Guest Post: Bonhoeffer and Truth

Truth-telling, Hitler, and the triple-agent pastor
Recently, I’ve been reading Eric Metaxas’s excellent biography of the great German wartime pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve just reached the rather confusing if gripping place where, in 1941, Bonhoeffer heads off to Eastern Germany to work as a theologian and pastor, teaching at a theological college and continuing his own writing – but using this as a cover to apparently work as an agent for the German Secret Service – but using this as a cover to be an important part of a conspiracy to overthrow – probably assassinate – Hitler and end the war. Unsurprisingly, Metaxas is aware that this may slightly trouble his readers! So he prefaces it with an extended reference to Bonhoeffer’s own essay ‘What is meant by ‘telling the truth’?’.
I dug up a copy, myself, and it makes fascinating and challenging reading. Bonhoeffer’s understanding of truth-telling is far more nuanced, challenging, and mature than a simple ‘tell the truth’ maxim. He challenges such a simple maxim of ‘always tell the truth’ as both going too far and not far enough. In fact, as he puts it,
It is only the cynic who claims ‘to speak the truth’ at all times and in all places to all men in the same way, but who, in fact, displays nothing but a lifeless image of the truth. He dons the halo of the fanatical devotee of truth who can make no allowances for human weaknesses…He wounds shame, desecrates mystery, breaks confidence, betrays the community in which he lives, and laughs arrogantly at the devastation he has wrought and at the human weakness which ‘cannot bear the truth’. He says truth is destructive and demands its victims, and he feels like a god above these feeble creatures and does not know that he is serving Satan.
Wow. OK then. But how does Bonhoeffer unpack this rather fire-and-brimstone rhetoric? There are two main criticisms Bonhoeffer has. First, saying simply ‘always tell the truth’ betrays the times when it is inappropriate to reveal the truth; second, he says that simply ‘not lying’ still allows for the insincerity that is utterly misleading and destructive, without technically ‘lying’.
First, then – Bonhoeffer says that it isn’t always appropriate to reveal all the truth. For example, he says, “a teacher asks a child in front of the class whether it is true that his father often comes home drunk…What goes on in the family is not for the ears of the class in school. The family has its own secret and must preserve it.” [Think of Bonhoeffer’s context, and the Hitler Youth!] Bonhoeffer concludes: the child should not lie, but the teacher has no right to ask for the truth, and the child no responsibility to give it. So, we shouldn’t lie, but that doesn’t mean we always need to reveal the truth.
However, second, we need to go further than ‘not saying stuff we know to be wrong.’ “There is a way of speaking which is in this respect entirely correct and unexceptionable, but which is, nevertheless, a lie. This is exemplified when a notorious liar for once tells ‘the truth’ in order to mislead.” I remember a mate of mine at school turning up to a class really late one day, and explaining “Sorry I’m late. The doctor’s was really busy this morning”, and then sitting down. A little while later, he admitted he’d never been to the doctor’s, and he pointed out that he’d never said he had. As it was an RS class, we ended up debating if he’d lied or not. The general feeling was that he had, but no-one could really put their finger on how. Bonhoeffer, I think, does. Rather grandly, he defines the lie as the “deliberate destruction of…reality” – which is to say that the aim of our words should be to help people see what is true and accurate; to see the world more ‘truthfully’.
So, with all that (rather dizzying) info in mind – I think you can begin to see how Bonhoeffer could defend being a pastor-double-agent (whether you agree with him or not) – like the family that hid Anne Frank’s family, or those who smuggled Jews out of Germany, he didn’t owe the Nazis the truth of his situation, so (without lying) he didn’t tell them. BUT, at the same time, Bonhoeffer recalls the great Biblical imperatives to be sincere people of integrity – not just not lying, but not misleading, and seeing truth-telling and more than avoiding a fib. It’s a little trickier to grasp, but it is perhaps a better, maturer, more Biblical way of thinking about how to tell the truth.

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