The American in Baghdad I mentioned yesterday included a quote from MLK in his note. To say King was a strong advocate of non-violence is an understatement, and his resulting rhetorical and historical contributions to society are immeasurable. However, it’s worth noting that King wasn’t an unqualified pacifist. It’s fair for contemporary pacifists and nonviolent activists to look to King in their thinking and defense, but it’s also fair to point out that most of them are selective in mining his words for ammunition. Case in point: King’s comparison of Gandhi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In essence, King’s message was this: When your enemy has a conscience, follow Gandhi. When your enemy has no conscience, follow Bonhoeffer.
In case you’re not as familiar with Bonhoeffer, he was a German theologian, minister, writer, professor, and activist during Hitler’s rise to power. Along with the likes of Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer led an opposition movement against National Socialism and became one of the strongest advocates for the protection of the Jewish people in Germany (and beyond). After helping a group of Jews escape to Switzerland, he was arrested and imprisoned in 1943. Because of his work on behalf of the Jewish people, including involvement in an effort to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer was hanged in the concentration camp at Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945. Among Bonhoeffer’s classic contributions to the library of Christendom are The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and Ethics.