Bonhoeffer: Making Difficult Choices

Play episode

Would you ever harm someone on purpose? Bruce Gulland and Liz Waid look at the difficult ethical choice made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What guides people to make the right choices?

Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Bruce Gulland.

Voice 2 

And I’m Liz Waid. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 
Click here to follow along with this program on Youtube.

We are going to ask a shocking question right now. Would you ever kill someone? Wait, do not say “no” immediately. Think about it. What if someone was threatening your family? What if your country were being attacked? What if you could save millions of lives by taking only one? Would you kill then?

Voice 2 

Ethics is the debate over how people should act. Sometimes this debate takes place in school – as a theory. Other times these debates take place in the middle of a person’s life. People need to decide what is best and what to do. Today’s Spotlight is on a real ethics question that one man faced. We tell the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how he tried to help kill another man.

Voice 1 

In 1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer completed his studies to become a church leader in Germany. He taught and wrote books. But Germany was changing all around him. The Nazi political party was rising to power and Adolf Hitler was taking control of the country. To get more control, Hitler only permitted the state-approved church. Other churches were closed. Hitler began to tell people that their first loyalty belonged to the nation of Germany, not to God.

Voice 2 

Bonhoeffer disagreed with this. He believed this was not good Christian teaching. He became part of a group of 2000 church leaders who formed the Pastors Emergency League. They opposed the state-approved Nazi church. When pressure from the government increased, this group changed. They became the illegal Confessing Church. The Confessing Church believed that Christians should follow God first, not the nation or Hitler. Bonhoeffer served as the head of the Confessing Church’s school.

Bonhoeffer with a group of students
Bonhoeffer with a group of students; Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons
Voice 1 

Bonhoeffer was a pacifist. He believed that violence is never the solution to any problem. A pacifist works to make change, but through protest and talking together. But Bonhoeffer began to hear stories of Jewish people being killed and his ideas changed. He decided that pacifism was a good theory, but to not act was to act. If he did not act, he was letting Hitler win. If he did nothing to fight the evil he saw, he was supporting the evil.

Voice 2 

So Bonhoeffer joined a group working to fight Nazism. He was still permitted to travel outside the country. He took secret information to Great Britain. He tried to gather support for the Confessing Church and tell the world that not every German supported Hitler.

Voice 1 

Bonhoeffer did have the chance to escape from Germany completely. He could have stayed in a safe place. He was permitted to travel to New York City. But after only a few weeks, he decided to return to Germany. He knew that if he was going to help fix the country he loved, he would have to stay during the struggle for the heart of Germany.

Voice 2 

So he went home. He could not support Hitler’s government. But he could not do nothing. He believed that killing was wrong, but he also believed it was wrong not to help people in trouble. During this time, he spent a lot of time thinking and writing about the correct thing to do as a Christian. After a time, he decided to join a group planning to kill Adolf Hitler. But the attempt failed. Bonhoeffer was one of the people who was caught. The German government arrested him and put him in prison.

prison door
Image by Ichigo121212 from Pixabay
Voice 1 

In prison, Bonhoeffer wrote many letters and documents. Some of these explained how he decided to join the group trying to kill Hitler. He said that there are two things that should guide Christians through life. The first is the needs of the people around you. In this case, these were the millions of people Hitler was killing.

Voice 2 

The second thing that should guide Christians is the model of Jesus Christ. Jesus has a group of teachings called “The Beatitudes”. These teachings concentrate on the poor, those who are sad, and those who suffer. Bonhoeffer believed that Christians should remember these two things when trying to make a difficult choice.

Voice 1 

Bonhoeffer attempted to follow Jesus. He saw suffering people and acted. He stood up for poor and hurting people. Because he lived this belief, the government sentenced him to death. The prison doctor watched as Bonhoeffer was killed. He described what he saw:

Voice 3 

“The prisoners were taken from their cells. The judgments were read out to them. Through the open door in one room, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer. He was on the floor praying to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed. He believed and was so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer. Then he climbed the steps to the gallows. He was brave and calm. He died in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have never seen a man die so completely accepting of the will of God.”

Memorial plaque on the house where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born;
Memorial plaque on the house where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born; Bonio, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Voice 2 

There are many Christians who would have encouraged Bonhoeffer to find a non–violent form of protest. But many would say that his actions are different from other acts of violence. That is because he was moved by Jesus Christ’s command to help the poor and the suffering and those who cannot help themselves.

Voice 1 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not trying to tell people that all acts of violence are good as long as you feel God is behind you. Instead, he was one man in one situation trying to decide what was best. He was not sure he was doing the right thing. He had doubt and worry that he was wrong. But he was willing to accept the results of his actions, both for his body and for his soul.

Voice 2 

We began this program by asking if you would ever kill someone. Now, put yourself in Bonhoeffer’s position. If you had the chance to kill a single person and save the lives of millions of people, would you do it? If you say “no” then what would you do? Nothing? These are not easy questions. Tell us what you think. You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at You can also find us on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Adam Navis. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United Kingdom and the United States. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, ‘Bonhoeffer: Making Difficult Choices’.

Voice 2 

Visit our website to download our free official app for Android and Apple devices. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.


Have you ever had to make a difficult ethical choice? What guided you in your decision? Did you feel satisfied in your decision?



Join the discussion

  • It is really difficult to make a choice that involves someone’s life or death. I believe that just someone who has stony-hearted or cold-blooded can do that. To me, if I’m in that such a difficult situation, I’m sure that I cannot do anything. I know I am not as brave as I’m thinking. However, I’m still wondering if Bonhoeffer was right or wrong that he wanted to kill someone… Anyway, I extremely admire his belief in God, in Jesus Christ because if I were him, I couldn’t do what he did.

    • No I wasn’t doing it, and if I had put in this situation I would not kill anyone cause the god prevent the killing

  • I think killing is not a good solution to the problem. Hitler had many associates and supporters. They must also be killed. Many people supported Hitler in Germany. Bonhoeffer should protest openly and convince people to stand up against Hitler’s policy. On the other hand , if he protested peacefully he would be arrested or killed. there is no good solution.

  • No I wasn’t doing it
    Instead he can go to the government and negotiate with them about poor and suffering
    And why did people not go to God? he will sing them

    I feel this decision is save and sympathetic

  • To kill a people is really difficulty. When someone has a decide kill a people, maybe they are in a forced situation.

  • If I had chance to kill someone and save the live of millions of people, I would say yes. It is not difficult, that is on the speech. Do it which is very difficult.

  • When I hear the question at first, I think it easy to respond. But, this is difficult to make a decision in this case. However, If I must be kill a person, the reason is made by large people.

  • I think I will do it if the person I should kill is like Hitler in his evils. murder even it difficult and so ‏ terrible thing to do ,but sometimes we should do it if some can hurt anyone badly like killers and such thing like that. I do not know if I have courage to do it in that situation,but it the reasonable solution is kill that one for save all

  • I didn’t make any difficult decisions yet but if I had to why not as a muslim I will do what ever my god told me to do thanks spotlight for these amazing podcasts

  • In Islam you have to kill any body attacking to kill you, but this is the last choice because we believe that the most dangerous thing and also unforgivable by God if you are not sure that person will kill you

More from this show

Episode 9