Batman and Bonhoeffer

At least from where I’m sitting it is a drab, wet, gray not-quite-autumn afternoon, so I thought that I might post a question that has been surfacing in my mind recently.

A couple weeks ago I had someone challenge me on the martyrdom and actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer has been formative in the way that I think about the things of God, so I have to admit that the idea of the German theologian being a hero was one that probably got past my filters without a whole lot of thought.

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The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer ends with his execution just before the end of Wold War II after having participated in covert operations with the goal of assassinating Adolph Hitler. The argument against his actions would be simple, that vengeance belongs to the Lord, that no matter how justified a murder might seem, that the ends don’t justify the means. Participating in an assassination plot was an act that showed a lack of faith in a sovereign God.

The other side of the debate goes to another man that, though fictional, is also usually thought of as a hero. One of the defining characteristics of the modern Batman lies in his willingness to do whatever needs to be done to protect Gotham City and bring criminals to justice. There is only one thing that is truly off the table… Batman is not willing to take judgment into his own hands and kill those that he stalks through those dark nights.

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The common criticism of Batman’s methods is that by never taking that last step he allows these criminals to break out of the local asylum or prison to prey on the people of Gotham once again. If Batman were willing to take life and death into his own hands, to become executioner, far fewer people would be hurt or even killed within his city.

It’s definitely a debate that I can see both sides of. What do you think?

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40 thoughts on “Batman and Bonhoeffer

  1. good question, Dallas, regarding Bonhoeffer.. i’m not altogether certain what to think at the moment but would be interested in hearing your answer at some point.. what you’ve come up with..

    for Batman.. well.. maybe we have it written that way for the serial sake of sequels..

    • I’m sure that was the original intention for Batman, but the idea that he doesn’t feel that he has the right to decide who lives and dies has been built pretty deeply into the character at this point.

  2. Hey was that me who challenged you? If so then you know how I feel lol!! I watched an interesting documentary on Hitlers wife the other day. Everyone thought she was an innocent bystander but the documentary showed she was in the know about what Hitler was doing and even helped him.

    I think it becomes a question regarding Boenhoeffer of should we passively let God take care of evil or are we the tool that rids the evil? I guess I can see both sides but I still tend to see murdering someone, even evil someone’s, as a sin. And sadly, Boenhoeffer failed. Did he really die for his faith or did he die because he disobeyed the law? I guess I’m a cynic. I don’t hold him up as a great hero although, he’s written good things and challenged all Christians after him to follow Jesus. I just wonder if he was following Jesus or trying to take matters into his own hands.

    • It was you that brought it up and actually the biggest thing you helped me with is the martyr issue. It really does seem that he essentially died as a “German Revolutionary” more than a a Christian. On the other hand a ton of his subversive activity prior to the plot against Hitler had to do with maintaining a faith outside of the tainted state church during the Nazi regime. I wouldn’t be surprised if that might have been part of what brought him to the attention of those plotting to kill Hitler.

      I think that the question is often complicated by distance of circumstances. If someone were holding a gun to someone else’s head threatening to kill them and the only way you could save them is by killing the potential shooter, I think that the question is at least less complicated.

      Maybe not.

      • insert 100 year-old ethic: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

        plus this: “Samson in Prison”

        (Excerpted from Richard Wurmbrand’s Sermons in Solitary Confinement)

        “True worship is to grow in power to destroy everything which opposes the One crucified for me….

        “For me, the only criterion of a deed is: does it prepare the way for the final triumph of love, or not?

        “We have to choose between good as the means, and good as the end. If I am always good towards all men, even those who by deceit and terror hinder the victory of love, good will never triumph. The wicked will profit by my meekness, and consolidate the position of evil. If I choose good as my goal, I have to commit many actions which are condemned as evil in the moral catalogue of the world.”

  3. I was reading through the Proverbs last night and came across these two verses:

    “All the ways of man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirits” (16:2).

    and

    “Every way of man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart” (21:2).

    I also, at the prompting of your last post, read through Romans yesterday, so this is fresh in my mind too:

    “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgement on himself for what he approves” (14:22; ESV).

    I’m with Bonhoeffer off the bat.. and even though his knocked trajectory might have been all righteous and powerful in the Spirit of the LORD.. his ball ended up getting caught in the air.. so game over for our hero.. right? [Rev. 12:11 here]..

    I can easily rationalize as righteous Bonhoeffer’s activities.. However, I’m really wanting my answer to align itself with the mind of God on this question.. So what do we know of Scripture that speaks to this? That would be line of inquiry into the heart of God I desire as my own..

    • The thoughts that jump most quickly to mind that would support that kind of thing would seem to be quickly scrubbed by the gospel itself. My mind goes to God’s desire for Israel to cleanse the promised land as being a pretty harsh “ends justifying the means” moment in scripture, but once you graft in the Gentiles I think you have a harder time making that argument.

  4. The thought occurs to me that for someone like Batman who is facing that life and death choice every day (or night…) he needs a hard and fast rule so that he knows beforehand where the line is. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, had plenty of time to think and ponder the ‘morality’ of his once-off choice.

    • As much as I have found out that the biography that I read on Bonhoeffer was less than reliable, they did make a point of saying that he didn’t want to influence anyone else to follow his lead. As you said, he had time to ponder over what it was he was doing and came to a place where he was comfortable with it, but knew that the area he was walking in was gray enough that he was uncomfortable with anyone following him into it “just because”.

      • And there you have just touched on something we christians are so good at doing – blindly following the other ‘sheep’ just because we see them walking a certain direction. At the end of the day, we will have to account for our own decisions and actions – nobody else’s.

  5. I’m late to the party, here……

    That is a great question. The first thought that came to my mind is this – how many police officers have to make this decision almost on a daily basis? Why exactly have we armed them and trained them to kill when necessary?

    I’m hoping this doesn’t turn into a long heated discussion on police brutality, and I really don’t want to hijack the thread in that direction.

    But I will say, when a criminal has started killing people, and chooses not to respond to “drop your weapon” repeatedely, I can see how the police have no other choice. They are, in a very real way, saving many lives by taking one. And I don’t know where the Gospel would fit in – all the talk about everyone being loved by God, God wanting everyone to be saved, God holds the power of life and we do not…… seems to go out the window in a situation like that. (Please note – I said “in a situation like that”, in hopes of not starting arguments about whether recent police shootings were justified or not. Don’t want to go there right now.)

    But then the other side of my brain wonders, “why can’t they be trained to take out limbs, or otherwise disable the shooter, instead of taking his life?” Mabye that’s not always possible. But that’s where the Gospel in me goes, to try to save the life.

    And then I come back to the fact that God doesn’t treat any of us the way we deserve – He’s better to us than that.

    • In a very practical sense, if you incite violence or threaten the lives of others you have invited violence and placed your own life at risk.

      Take that to the nth degree with war, if you are the leader of a country and you start a war, you have not only painted a target on every soldier who serves in that war, but the largest target of all on yourself.

      • not to mention the target one becomes being a working black man in Minnesota sitting in a passenger seat with his seat belt on reaching for his wallet to show his ID to a traffic cop who—BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM—shot him dead in front of his loved ones for… WHAT!? how now does our Land of the Free Police State justify such an execution like that?

        sorry had to take it there for a moment.. sorry

        • You know you’re my boy, but you really didn’t. He went out of his way to throw that scenario out the window. I think that anyone who is honest with themselves has to admit that there are cops out there that abuse the authority they have been given, but in the same thought have to admit that they encounter situations where decisions like that have to be made. It’s really not the discussion we’re having.

          The situations that do come up where a police officer is asked to defend an innocent from a violent criminal is actually a good example of the dance decision making coming into play.

          • well it’s a very real scenario that comes into play when considering the grand scheme of things.. but i’ll drop out of the conversation if you like.. my point would be: it’s an adversarial program of an abusive system we’re all at the mercy of.. i truly believe the cop who shot this guy was not legally abusing his authority but was acting in line with the spirit of his training.. so there’s a level of decision making here that has already been made for us.. a spirit and culture of violence and death, actually, that has becomes us.. twisting and bending us all in upside-down and helpless ways..

          • I don’t want you to drop out, I’m just saying that if someone explicitly asks that we not get sidetracked in a certain way that we take the comment in the spirit in which it was intended.

            I am speaking for him here, but I am going to assume that he was thinking that the mere mention of police violence would get us down a rabbit trail, and was hoping to avoid it. Your follow up comment here speaks a little closer to the issue, in that there are many things that might color even our best intentions in such circumstances.

            To pull it back in line with the original topic, I do think that police officers, more than most any people, might have occasion to engage with this issue no matter what training or culture might be clouding their vision.

          • in part my initial response was toward his questions: “Why exactly have we armed police officers and trained them to kill when necessary?” and “Why can’t they be trained to take out limbs, or otherwise disable the shooter, instead of taking his life?”

            I wasn’t intending to address police brutality (the direction Owen personally didn’t want to take the thread) but the “necessary” decisions (to put someone down) built in to given situations (like a criminal in the process of killing people).. where “the police have no other choice” but to put him down.. this example makes for an easy call..

            what about my example.. how was that call made?

            moreover, how did we get here? to a place where a cop draws a gun at a traffic stop.. or really, how a murderous criminal gets away with openly killing people? for instance, and i forget the details, but at a texas university where everyone could openly carry they were able to put down a dangerous person with a gun without further incident.. however, when they made virginia tech a no carry zone.. what happened? the unarmed populace was at the mercy of a madmen and of the police to put the situation down.. and many died because of this legal decision.. and we’re all shaped by these decisions that come from the top down..

            i was going somewhere potentially deep with this.. but i’m no longer sure what’s on topic or regarded as a rabbit trail.. so i’ll just call it a night..

          • monax, I’m sorry if I misread intent, but your double “sorry” in the initial comment gave me the impression that you knew that you were tempting us down a rabbit trail.

            As far as the “how did we get here” part of the question… if you listen to what people are saying after these cop on black shootings it is very easy to get the impression that there are people on both sides that believe that there is a war going on. I don’t know where that comes from because that is a world that in many ways I don’t live in. I do know that if you feel that you are living in a war zone, these little philosophical gray areas become black and white pretty quickly. If your mind has been twisted to believe that a black man at a traffic stop is an enemy soldier, I don’t know that the initial discussion even comes into play.

  6. …aaaaand I was afraid of that.

    I haven’t watched much Batman, to be honest (I would like to, but my son and I are too busy with Star Wars! ). I’ll have to get into it soon, methinks. I’ve been told he is worth watching.

    ““We have to choose between good as the means, and good as the end. If I am always good towards all men, even those who by deceit and terror hinder the victory of love, good will never triumph. ”
    I have to admit, I have a hard time with this. It makes it sound as though there is no other power involved except our own actions. If we are called by Christ to show his love and example to all, don’t we have to then trust that He is going to back that up?
    But again, like I said above, in the grit of certain worldly situations, idealism gets lost.

    “In a very practical sense, if you incite violence or threaten the lives of others you have invited violence and placed your own life at risk.”
    Absolutely. This is why I get so upset when I see criminals having more rights than those whose rights they have just violated. But I won’t get started on that one either.

    I guess the best answer I can come up with so far is we do all we can to honour life. And it makes sense to my human brain that if someone is setting out to kill, they should expect to be killed. AND I am very happy that God is bigger than we are.

  7. and monax,

    I hear what your sayin, I really do. And believe me, I too could go on and on about it, and I believe there is good reason to.

    Yeah, the reason I wonder why we have trained professionals to kill when necessary – that still gives me pause, because of the Gospel. What I mean by that is, through Christ, God proved that He loves everyone. I know, that’s a DUH. So I guess that’s just something else we chalk up to the fallen world. Sometimes that sounds too easy, though.

    • Owen, I reluctantly answer, because somehow my comments appear to be something you were “afraid of.”

      I should tell you, my description of the execution of that Minnesota man was to serve as the best example I have that might (through discussion, not argument) flip some of our status-quo assumptions upside-down.. assumptions we’ve all been programed to work with..

      bbbbbut then that inevitably strays into areas of conversation you’ve delimited for us…

      It’s hard to talk about something and not talk about something at the same time, or in the same thread, especially when you throw out examples and categories of words that are absolutely LOADED.. you know what I mean?

      My comment was directed at Dallas who talked about making oneself a “target” and wrote, “In a very practical sense, if you incite violence or threaten the lives of others you have invited violence and placed your own life at risk.”

      From a certain black american perspective the trained to kill professionals are part of a protected criminal class of individuals (police who are above the law in their killing immunity) who serve and protect an elite class of super-criminals. That’s their political and practical worldview. So when the cops (as they do) incite violence and threaten the lives of american blacks, some of their victims see this as an invitation to return the violence back upon them. The police, according to their assertion of reality, have placed their own lives at risk for joining up with a “criminal” organization. So there’s that. A matter of perspective as to whose rights have been violated and who the real criminals are.

      We live in an upside-down world.

  8. Feel like kind of a jerk for shutting monax down up top there, I think it kind of addresses the Batman side of the question. We do hand out the right to police officers to make the type of decisions that we are talking about here, and that is a very dangerous role to thrust on anyone.

    There are times when people will have to make decisions like that, but if they are ever under the impression that they have the right to make that decision then we enter into a different scenario.

  9. fwiw.. in no way do i feel positioned to judge Bonhoeffer as to whether or not he was acting in line with the will of God or not.. they were facing a great tyranny.. Hitler’s Nazi machine.. and i know little of his story.. but for myself i do understand that such an option has already been cancelled out for me in our fight against tyranny.. by the words of Jesus Himself who said, “Put your sword away, for all who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt 26:52).

    that, in line with Revelation 12:11 and 13:7-10, as quoted here in the ESV:

    “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

    and

    “[The Beast] was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear:

    “If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain.
    
    “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.”

    • If the Bible and the spread of Christianity had never been used as an excuse to use carnal means to rule and conquer, the world that we live in today would in no way resemble what we have now.

      That’s an episode pitch for Sliders if I’ve ever heard one.

  10. That would make a great episode pitch….. I’ll have to do some research, I’ve never actually looked into how the Bible was used for such purposes.

    Also curious about the “rod of iron” thing…..

  11. Ah. And again, what I see in these is that the destruction of enemies falls to Jesus, not to his followers. Nowhere in the NT have I found (yet, mind you) permission for us to take lives.

    So why do I still feel it is justified in certain cases? (musing to myself….)

    • I’ve actually been trying to respond to your rhetorical question all night, and keep tying myself in knots doing so. Read a couple articles trying to make a biblical case for it, and it came off as cherry picking a few words out of a verse and reading them out of context.

      If there is a place for it, I would wonder if it is much further down the road than I think it is… I might have to go to bed before I become an out and out pacifist.

  12. As a deep admirer of Bonhoeffer, I can live with the ambiguity of his alleged plans. I don’t pretend to know the strain that drove him, and I wonder at how he made his plans in light of his theology – but he reminds me of me – the conflicted, contradictory me. As time has gone on, I have a rather clear sense of pacifism… probably not tested or until someone breaks into my home an attacks my family. All theory flies out the window unless it is lived-out in practice. In the mean time, I will keep company with other self-contradictory types. Thanks

  13. Without me knowing you too well, I should think it is safe to assume you are (as I am) a “terrible hypocrite” already (either one is not good at it, or “terrible” merely describes the kind of hypocrite one can be). No insult intended; I have to trust you get all this play on words.

    But, yes, I recognize the luxury of untested convictions about war in a place of peace – it’s just that we need to be more committed to peacemaking than warmongering.

    • True enough… I give myself too much credit :). About the only way to avoid becoming a hypocrite, is to avoid having convictions. Moving forward, I will endeavor to keep my hypocrisy to a minimum.

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