christianity ethics

ethical violence?

A question raised by Damian (‘Would you kill if God told you to?’) under a post at Frank’s blog recently led to various comments about God, killing and ethics.

The issue is massive, and I won’t try to summarise it here, but I wanted to share an interesting historical character that I think is fully relevant to the topic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who not only produced several much-treasured writings (for example ‘The Cost of Discipleship’), but also was brutally executed for his involvement both in efforts to free Jews and efforts to assassinate Adolf Hitler during WWII.

It’s an amazingly relevant example to the violence and ethics conversation. Bonhoeffer’s writings on what he called ‘situational ethics’ were disturbing to some, but his ideas are precisely those which compelled him to do what he did. Interestingly, Bonhoeffer was also interested in non-violence. His flexibility and adaptability strikes me as courageous. He was a man who not only knew the time and place he lived in, but knew what he thought he must do.

The topic of ‘ethical violence’ is a huge and complex one. Not for the faint of heart and not for those only wishing to offer cheap quips.

We feel the tension between being thankful on one hand for the courage of Bonhoeffer and those like him, and being fearful and paralysed on the other by our familiarity with what can and often does happen when the violent path is chosen. We want to applaud the heroism of freedom-fighters and peace-keepers, but we are shocked and awed at the horror of times when this has only served to produce anything but freedom or peace.

It’s a difficult tension. A tension which amplifies the difficulty of the question ‘Would you kill if God told you to?’… But I sense that Bonhoeffer’s response would be something along the lines of, ‘The ethical answer to that question depends on the situation one finds oneself in…’

17 replies on “ethical violence?”

Great to read some more about Bonhoeffer – the execution details were disturbing – the reality that humans can be so cruel to one another. I can see the parallels with Christ on the cross, the ideas of suffering and sacrifice. Bonhoeffer lost his life in the pursuit of justice and for caring for the Jews but on the other hand, there is the saying of live by the sword, die by the sword. Could Hitler’s reign have ended without the need to resort to assassination – history says yep. But I suspect Bonhoeffer may’ve been hung for his general involvement in helping the Jews, regardless of whether he’d gone as far as the assassination plan. I wonder if he felt cheated by God as he waited in that cell to be hung.

Ethical violence is of course not restricted to theists.

Maybe some people believe that they have personally received orders to kill from their god, but for the vast majority of theists and non-theists alike the ethical questions are probably approached in exactly the same way. We all have ethical beliefs and now and them we are confronted with practical situations which appear to require actions in conflict with at least a simple interpretation of these beliefs.

In fact very many people (theists and non-theist) probably have common ethical beliefs. Surely the question of assassinating Hitler, or any other evil leader, would present such people with the same sorts of dilemma. And surely their processes of analyzing these dilemmas and making the required practical decision would be the same for the theist as for the non-theist.

Sure there are common ethics but I thought a Christian considering something as major as an assassination would be praying about it, looking to the Bible, trying to work out what Jesus would have done, consulting spiritual mentors …

I dont know – how much do Christians consider their God when making decisions? Is it every tiny decision or just the big ones or very few at all? If you are aiming to follow Jesus then wouldnt you have to check that every turn kept you on track?

I still don’t see what the special difference is.

Surely, non-theists will probably be doing similar things to theists – reading their own ethical sources, meditating on the issues, working out what their own ethical heroes would have done, etc.

We all have an internal morality we consult, whatever our religious beliefs.

Yes, I hear what you mean and I agree the processes would be the same for many people. The outcomes could/ should / might be quite different. Out of interest, what sort of ethical sources do non-theists read to guide their decisions?

Thanks for the comments Jack and Ken,

I would want to insert here my understanding that the Bible doesn’t present a framework where ‘theists’ are automatically more ethical than ‘non-theists’. Morality and Ethics are things that all humans both work at and fail at. A huge part of what it means to be ‘saved’ in Christ is to be ‘saved’ to his way of life. This is seen as an event (being saved to his way) and a process (being saved toward his way).

Also, Paul does talk of Gentiles living lawfully (‘doing the things required in the law’ [of Moses]) while not ‘having’ the law [of Moses]. Here’s the relevant verses from Romans 2:

…When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness…

So, biblically speaking, the reading, meditating, working-out and other means of arriving at an ethical decision or choice is something that all humans do, not just some… Also, the bible talks of people who do not know God being ‘led’ by Him to do things. Interesting stuff…


Yeah I often wonder about that “written on their hearts” bit – that for me it doesnt matter how much I read and think about something regarding an ethical decision I do usually end up going with my initial ‘gut feeling’ and then I wonder whether there is a sense of right and wrong that is innate, or the holy spirit guiding or whatever – but not something learned. I wonder if I was brought up in an environment where evil was encouraged and valued whether something would make me reconsider. It gets me thinking about the Blood Diamonds movie and those young boys turned war soldiers and given honour with names such as ‘baby killer’. I suspect, given the space to think or listen within, something would eventually give them cause to reconsider,… or maybe not?

We’ve covered this topic a number of times before and we can see that ‘ethics’ are not a human thing but a result of having to live in a society of sorts. We can see that rhesus monkeys will deny themselves food when they find that taking the food will harm another monkey. And plenty of other examples in nature (not just ‘gentiles’).

Morality is what happens when creatures have to cooperate to survive. And the specific acts of morality can change depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in. Morality is not fixed for all time in an ancient book.

As humanity becomes more dependent on other humans and the environment in which we live we become more inclusive in our concept of what a ‘society’ is and we tend to become more inclusive in who or what we treat with respect. Even looking back through the bible we can see this progression. It was moral to go out and slaughter women and children from an enemy tribe (*gasp*) for a nation that might have otherwise been overcome. It’s not moral now in our bigger, more inclusive society.

The teachings of Jesus, I believe, were just a step along the way that represented a release of tension (in much the same way as a tectonic earthquake does) between rigid dogma and the natural progression of inclusiveness for mutual benefit.

I think that the Christian church is now taking the role of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time and resisting the progress of many beneficial moral and societal changes dogmatically (i.e. blindly taking ancient scripture at face value rather than engaging on a human level regarding topics like homosexuality and abortion).

There are many aspects of the Christian morality that I believe are still valuable to our society but taking a dogmatic (and unreasonable) stance makes non-believers wary of adopting these morals and, in a way, probably does more harm than good. It’s a natural reaction to be wary of (or reject outright) everything someone says when you know they are wrong about a major premise even when those things may be good in their own right. I’d imagine the nation would be more willing to discuss the ethical issues around stem cell research if they were approached from reason rather than a passage of scripture that says that ‘God formed me in my mother’s womb’.

Christianity has played a very valuable part in our history and was an essential shift in the way we thought about the inclusiveness of society. It’s just that it’s become dogmatic and backward-looking and what was once perhaps considered an anti-religion in its time is now exactly the opposite of what it started as relative to our times now.

Of course there are very few Christians who would agree with this (perhaps Spong?) but I’m putting it out there anyway. I think that at least talking about it can do some good.

“Out of interest, what sort of ethical sources do non-theists read to guide their decisions? I find I am reading ethical sources all the time. Strangely enough many of the writings of scientists have ethical components. This is certainly true of Dawkins – for example his recent book “The Ancestors Tale” has quite a discussion on racism coming out of consideration of grasshoppers! Then there are those great heroes of political/human rights struggles such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandella, etc., etc.

There are very, very many examples of available ethical sources which, I believe are more relevant than biblical readings – if only because they usually deal with more modern issues.

I must add that my ethical sources do not exclude the writing of religious personalities. I must admit, though, I really don’t see the Bible or Koran as a viable source of modern day ethics – although, I agree, quotations form these sources can often be used, and often are in modern literature, to illustrate or support an ethical proposition.

Thanks, Ken, for your perspective on the Bible not being a viable source of modern day ethics. It fortunately wasn’t written for that purpose in any age.
However, it does give a general outline of the moral character that each of us is in being human.
It’s agreed that theists don’t have a monopoly on being moral, or immoral for that matter.
In a number of places the Bible refers to us (theist or otherwise) as having a conscience, the ability of discerning right and wrong. The Genesis story tells of humanity eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That act brought the consequences of sin, wherein, one consequence, mankind became burdened with a moral spectrum ranging from deliberate disobedience to disobedience in ignorance.
This plays out in all areas of human thought and action (as well as in the physicality of the universe), from seemingly uncontrollable areas of the emotions, or deliberate planning of murder, through to ignorant actions such as poor construction design or the mal-administration of resources.
This is seen in Jesus’ amplification of the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, Jesus says even an angry thought about someone is equal to murder. Obviously, this seems to be an impossible demand on anybody. But Jesus wasn’t setting up a set of rules impossible for us to keep. He was explaining the situation humanity was already in, since the ‘spikes went in the wood’; that sin is all encompassing, condemning and therefore, through that causality, humanity and creation is perishing.
The Old Testament Law was given to heighten and bring to light the critical condition of creation. This is the condition from which Jesus came to save the world/creation and to reiterate that he was the one with the power and authority to be the agent for change. Paul explains this fairly clearly in his letter to those in Rome.
From this perspective, Ken, that is the issue with which the Bible deals. Philosophy and modern ethics may define certain issues in modern terms, but they describe symptoms of the underlying sinful system that taints all of creation. This is often referred to in some versions of the Bible as things that are ‘worldly’, therefore exhorting us not to ‘be of this world’. It is not saying don’t be involved with normal living, but be aware and avoid the innate pragmatism and seduction of the world system that is a natural slave to sin.
In fact, Jesus empowers us, even demands of us, through what He began, to get involved in society, to work together, christian and non-christian, toward the recreation of the world – human society and creation.

Thanks all…

It’s been an eventful few days for me, and I’ve got two sermons to preach this Sunday, so I’ll be busy the next few days as well… But I’ll try to comment soon…

Meanwhile, everyone be ethical (even violently so if the right circumstances)… even you dirty atheists! :)
(That was, of course, meant in a spirit of friendly jesting!)


BC, I don’t really understand your justification for the Bible – but that is not a problem. Everybody uses what works for them. As long as those sort of convoluted arguments (and claims to know what Jesus or God really meant, or what they really want from us) are not used to violate the human rights of myself and others.

I don’t think these deliberation would normally lead you to a more humane attitude to ethics than my own non-theistic deliberations do (with a lot less taking on faith or interpreting what Jesus really meant).

I believe we all come to our ethical decisions in much the same way – its built into us by our evolutionary and social development. It’s just that we often justify our decisions (which may involve more intuition than reason) be reference to one or another external source.

Ken, not sure about trying to justify the Bible.
As with other books, the Bible is able to be read with understanding. However, taking the sayings of Jesus and trying to build some ethic around those sayings ignores the historical reasons how and why the Bible was written.
In every age, plenty of religious and non-religious folk take to the Bible picking nice or nasty bits (in context or out of context) and come to a conclusion or application that just doesn’t fit with the overall story of the Bible.
Strangely, few people, including Christians, rarely read whole books of the Bible in one go, and unfortunately flick about, using the chapter and verse divisions as arbitrary starting and stopping points. Not many other books are read in such an odd fashion, without losing the gist of the story.
In this fashion, mind-bending fanatics such as violent antiabortionists, the Phelps family and Jesus Camp, can create deformed life-destroying understandings and application. Also, to the other extreme, some can create such an anaemic version of christian understanding that it wouldn’t colour water.
Your appeal to evolutionary and social development and especially to intuition, isn’t actually out of the scope of a scriptural understanding of our moral nature. To a degree they reinforce a Biblical understanding of the nature of being human.
Using a pragmatic paradigm to construct a humane ethic, the need for God’s hand is completely unnecessary. Such an idea may provide a moderating influence in an otherwise violent and callouse society, until such time as society matures and is able to successfully stand on its own intellectual and moral feet. We are still waiting.
Sometimes convoluted arguments are necessary, otherwise we may fall into the same dark pit as single brain-celled fanatics and blogs would become rather boring. ;-)

Dale – this is an excellent and thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing. The issue of ethical violence (and, by extension, just war) is an interesting one. I think I’m with you in turning to Bonhoffer as a possible answer.

Thanks Ericka,

I love what you (plural?) are doing over at

I loved getting to meet Brian a few months back here in Auckland. Top guy.

Indeed this topic is wide and deep (like life, huh?). Cheers for the encouragement.


Comments are closed.