Would You Kill Hitler?


An old colleague is currently taking an ethics class.  For a day, she watched a documentary, and studied the works of Dietrich Bonnhoeffer.  You may have heard of him — a German Lutheran pastor who, in the 1940s, decided to work with a group to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer has become a quite influential theologian, and ultimately a martyr.  He was sentenced to death, and hanged, for his involvement in the conspiracy to kill Der Führer, a mere 11 days before the German surrender.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a good guy. Really.

As usually happens in ethics classes, the debate becomes the following: “would you kill Hitler?” Would you kill one man to save ten million? how about million? How about five strangers? How about your family? Would you kill a stranger to save yourself?

I have wondered this week, what would the assassination of Hitler have accomplished anyhow? Would the Axis have just thrown in the cards and gone home? Who would come after Hitler? Goebbels? Göring? Himmler? Hitler was just the ugly annoying hair that graced the National Socialist wart of the 40s. Same as erstwhile Al Qaeda headman Osama bin Laden.

It’s a  very easy, yet fallacious, reason to say “I’d just do what the Bible says.” The obvious problem arises: To which which part of the Bible will we pin our ethics? And for which reasons? King Eglon of the Moabites died like this  (I lifted this bit from Wikipedia):

Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you”, drew his sword, and stabbed the king in his abdomen. Eglon was eviscerated by the blow, which caused him to leak excrement; he was so overweight that the sword disappeared into the wound and Ehud left it there. He locked the doors to the king’s chamber and left.

Eglon’s assistants returned when too much time had elapsed and found the doors locked. Assuming that he was relieving himself, they waited “to the point of embarrassment” before unlocking the door and finding their king dead.

So did Eglon (and the Moabites) deserve this? Hitler? And Sadaam Hussein? And bin Laden?

Our “Thou Shalt Not Kill” commandment has several caveats applied. Justifiable homicide is one. War is another.

It’s always easy to call someone a pansy, and ridicule them for taking the peaceful route when, in fact, I personally think it’s far more difficult to choose the other.  If you’ve seen the “ice cream” scene from the Harrison Ford movie Witness, you simply want Ford to knock the block off the nervy teenager. But that doesn’t make it right.

I’ve recently been reading a fantasy series called The Farseer Trilogy.  It ponders such questions as “would you kill for your nation or king? What if you like the guy, but it’s politically expedient for your nation? How much of your life would you give over to your country?”

I’m not learned in this aspect. I don’t know that advocating Rep. Kucinich’s Department of Peace is the way to go. I don’t know when self defense is justified and when it isn’t.  I can’t degrade Bonhoeffer for his decision. I certainly didn’t have to live through Nazi Germany in the 1930s-1940s.

I only know what feels right to me, and what feels “right” is turning the other cheek. Really, I can’t claim special ethical knowledge. I can’t even claim that I’d settle for someone raping and murdering my family as I stand by and watch (someone always brings that up in ethics class, too. ever notice that?)  I just know that my morality leans always, incessantly, unabashedly, toward peaceful resolutions of conflict.

We aren’t all trained to be soldiers. We can’t all have the unflinching desire to pull a trigger, or use a bayonet, against an enemy. I find myself shocked that when I was 13, I wanted nothing so much as to be in the Army. I spent dozens of hours one summer at the recruiter’s office, and at the Army booth at the county fair dreaming about becoming a military officer.

Please, by all means, prove to me, beyond a doubt, that killing “the wicked” is the right thing to do. It would be much more simple to rest my soul at night. Then, if you could, define wicked once-and-for-all for me. War would suddenly seem justified. Assassinations, not such a bad idea.  Defending my family with deadly force? I’d be ok with that, and not struggle with the question, for the first time in my life. Please… Argue the snot out of the issue, right here. I want to hear your responses.

Maybe I’m wrong. I probably am. Until that time, I will continue to live my life as peacefully as possible and actively disdain war, violence, brutality, and death. Let’s don’t kill one another, shall we? Not even the Hitlers and bin Ladens.

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4 thoughts on “Would You Kill Hitler?”

  1. I believe there is a time and place for murder: self-defense (depending on the situation of course), protecting your family, or someone found guilty by a jury of their peers. It’s the last one that I tend to confuse people on. I don’t believe war is necessary as an eye-for-an-eye doesn’t correct much in that large of a scenario. You look at 9/11 and those who enlisted due to family members being killed. They don’t know “who” killed their family members so they go for, what they hope to be, assumed family members. But then those people, who may not have been related to the pilots, are killed so their family attacks the soldier they believe did it–the cycle repeats. It’s a continuous cycle that will never end in that large of a scale. I do believe it works for one-on-one situations though. Recently a woman in Iraq (I think), had sulfuric acid thrown on her face because she refused a marriage proposal. The courts in her country follow the aforementioned type of punishment and sentenced the man to four drops of sulfuric acid in his eye to blind him and get “an idea” of the pain he inflicted upon this woman.

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  2. As oversimplified as it is to say it this way, in my “old” age, for the record, I’ve decided I’m a pacifist GLOBALLY and a unrelenting unapologetic murderer if I had to protect my family.

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  3. I think you never know how you’ll act until you’re in that situation. I consider myself a peaceful person, but I’ve confronted people on public transportation before, when I felt it was necessary. There are times and seasons to do certain things. I have no doubt if your family was in the line of fire, you would step in and do something. Some things are instinct: no thinking required.

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  4. Folks from the peace church movement like Stanley Hauerwas, Philip Howard Yoder and Richard Hays, make a very profound and moving theological case for Christian pacifism. You would like pretty much anything they’ve written, I think. And I certainly believe that the only really plausible case for pacifism has to be a Christian one. As one of my (Mennonite) ethics professors put it, “For Christians, you must remember, martyrdom is an option.”

    But when it comes right down to it, I can’t quite move away from “just war” theory. It doesn’t fit with every part of the Bible, but it fits pretty well with most of it. Even so, it strikes me as much more difficult to practice than George Bush apparently thought.

    Another interesting option is “practical pacifism”. This doesn’t leave out the possibility of shooting the guy who wants to rape and kill your family: but it acknowledges that the practical chance of you actually being in a position to wreak violence is fairly small, and it focuses on getting yourself out of those situations by treating the perpetrator with love, as someone for whom Christ died. There are interesting accounts of people getting out of rape situations (unharmed) by responding in that way.

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