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…’