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Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Who Can Resist Temptation?" (December 1942)

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Civil courage

What really lies behind the complaint about the lack of civil courage? During these years we have come across much courage and self-sacrifice but very little civil courage even in ourselves. It would be psychologically too naive to explain this lack in terms of personal cowardice. What lies behind it is very different. In our long history we Germans have had to learn the need for and acquire the strength of obedience. We saw the meaning and greatness of our lives in the subordination of all our personal wishes and thoughts to the task assigned to us. Our eyes were directed upwards not in slavish fear but in voluntary trust which regarded an assigned task as a profession and a profession as a calling. The readiness to follow an order from 'above' rather than act at one's own discretion represents a legitimate mistrust of one's own heart. Who would dispute the fact that, as far as obedience and fulfilling tasks are concerned, in their professional lives Germans have repeatedly demonstrated the utmost courage and commitment. However, the Germans preserved their freedom—and where in the world has there been more passionate talk about freedom than in Germany from Luther to the idealist philosophers—by trying to liberate themselves from self-will in service to all. Their profession and their freedom seemed to them to be two sides of the same coin. But in thinking this they misunderstood the world; they did not reckon with the fact that their readiness to subordinate themselves, to commit themselves fully to their assigned tasks could be misused for evil. When this happened the practice of their professions itself became dubious, and then the whole basis of German moral concepts was inevitably shaken. It could not but become apparent that the Germans lacked a crucial fundamental insight, namely the need voluntarily to take responsibility for an action which runs counter to one's professional code or to the task which one has been assigned. In its place came, on the one hand, an irresponsible lack of scruple and, on the other, a self-tormenting scrupulousness which never led to action. However, civil courage can only grow from free men taking responsibility for their own actions. The Germans are only now beginning to discover what individual responsibility means. It depends on a God who demands the free leap of faith involved in responsible action and who promises forgiveness and consolation to those who become sinners as a result of making that leap of faith.

Source of English translation: Jeremy Noakes, ed., Nazism, 1919-1945, Vol. 4: The German Home Front in World War II. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1998, pp. 594-96.

Source of original German text: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Widerstand und Ergebung: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft. Christian Gremmels, Eberhard Bethge and Renate Bethge, eds., 15th edition, Gütersloh, 1994, pp. 20-23. © Güterloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh, in der Verlagsgruppe Random House Gmbh, München.

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