I have recently gone through a biography of a German man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), whose story was simply compelling. Here was a man who was raised in a sizable family that wasn’t overly religious but full of intellect and some political connections. Bonhoeffer, much to the surprise of his family, decided to go to seminary school and become a teacher and a member of the clergy. His students were clear on his standing that, when you read the Bible, read it as if it were a personal letter written directly to you.
As the German government started growing in power just before WWII, Bonhoeffer was very vocal about his disapproval of this government, the German leader and the treatment of the Jews. By 1940, he was forced to give daily personal activity reports to the police, he was banned from publishing any material and from public speaking. He eventually joined a group called Abwehr, a German military intelligence group that was at the center of the anti-government resistance. In this group, Bonhoeffer learned about two things: the full scope of the inhuman treatment of the Jews and the ensuing plots to kill the German leader.
This is where the ‘Dilemma’ begins. Bonhoeffer made it his goal to live his life according to a passage in the Bible known as “The Sermon on the Mount” (Gospel of Matthew, ch. 5). Some of the things that Jesus instructs in this Sermon are: Thou shall not kill – Thou shall turn the other cheek, love your enemy, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. What was he to do? ‘Love his enemy’ who was succeeding in Jewish genocide? ‘Bless’ the man who was waging war and bombing civilian cities until the countries surrendered? ‘Do good’ to the man who used the name of the church to justify these actions?
What would you do? “Be it resolved that: Adversity doesn’t build character; it reveals it.” Bonhoeffer was a man of great discipline and character. He decided to help the resistance with great reserve. In struggling with the dilemma, he understood that he was going against his character and would be judged for his wrong doings before God, “When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it…Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.”
I am surely not the judge of his actions or of yours. We all have these dilemmas in our lives. Yours many not be as big as the one Bonhoeffer was facing, but, when it comes ethical dilemmas, our character doesn’t see size, it only records the decision, and shapes our destiny accordingly. To handle the ethical dilemmas and the tough decisions in your life, you must ask a single question of yourself on a regular basis, “What is my life for?” The more you ask the question, the clearer the answer gets. The answer doesn’t ever have to cross your lips, because it’s written on your character.
Bonhoeffer had asked this question of himself many times. So when this dilemma came to him, he knew exactly what the consequences were of his decision. His connection to the resistance’s conspiracy to kill the German leader was discovered shortly after their closest and final attempt. An Abwehr member exploded a bomb in his own briefcase near the German leader that killed several top officers. The German Leader was knocked down, but not injured. Bonhoeffer was already in jail but this discovery led to his execution.
Bonhoeffer was a man of amazing discipline and character. He had given hundreds of men and women the courage to live a life of character, even in the face of adversity. He also taught them the consequences that you face when you do. I hope that you never have to make a decision of such magnitude, BUT, I hope you face the ethical dilemmas in your life with the same seriousness.
You were not given the gift of life in vain! When the ethical dilemmas show up in your life, you know with certainty what is right and what the eternal consequences are of your decision. Your character lives long after you expire.
The camp doctor who witnessed his execution wrote “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”