Friday, November 04, 2005

Bonhoeffer or Gandhi

The Reverend Martin Luther King Junior once said “If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi and nonviolence. But if your enemy has no conscience like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer.” In the clear, elegant fashion that he was known for, Rev. King articulated the moral case for action in the face of evil.

For those who don’t know, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran theologian who was active in the German anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. During the war, Bonhoeffer came to understand that violence is justified in the face of an implacable evil, and that to love one’s neighbor is to take a measure of responsibility for their life. He followed through on his convictions and became involved the unsuccessful Wolf’s Lair bombing plot to assassinate Hitler, and was subsequently arrested by the Gestapo. On April 9, 1945, he paid for his convictions with his life in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp. Had he been successful, millions of innocent lives could have been saved.

Gandhi was successful in his bid for an independent India by non-violent means because of the nature of his opponent. Through a series of mass public demonstrations the Indians showed the British that they faced a stark choice: they could either engage in slaughter, or leave. The British chose the latter, and a newly independent India was born.

In China from April to June 1989, student protestors engaged in a massive non-violent protest for democracy in Tiananmen Square, with greatly different results. Threatened by the size, duration, and fervor of the protest, Deng Xiaoping and the Communist party leadership declared martial law. The resulting crackdown claimed thousands of lives.

These examples find relevance in current events. When the alternative to war is leaving in place a regime that has proven its lethal intents on its neighbors and its own populace, and is likely to continue to cause the deaths of more, then it is time for good intentioned people to the mental calculus: what are the odds that nonviolent action will cause a change of policy, and what is the cost, in human lives and suffering, of not taking violent action?

To engage in war is to cause suffering and death. However, it is equally true that to sit and do nothing while others are persecuted and killed is to be culpable for that very same suffering and death. One must do the calculus and determine not only what the costs of action are likely to be, but also what the costs of inaction are likely to be. Then you will know if you should be Bonhoeffer or Gandhi.


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