Wisdom from Bonhoeffer…for Everyone, Not Just Someone Else

I am conducting a seminar this semester on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great work, Ethics. In preparing for a class next week, I came across a passage that so arrested me I thought I would set it out here. It’s long, even in the slightly truncated form I’m presenting it here, but I think you’ll find it electric as well.

I do not mean by setting out the following to imply any simple and absolute parallels between Bonhoeffer’s time and ours. But I do mean to listen to the wisdom he offered in his day in order to help me navigate the challenges of my own.

(I will add paragraphing here to make it easier to read in weblog form.)


The message of God’s becoming human attacks the heart of an era when contempt for humanity or idolization of humanity is the height of all wisdom, among bad people as well as good. The weaknesses of human nature appear more clearly in a storm than in the quiet flow of calmer times.

Among the overwhelming majority of people, anxiety, greed, lack of independence, and brutality show themselves to be the mainspring of behavior in the face of unsuspected chance and threats. At such a time the tyrannical despiser of humanity easily makes use of the meanness of the human heart by nourishing it and giving it other names. Anxiety is called responsibility; greed is called industriousness; lack of independence becomes solidarity; brutality becomes masterfulness.

By this integration and treatment of human weaknesses, what is base and mean is generated and increased ever anew. The basest contempt for humanity carries on its sinister business under the most holy assertions of love for humanity. The meaner the baseness becomes, the more willing and pliant a tool it is in the hand of the tyrant.

The small number of upright people will be smeared with mud. Their courage is called revolt, their discipline Pharisaism, their independence arbitrariness, and their masterfulness arrogance.

For the tyrannical despiser of humanity, popularity is the sign of the greatest love for humanity. He hides his secret profound distrust of all people behind the stolen words of true community. While he declares himself before the masses to be one of them, he praises himself with repulsive vanity and despises the rights of every individual. He considers the people stupid, and they become stupid; he considers them weak, and they become weak; he considers them criminal, and they become criminal.

His most holy seriousness is frivolous play; his conventional protestations of solicitude for people are bare-faced cynicism. In his deep contempt for humanity, the more he seeks the favor of those he despises, the more certainly he arouses the masses to declare him a god.

Contempt for humanity and idolization of humanity live together.

Good people, however, who see through all this, who withdraw in disgust from people and leave them to themselves, and who would rather tend to their own gardens than debase themselves in public life, fall prey to the same temptation to contempt for humanity as do bad people. Their contempt for humanity is of course more noble, more upright, but at the same time less fruitful, poorer in deeds. Faced by God’s becoming human, this contempt will stand the test no better than that of the tyrant. The despiser of humanity despises what God has loved, despises the very form of God become human.

There is, however, also a sincerely intended love for humanity that amounts to the same thing as contempt for humanity. It rests on evaluating human beings according to their dormant values—the health, reasonableness, and goodness deep beneath the surface.…

With forced tolerance, evil is reinterpreted as good, meanness is overlooked, and the reprehensible is excused. For various reasons one shies away from a clear No, and finally agrees to everything. One loves a self-made picture of human beings that has little similarity to reality, and one ends up despising the real human being God has loved and whose being God has taken on.

Only because God became human is it possible to know and not despise real human beings. Real human beings may live before God, and we may let these real people live beside us and before God without either despising or idolizing them.


(“Ethics as Formation,” in Ethics, ed. Clifford Green, 85-87). UPDATE: For those who would like a survey of Bonhoeffer’s thought particularly in terms of ethics, I can offer you a chapter’s worth in my Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (OUP, 2008). And, if you’re a reader of “Comment” (and why wouldn’t you be?) my review of the latest, and best, Bonhoeffer biography is here.

17 Responses to “Wisdom from Bonhoeffer…for Everyone, Not Just Someone Else”

  1. WoundedEgo

    I think if Bonhoeffer were alive today he would be plotting Trump’s well-deserved death as he did the earlier Hitler.

    • Andy Rowell

      @WoundedEgo Assassination wasn’t a primary part of what Bonhoeffer was on about vocationally or theologically. But yeah, he probably knew about it and he knew his family would be in big trouble if the plot was exposed. Read Bonhoeffer’s Ethics for yourself! It may be thought-provoking on how to respond in desperate situations.

      • WoundedEgo

        Well, there is a coup in process by some of the most cynical and evil men who ever existed. There will be no (meaningful) elections in the USA in 2020.

  2. Wendy Jones

    Strikingly spot on! Impossible not to draw parallels as much as we are warned not to. Struggling to put my own self in this picture rather than get away with pointing fingers. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Jim Beidle

      That’s precisely what struck me. It is easy to apply this rubric to someone else. It gets stickier when I realize that it applies to me as easily.

  3. Andy Rowell

    And, I would say, dear readers, keep reading as Bonhoeffer does not just diagnose the plight but also gives us some ways forward . . .

  4. Rae Struthers

    John, Thank you for this…it is almost eerily cogent and timely.

  5. Rae Struthers


    Thank you for this…it is almost eerily cogent and timely.
    Stephen Westerholm at McMaster has written a book paralleling his study of Bonhoeffer and the Gospel of Matthew.

  6. Jonathan Wilson

    Thanks for sharing this. Bonhoeffer’s prescience demonstrates its moral and theological integrity precisely by its ongoing resonance (and relevance). These words speak not just in Trump’s direction today, but in most directions when it comes to the postures and narratives dominating our various “feeds”.

    On another note, I am surprised to hear you extoll Marsh’s biography as the best so far. I found it helpful in providing fresh perspective and material, but at times found it speculative to a degree that was disingenuous and even tawdry. I would give the “best of” honour to Schlingensiepen’s biography: https://www.amazon.ca/Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-1906-1945-Thinker-Resistance/dp/0567034003

    • John

      Thanks, Jonathan. My knowledge of the (vast) secondary literature on DB is only sketchy, so I’m glad to hear your recommendation of Schlingensiepen’s work, which I don’t know. As for Marsh’s, well, my review indicates that I am not disagreeing with your demurrals…!

      • Jonathan Wilson

        My knowledge of the secondary literature is probably best described as sketchy too. It seem that every man/woman, liberal/conservative and his/her dog/cat has their take on Bonhoeffer.

  7. Lynn Betts

    So, is the gist of his many words here: neither worship nor despise humanity? Is that too simplistic a summary?

    • John

      That’s a start, Sister Lynn. But it’s Bonhoeffer’s insightful description of the various ways people can go wrong in a challenging political situation that is most illuminating.

  8. Jim

    Rather than focus on the man..”Trump”. One may consider christian fundamentalism as becoming the new fascism. How do you divorce Pence from this current manifestation. Our fallen nature always seems to want to devote our attention to the need for worldly King.

  9. jim

    We decry Muslims for not being more vocal about denouncing faith based hate but we appear to be no more vocal when our own faith begins to show its darker side. Trump sees the Christ simply as an “asset” and Pence his puppet.


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