Bell, Bonhoeffer, & Bart – Facing Ethical Decisions
Deuteronomy 30:19-20 19 I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live— 20 by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive
[Scripture taken from the Common English Bible®, CEB® Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.]
I just finished a riveting portrayal of the interaction of George Bell (Bishop of Chichester) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer during WWII (in Samuel Wells’ The Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God, Wiley, 2015.)
Wells describes Bell’s path to the bishopric through ecumenical participation with immigrants and his support of and friendship with Bonhoeffer. Wells, a proponent of the just war theory, did not simply support Britain’s involvement in the war against Hitler; he critiqued British policy and practices when it was the German people (and not primarily the Hitlerian regime) that were being victimized. He supported the bombing of ports and industrial complexes but criticized carpet bombing of major metropolitan areas. Many times he was a lone voice calling for justice in the midst of war.
Bonhoeffer was caught in a dilemma regarding decisions that he had made or was facing. He regretted coming to America and finally decided after much anguish to return to Germany. How could he hope to help re-build Germany if he were not there to share in the sufferings and frustrations of the German people. Then he was faced with a decision that had no “righteous” resolution – participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler (breaking the commandment against murder) or forsake the German people (turning his back and thus allowing Hitler’s evil to continue). When the plot failed, Bonhoeffer and others were arrested. An escape plan was hatched. Before the plan was put into motion, Bonhoeffer’s brother was arrested. To escape now would compromise not only his brother, but the whole family who were complicit in the escape plan. Shortly before Germany was liberated, Bonhoeffer was executed.
We like to think that Christian ethics is about choosing good over evil – or, at least, the better over the less good. If we are dogmatic about it, those decisions are always made before facing the necessity of choosing. The conflict of two “movements” – Right to Life vs. Right to Choose – characterizes the deep theological divide that masquerades as a political battle.
The issue at stake: Do we pre-determine what is ethical (moral) on the basis of pre-existing rules or is there some latitude determined by the circumstances. Was it ethical / moral / (religiously) lawful for Jesus’s disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath to feed their grumbling tummies? Which takes precedent, religious rules or human needs?
Those supporting the Right to Life have predetermined the outcome of any decision regarding abortion – the answer is “No!” Since the intentions of church dogma cannot be enforced in the American public arena, the Right to Lifers turn to politicians to set up an enforcement system – laws banning abortion, defunding of organizations such as Planned Parenthood. In the extreme, one ironic Right to Lifer chose to open fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic calling himself “a warrior for babies.” (No grain picking on the Sabbath.)
Those supporting the Right to Choose have an entirely different approach to ethical decision-making. With regard to abortion, they continue to question the legitimacy of politicians or theologians as medical decision-makers in matters relation to a woman’s health – and more important, in those matters regarding a woman’s right to control her own body. The Choosers believe that no ethical decision can be made outside of the particular situation in which the decider finds herself or himself. (As important as the rules may be, human need trumps them every time.)
In many situations, ethical decision-making is not a simple matter – that is, choosing the obvious ‘good’ over against the obvious ‘evil.’ Such decision-making is particularly difficult when it involves a process of discernment – that is, seeking God’s call. Paul Lehmann (Ethics in a Christian Context, 1966) suggests that the basic dilemma most Christians face is summed up in the question. “What am I, a believer in Jesus Christ and a member of his church, to do?”
To answer that question I must consider: my own gifts, talents, and stake in the matter at hand; how I understand Jesus Christ’s presence in the current situation; my involvement in a particular Christian community and in the Church (ecumenically and historically); the relational, social, economic, political, and/or religious context in which the necessity for a decision has arisen; and the options available. Having considered all this, which may include talking with others affected by the decision or those representing other stake-holders, I must decide. No, you can’t decide for me! That is the nature of the humanity into which you and I have been born, the humankind which Jesus the Christ came to liberate.
Ethical decision-making is often filled with agony and heartache. Sometimes the results of our anguish brings us happiness and a sense of peace. At other times they torment us. Anyone who suggests that ethical decision-making is the simple process of selecting the obvious “good” over the more obvious “evil” has never really recognized the ethical dilemma that they and the rest of us face regularly.
There is an “ouchness” in the choosing. If anyone does not love, honor, or respect oneself… if anyone does not love, honor, or respect others… then it might be expected that they would choose to have an external source (institution, code of rules, a person perceived as superior) make the decision. Ironically, choosing not to choose does not absolve oneself of the implications of the choice. Facing such decisions with the external props which force a decision is one way of describing what it means to be crucified with Christ. It is a defining moment that can lead us into the resurrected life of compassion, peace, and justice.
Choosing is difficult. Choosing can be messy. But choose we must.