In class, we recently finished our unit on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Here is my review of Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer). It gave us an opportunity to read Bonhoeffer’s “After Ten Years” and some of his ethics. He begins the short work with his social commentary of “people with so little ground under their feet” (After Ten Years, 3). Despite the plethora of options in our modern day, “every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant, and futile” (After Ten Years, 3). Coupled with this seemingly hopelessness is the masquerade of evil. Witnessed in Hitler’s claims for justice after World War I, evil hides itself in the good.
Bonhoeffer proceeds to outline six distortions of ethics caused by disguised evil, which results in a state of groundlessness. First are the “reasonable” ones. “With the best intentions and a naïve lack of realism, they think that with a little reason they can bend back into position the framework that has got out of joint” (After Ten Years, 4). More “pathetic” is the moral fanatic, who thinks that his “single-minded principles qualify him to do battle with the powers of evil” (After Ten Years, 4). Instead of attacking the matador, the fanatic preoccupies himself with the inconsequential cape. Perhaps what is needed it is not a set of principles but the conscience. However, one realizes that the conscience will not suffice when in face of evil. The man of conscience is left with only an injured conscience and forced to retreat like a dog with his tail between his legs.
Then there are those who rely on duty. If ethics is reduced to the call of duty, then responsibility resides in the commander and not the do-er. This may be a way to skirt responsibility but evil often seeks out these dutiful individuals and subjugates them to the devil. Given Bonhoeffer’s World War II context, the idea of a devil master is quite real. One can go the opposite route of emphasizing freedom. But this “fruitful radicalism” finds itself in a worse position with only a “barren principle” and no solution to morality; as Bonhoeffer states, “the raw material of tragedy” (After Ten Years, 5). When all else fails, the resolution of “private virtuousness” may suffice the individual. However, such would require one to “shut his mouth and his eyes to the injustice around him” (After Ten Years, 5).
So, Bonhoeffer asks, who stands fast?
Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action if faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people? (After Ten Years, 5)