I don't want to attract sudden attention as anti-Bonhoeffer. When we first visited our current church in 1986, one of the things that impressed us was that there was a cartoon Sunday School lesson about Bonhoeffer sent home with my second-grade son. I have gotten a great deal out of The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. I have been consistently pro-Dietrich.
Yet it occurred to me today that I have accepted the morality of the plot to kill Hitler too automatically. We approve because it was brave, and because well, it's Hitler. Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators hesitated long, because their morality was strongly suffused with a German sense of order and respect for authority, but they eventually decided the thing simply had to happen. Adolf Hitler was leading Germany to an immoral path of destruction, and had to be stopped.
In different circumstances we might not have been so certain. Not all Germans would have applauded. How would we have regarded similar attempts against Stalin or Mao? Had Bonhoeffer been some random pastor who took it into his head to blow up the Fuhrer and failed, we might not have remembered him quite so purposefully. We might remember him as something of a crank, albeit one who had intuited the situation correctly. But Dietrich had been a member of the Confessing Church and its underground seminary, putting himself at risk for less-political, more clearly Christian cause. He had traveled to America and become interested in Civil Rights and "theology from below," seeing things from the vantage point of the oppressed. After his arrest and imprisonment he took on a pastoral role to both guards and prisoners, and one of Hitler's last acts as his Reich was collapsing was to make sure this particular pastor got executed. Bonhoeffer also wrote a great deal, and thoughtfully, putting him in the category of that sort of pastor. It is an impressive assemblage of credibility, so we take his decision to resort to violence seriously.
Yet what if it had worked, and two years later, other Nazis were still in charge, only comparatively less bad than Hitler? Does he assassinate someone else? The jarring thought highlighted my realisation that the act of assassination reveals a strong belief that the target is some aberration. It is a declaration that it is not really the German people, their culture, their decisions that are at fault. If only we could get rid of this one guy. But that is seldom true, if ever. Assassination sets in motion a wildly unpredictable set of possibilities.
There is also the matter of treating courage as a virtue. We consider it so when it is shown in support of our causes, but rate it less highly when displayed in our enemies. Courage is not so much a virtue in itself, but the measuring stick which reveals how much we really do care about the other virtues.