others suffered.

Bonhoeffer's friend, Martin Niemoller, a submarine commander in World War I, found out the price one must have to pay for stalling and, in effect, enabling evildoers. He eventually turned against Hitler and was imprisoned for eight years. He wrote: "First they came after the socialists and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. And then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me."

There is an important point to be made about the choice to employ a forbidden act for a righteous cause. This exemption from a moral demand cannot be taken as a license to use forbidden acts for any other purpose than the removal of a greater evil. There can be no doubt that the advent of Nazi fascism, with its strident racism, expansionist nationalism and perfected capacity for torture was a blight on the civilized world. They could never have been subdued without extreme retaliation.

Some will be uncomfortable with the idea of a "living truth" because it accepts flexibility according to time, place, and circumstance in a nasty world of change. But those who are observant have witnessed again and again that when absolutist offenders of ethics and the law get caught, their first line of defense is to argue they should be excused because of time, place or circumstance. They suddenly become poster board displays of situational ethics.

Philosophers tend to accept only two varieties of truth — mathematical and empirical. They are suspicious of theories that stray from these two workable and time-proven standards. Yet, there stands Bonhoeffer with his very pragmatic, "living truth."

History is predictable enough to be assured that another monster like Adolph Hitler will come down the pike. We will indeed be fortunate if another Dietrich Bonhoeffer steps up from among the crowd to make a challenge to personified evil.

Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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