Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian, was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), the son of a famous psychiatrist. From 1923 to 1927, Bonhoeffer studied theology at the universities of Berlin and Tübingen. He also studied under Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he attended and taught at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, developing a love of Negro spirituals and an acute interest in racial justice. Bonhoeffer’s doctoral thesis and early writings sought to explain Christian theology in light of contemporary philosophy and sociology. He was an early opponent of anti-Semitism and the Nazi regime, and became involved in the Confessing Church, the center of German Protestant resistance to the nazification of the churches. Through his leadership and his books, Gemeinsames Leben (1939; trans. Life Together, 1954) and Nachfolge (1937; trans. The Cost of Discipleship, 1948), Bonhoeffer instituted rigorous practices of private confession, prayer, and discipline while attacking the laxity of popular Protestantism. Bonhoeffer focused on creating a church capable of withstanding National Socialism and its theological proponents.
As early as 1933, Bonhoeffer and his family were persuaded that Hitler’s government was illegitimate and the the church should stand up against the state. He favored killing Hitler, not as an assassination, but as tyrannicide. Bonhoeffer became involved with the Abwehr in 1940 where his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, worked; in that capacity he was able to use his ecumenical connections to carry messages abroad for the German resistance.
From 1940–43, he wrote fragments of his theological volume Ethik (1949; trans. Ethics, 1955). Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and hanged just before the end of the war in 1945. Published posthumously, his Widerstand und Ergebung (1951, trans. Prisoner of God: Letters and Papers from Prison, 1953) expresses his profound belief in the maturity of the Christian individual and the worldly groundedness of true Christianity.
In the selections from Ethics, written at the time of the Nazi “euthanasia” killings, Bonhoeffer argues that the possibility of suicide is an indication of human freedom over life: we are free to make this choice, and it can be seen as “a man’s attempt to give a final human meaning to a life which has become humanly meaningless.” However, God alone possesses rights over life, and God’s existence is the only relevant rationale for the inappropriateness of suicide. In individual cases, bodily self-sacrifice is not considered self-murder if the intentions are altruistic. But suicide is in general wrong, something lack of faith may disguise, since it “conceals from a man the fact that even suicide cannot release him from the hand of God. . . .” Suicide, Bonhoeffer wrote (one cannot know whether at the time he could foresee his arrest, internment, and hanging at the hands of the Nazis), is the “hardest of all temptations.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965), pp. 155–156, 162, 166–172. Material in introduction from Victoria J. Barnett.
from ETHICS: THE LAST THINGS AND THE THINGS BEFORE THE LAST
The Right to Bodily Life
Bodily life, which we receive without any action on our own part, carries within itself the right to its own preservation. This is not a right that we have justly or unjustly appropriated to ourselves, but it is in the strictest sense an ‘innate’ right, one which we have passively received and which pre-exists our will, a right which rests upon the nature of things as they are. Since it is God’s will that there should be human life on earth only in the form of bodily life, it follows that it is for the sake of the whole man that the body possesses the right to be preserved. And since all rights are extinguished at death, it follows that the preservation of the life of the body is the foundation of all natural rights without exception and is, therefore, invested with a particular importance. The underlying right of natural life is the safeguarding of nature against intentional injury, violation and killing. That may sound very jejune and unheroic. But the body does not exist primarily in order to be sacrificed, but in order that it may be preserved. Different and more exalted considerations may give rise to the right or the duty of sacrificing the body, but this in itself presupposes the underlying right to the conservation of bodily life. . . .
But let us now consider the case when an incurably diseased person in full possession of his senses gives his assent to the termination of his life, and indeed asks for it. Can a wish of this kind carry with it a valid demand for the application of euthanasia? Undoubtedly one cannot speak of a valid demand so long as the patient’s life still raises demands on its own account, in other words so long as the doctor is under an obligation not only towards the will but also towards the actual life of the patient. The question of destroying the life of another is now replaced by the question of the admissibility of terminating one’s own life in a case of extremely severe illness, or of assisting in so doing. We shall be discussing this matter in connection with the problem of suicide. . .
Our conclusion must, therefore, be that consideration for the healthy also establishes no right to the deliberate destruction of innocent life, and from this it follows that the question regarding euthanasia must be answered in the negative. The Bible sums up this judgement in the sentence: ‘The innocent…slay thou not’ (Ex. 23:7).
Man, unlike the beasts, does not carry his life as a compulsion which he cannot throw off. He is free either to accept his life or to destroy it. Unlike the beasts man can put himself to death of his own free will. An animal is one with the life of its body, but man can distinguish himself from the life of his body. The freedom in which man possesses his bodily life requires him to accept this life freely, and at the same time it directs his attention to what lies beyond this bodily life and impels him to regard the life of his body as a gift that is to be preserved and as a sacrifice that is to be offered. Only because a man is free to choose death can he lay down the life of his body for the sake of some higher good. Without freedom to sacrifice one’s life in death, there can be no freedom towards God, there can be no human life.
In man the right to live must be safeguarded through freedom. It is therefore not an absolute right, but a right which is conditional upon freedom. The right to live has as its counterpart the freedom to offer and to give one’s life in sacrifice. In the sense of sacrifice, therefore, man possesses the liberty and the right to death, but only so long as his purpose in risking and surrendering his life is not the destruction of his life but the good for the sake of which he offers this sacrifice.
In his liberty to die man is given a unique power which can easily lead to abuse. Man can indeed by its means become the master of his earthly destiny, for he can by his own free decision seek death in order to avoid defeat and he may thus rob fate of its victory. Seneca’s patet exitus is the proclamation of man’s freedom in relation to life. If in the struggle with destiny a man has lost his honor, his work and the only human being whom he loves, if in this sense his life is destroyed, it will be difficult to persuade him not to make use of this opportunity of escape, provided that he still retains courage enough to secure his freedom and his victory in this way. And indeed it cannot be contested that through this deed a man is once again asserting his manhood, even though he may be misunderstanding its significance, and that he is opposing it effectively to the blind inhuman force of destiny. Suicide is a specifically human action, and it is not surprising if it has on this account repeatedly been applauded and justified by noble human minds. If this action is performed in freedom it is raised high above any petty moralizing accusation of cowardice and weakness. Suicide is the ultimate and extreme self-justification of man as man, and it is therefore, from the purely human standpoint, in a certain sense even the self-accomplished expiation for a life that has failed. This deed will usually take place in a state of despair, yet it is not the despair itself that is the actual originator of suicide, but rather a man’s freedom to perform his supreme act of self-justification even in the midst of this despair. If a man cannot justify himself in his happiness and his success, he can still justify himself in his despair. If he cannot make good his right to a human life in the life of his body, he can still do so by destroying his body. If he cannot compel the world to acknowledge his right, yet he can still assert this right, himself, in his last solitude. Suicide is a man’s attempt to give a final human meaning to a life which has become humanly meaningless. The involuntary sense of horror which seizes us when we are faced with the fact of a suicide is not to be attributed to the iniquity of such a deed but to the terrible loneliness and freedom in which this deed is performed, a deed in which the positive attitude to life is reflected only in the destruction of life.
If suicide must nevertheless be declared wrongful, it is to be arraigned not before the forum of mortality or of men but solely before the forum of God. A man who takes his own life incurs guilt solely towards God, the Maker and Master of his life. It is because there is a living God that suicide is wrongful as a sin of lack of faith. Lack of faith is not a moral fault, for it is compatible with both noble and base motives and actions, but, both in good and in evil, lack of faith takes no account of the living God. That is the sin. It is through lack of faith that a man seeks his own justification and has recourse to suicide as the last possible means of his own justification, because he does not believe in a divine justification. Lack of faith is disastrous in that it conceals from a man the fact that even suicide cannot release him from the hand of God, who has prepared his destiny for him. Lack of faith does not perceive, beyond the gift of bodily life, the Creator and Lord who alone has the right to dispose of His creation. And here we are confronted with the fact that natural life does not possess its right in itself, but only in God. The freedom to die, which is given to human life in natural life, is abused if it is used otherwise than in faith in God.
God has reserved to Himself the right to determine the end of life, because He alone knows the goal to which it is His will to lead it. It is for Him alone to justify a life or to cast it away. Before God self-justification is quite simply sin, and suicide is therefore also sin. There is no other cogent reason for the wrongfulness of suicide, but only the fact that over men there is a God. Suicide implies denial of this fact.
It is not the baseness of the motive that makes suicide wrongful. One may remain alive for base motives, and one may give up one’s life for noble motives. It is not bodily life itself that possesses an ultimate right over man. Man is free in relation to his bodily life, and, in Schiller’s phrase, ‘life is not the highest of possessions.’ Nor can human society, as Aristotle supposes, establish an ultimate right over the bodily life of the individual. For any such right is negatived by the ultimate right to dispose of himself which is conferred on a man by nature. The community may impose penalties on suicide, but it will not be able to convince the offender himself that it possesses a valid right over his life. Insufficient, too, is the argument which is widely used in the Christian Church to the effect that suicide rules out the possibility of repentance and, therefore, also of forgiveness. Many Christians have died sudden deaths without having repented of all their sins. This is setting too much store by the last moment of life. All the arguments we have mentioned so far are incomplete; they are correct up to a point, but they do not state the decisive reason and are therefore not cogent.
God, the Creator and Lord of life, Himself exercises the right over life. Man does not need to lay hands upon himself in order to justify his life. And because he does not need to do this it follows that it is not rightful for him to do it. It is a remarkable fact that the Bible nowhere expressly forbids suicide, but that suicide appears there very often (though not always) as the consequence of extremely grave sin, so, for example, in the case of the traitors Ahithophel and Judas. The reason for this is not that the Bible sanctions suicide, but that, instead of prohibiting it, it desires to call the despairing to repentance and to mercy. A man who is on the brink of suicide no longer has ears for commands or prohibitions; all he can hear now is God’s merciful summons to faith, to deliverance and to conversion. A man who is desperate cannot be saved by a law that appeals to his own strength; such a law will only drive him to even more hopeless despair. One who despairs of life can be helped only by the saving deed of another, the offer of a new life which is to be lived not by his own strength but by the grace of God. A man who can no longer live is not helped by any command that he should live, but only by a new spirit.
God maintains the right of life, even against the man who has grown tired of his life. He gives man freedom to pledge his life for something greater, but it is not His will that man should turn this freedom arbitrarily against his own life. Man must not lay hands upon himself, even though he must sacrifice his life for others. Even if his earthly life has become a torment for him, he must commit it intact into God’s hand, from which it came, and he must not try to break free by his own efforts, for in dying he falls again into the hand of God, which he found too severe while he lived.
Far more difficult than the determining of this general principle is the judgement of particular cases. Since suicide is an act of solitude, the ultimate decisive motives almost always remain hidden. Even when some outward catastrophe in life has gone before, the deepest inward reason for the deed is still concealed from the eye of the stranger. The human eye can often scarcely discern the borderline between the freedom of the sacrifice of life and the abuse of his freedom for the purpose of self-murder, and in such cases there is no basis for forming a judgement. Certainly the taking of one’s own life is as a matter of plain fact different from risking one’s life in a necessary undertaking. But it would be very short-sighted simply to equate every form of self-killing with murder. For, in cases where a man who kills himself is deliberately sacrificing his own life for other men, judgement must at least be suspended because here we have reached the limits of human knowledge. It is only if the action is undertaken exclusively and consciously out of consideration for one’s own person that self-killing becomes self-murder. But who would venture to assess with certainty the degree of consciousness and exclusiveness of such a motive? If a prisoner takes his life for fear that under torture he might betray his country, his family or his friend, or if the enemy threaten reprisals unless a certain statesman is surrendered to them and it is only by his own free death that this statesman can spare his country grievous harm, then the self-killing is so strongly subject to the motive of sacrifice that it will be impossible to condemn the deed. If a sufferer from incurable disease cannot fail to see that his care must bring about the material and psychological ruin of his family, and if he therefore by his own decision frees them from this burden, then no doubt there are many objections to such an unauthorized action, and yet here, too, a condemnation will be impossible. In view of such cases as these the prohibition of suicide can scarcely be made absolute to the exclusion of the freedom of sacrificing one’s life. Even the early Church Fathers held that self-destruction was permissible for Christians in certain circumstances, for example when chastity was threatened by force; though certainly already St Augustine contested this and asserted the absolute prohibition of suicide. Yet it seems scarcely possible to draw any distinction of principle between the cases we have just considered and the unquestioned duty of the Christian which requires, for example, that when a ship is sinking he shall leave the last place in the lifeboat to another in the full awareness that he is thereby going to his death, or again which requires that a friend shall with his own body shield his friend’s body from the bullet. A man’s own decision here becomes the cause of his death, even though one may still distinguish between direct self-destruction and this surrendering of life into the hand of God. Clearly the case is different if suicide is motivated by purely personal matters such as wounded honor, erotic passion, financial ruin, gambling debts or serious personal lapses, in other words if a man kills himself not in order to protect the lives of others but solely in order that his own life may be justified. Even here indeed, in concrete instances, the thought of sacrifice will not be entirely absent, but nevertheless all other motives will be outweighed by the desire to rescue one’s own person from shame and despair, and the ultimate ground for the action will therefore be lack of faith. Such a man does not believe that God can again give a meaning and a right even to a ruined life, and indeed that it may be precisely through ruin that a life attains to its true fulfillment. Because he does not believe this, the termination of his life remains to him as the only possible means whereby he himself can impart a meaning and a right to his life, even though it be only at the moment of its destruction. Here again it becomes quite clear that a purely moral judgement on suicide is impossible, and indeed that suicide has nothing to fear from an atheistic ethic. The right to suicide is nullified only by the living God.
But quite apart from all external motivations there is a temptation to suicide to which the believer is especially exposed, a temptation to abuse the freedom which is given by God by turning it against his own life. Hatred for the imperfection of his own life, experience of the headstrong resistance which earthly life in general opposes to its own fulfillment by God, the grief which arises from this and the doubt as to whether life has any meaning at all, all these may lead him into great danger. Luther was able to say a great deal about this from his own experience. In such hours of trial no human or divine law can prevent the deed. Help can come only from the comfort of grace and from the power of brotherly prayer. It is not the right to life that can overcome this temptation to suicide, but only the grace which allows a man to continue to live in the knowledge of God’s forgiveness. But who would venture to say that God’s grace and mercy cannot embrace and sustain even a man’s failure to resist this hardest of all temptations?