Gray Hair Wisdom

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Selfless Action

A quote from the Internet Encylcopedia of Philosophy:

BONHOEFFER illustrates the notion of selfless action by contrasting the behavior of Jesus in the New Testament to that of the Pharisee. The Pharisee “…is the man to whom only the knowledge of good and evil has come to be of importance in his entire life…”(Ethics, p.30). Every moment of his life is a moment where he must choose between good and evil (Ethics, p.30). Every action, every judgment, no matter how small, is permeated with the choice of good and evil. He can confront no person without evaluating that person in terms of good and evil (Ethics, p.31). For him, all judgments are moral judgments. No gesture is immune to moral condemnation.

Jesus refuses to see the world in these terms. He lightly, almost cavalierly, casts aside many of the legal distinctions the Pharisee labors to maintain. He bids his disciples to eat on the Sabbath, even though starvation is hardly in question. He heals a woman on the Sabbath, although after eighteen years of illness she could seemingly wait a few more hours. Jesus exhibits a freedom from the law in everything he does, but nothing he does suggests all things are possible. There is nothing arbitrary about his behavior. There is, however, a simplicity and clarity. Unlike the Pharisee, he is unconcerned with the goodness or badness of those he helps, unconcerned with the personal moral worth of those he meets, talks to, dines with, or heals. He is concerned solely and entirely with the well being of another. He exhibits no other concern. He is the paradigm of selfless action, and the exact opposite of the Pharisee, whose every gesture is fundamentally self-reflective.

The responsible person is, thus, a selfless person, who does God’s will by serving the spiritual and material needs of another, since “…what is nearest to God is precisely the need of one’s neighbor” (Ethics, p.136). The selfless model of Jesus is his or her only guide to responsible action. And second, the responsible person must not hesitate to act for fear of sin. Any attempt to avoid personal guilt, any attempt to preserve moral purity by withdrawing from conflicts is morally irresponsible. For Bonhoeffer, no one who lives in this world can remain disentangled and morally pure and free of guilt (Ethics, p.244). We must not refuse to act on our neighbor’s behalf, even violently, for fear of sin. To refuse to accept guilt and bear it for the sake of another has nothing to do with Christ or Christianity. “(I)f I refuse to bear guilt for charity’s sake,” Bonhoeffer argues, “then my action is in contradiction to my responsibility which has its foundation in reality” (Ethics, p.241). The risk of guilt generated by responsible action is great and cannot be mitigated in advance by self-justifying principles. There is no certainty in a world come of age. No one, in other words, can escape a complete dependency on the mercy and grace of God.


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