English 12 1872H
November 28th 2009
Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Battle against Injustice
Two of the most influential and passionate theologians of the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, have been pivotal in speaking out for the rights of others and advocating for change that would stop the suffering and bloodshed happening all around them. Though these men have left their mark on history in different times, their methods of non violence and direct action, have been instrumental in defining each mans motives and beliefs in achieving their respective goals. A reality that is void of social inequality, racial discrimination and all of its resulting components and advocates shaped the vision that was everything these great men believed whole heartedly the world should be.
Martin Luther King advocated this vision through the civil rights movement that was caused by the racial discrimination in the U.S. by its white populace towards its black population in the form of segregation and racial violence. These were the fundamental ideas and motivations that drove his passion and unrelenting need to make America stand for what it has so passionately fought for in its creation. Freedom, an idea that has seemed to elude members of his race in America and will also be a motivating factor in Bonhoeffers actions towards Nazism as violence escalated in Germany and all of Europe.
Martin Luther King demonstrates his need to find and illuminate injustice and the need to bring moral consciousness to these places of social darkness in his eloquent “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King states
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages with their “Thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town (115).
King believed it was his duty to bring about awareness of the social atrocities happening all around him. He also felt that freedom was a universal idea that applied to all and was an idea that was sought after all through history by peoples of all races and all means.
King, through his many advocacies and experiences with segregationist America, came to the conclusion that the moderate whether white or black was the underlying glue that kept injustice breeding strong. King felt that for change to come about action must be facilitated towards the means of nonviolence and direct action on the part of the oppressed population and by the realization by the oppressors that change is inevitable and freedom once realized, always finds a way into the light. King states “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (118). King makes known his disappointment with the people who accept the status quo because they are prosperous or afraid of making waves and how, due to this fact, are impartial to the plight of their struggling fellow Americans.
King knew that for change to come about it must be accepted by all members of the population, that no man could see themselves as above the plights of others or as insignificant in the voice of freedom, that all men were responsible for the society as a whole. King relays this message in stating
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the negroes great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the white citizens counciler, or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice… who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct-action (King 120).
King is advocating for unity for America among it races, he is trying to show the white population the underlying foundation of this great nation and everything it stands for is in jeopardy of invalidating itself if our original beliefs and ideals diminish with time.
Martin Luther King was aware of the forces he and all other oppressed people had to overcome in order to bring change to a land and people who were feverishly stuck in their self serving ways. King was also aware that to go against the status quo was to go against the collective thoughts and practices of a society as a whole. To try to tear down the immoral everyday practices of one populations set ways and to bring about a sense of community, was going to be a life consuming effort, and a worthy cause for justified ends.
King searched for justice in diverse ways by standing up and speaking out for the striking sanitation workers of Tennessee in 1963. He demonstrates that injustice can be found in every corner of society and is not only dependent on the color of your skin. Wherever there is inequality there is injustice, wherever there is man taking advantage of man there is injustice, wherever there is a lack of fairness and morality there is injustice. Until we can all see ourselves as equals and provide opportunity on the merits of our character and until we raise the standards in which we treat each other, only then can the fight for social equality finally be put to rest.
King powerfully states in his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech that he is exactly in time where he is supposed to be and he is thankful to be a part of history when social change and a humanity wide awakening is taking place (King). King states that “only through the darkness can the stars be seen.” “I see god working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding-“something is happening in our world” (King). King is referring to all the revolutions that have taken place throughout the world in the last few centuries where freedom has been the main underlying goal and the citizens of these countries or soon to be countries would not tolerate the oppressions of the ruling authorities of the times.
It’s as if the world was awakening from a mass nightmare where the reality was a few ruled over many and spreading like wildfire the idea of freedom was infecting the masses to take their destinies into their own hands. That each man should have a say into where or what his life should be, in other words that each man should be the architect in shaping their own lives. Through these principals and ideas, the governments of many nations have been forged and the course of the world has been changed forever. So it was Kings view that if change was to come about first an awakening must be forced of the sleeping moderates, then through unity and a mass display of common consciousness can change be forced into reality.
Bonhoeffer like Martin Luther King was a devout believer in the rights and freedoms of man bestowed upon us by our creator. As seen in Dobleier’s Documentary film Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German born theologian whose life was unavoidably intertwined through the death of his brother and with a period of the world’s history that will leave a mark on mankind for generations to come. The rise of Nazi Germany under the misguided and fanatical direction of Adolf Hitler and the systematic oppression and extermination of the Jewish population would bring Bonhoeffer and the whole world into a battle between moral and immoral acts.
In the midst of the complete and overwhelming power machine and under the guise of necessity, creates an opponent that is not only in a position of power, but is backed by popular demand by the social classes. Like Martin Luther King, Bonhoeffer has grown weary of the moderate who accepts the status quo and in retrospect helps facilitate it through their non or misguided-action. Bonhoeffer states
The reasonable people’s failure is obvious. With the best of intentions and a naïve lack of realism, they think with a little reason they can bend back into position the framework that has gone out of joint. In their lack of vision they want to do justice to all sides, and so the conflicting forces wear them down with nothing achieved. Disappointed by the world’s unreasonableness, they see themselves condemned to ineffectiveness; they step aside in resignation or collapse before the stronger party. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers 4).
Bonhoeffer is stating that in the face of madness there is no reasonable solution to be found lightly. Compromise at first used as a means of controlling an untamed beast, now become the chains that bind us to our relentless pursuit of appeasement.
Like King, Bonhoeffer believed in the power of the human spirit and the lengths it will go in its never ending quest for freedom. He believed that the power of change lived in every individual not just those directly involved and that change, if not implemented by the individual, would be change that would never come.
As seen in Dobleimer’s documentary Bonhoeffer, the severely opposed socialists and communists’ parties in the Reichstag, the German government, were instrumental in facilitating a prime atmosphere for Hitler to gain the respect of the German people. Also the Catholic Church, feared for its own survival, Instead of condemning what has come to be unjust and corrupt, religious leaders would sit casually by whatever political group held the status quo and through their example and acceptance the people would follow these moral role models of civilized society to whatever opinion they happened to project. These mass followings would be one of the underlying factors for the hold that Hitler had on the German people and on Germany as a whole.
As in Kings case, the moderate plays an intricate role in being the mediator in conveying and allowing to exist the evils of unjust men. Bonhoeffer states “We must allow for the fact that most people learn wisdom only by personal experience. This explains, first, why so few people are capable of taking precautions in advance-they always fancy that they will somehow or other avoid the danger, till it is too late. Secondly, it explains their insensibility to the sufferings of others; sympathy grows in proportion to the fear of approaching disaster.” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers 13). Bonhoeffer is stating that people finally acknowledge the suffering of others as relevant when the suffering starts to affect them directly.
Bonhoeffer, as an example of his analysis, includes the church in this way of thinking in his essay “The Church and the Jewish question.” He implores the church to take direct action against the state of Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer states “the church must reject this encroachment of the order of the state precisely because of its better knowledge of the state and the limitations of its actions. The state that endangers the Christian proclamation negates itself.” (Bonhoeffer, Jewish question 132). Bonhoeffer believed that the church was an extension of the society in which it served and it was the sole responsibility of the church to protect the society even from itself if deemed necessary.
In his essay, Bonhoeffer outlines three ways in which the church can act towards the state, “It can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state. Second, it can aid the victims of the state, and third, is to not just bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.” (Bonhoeffer, Jewish Question 132). Through this statement reveals Bonhoeffers’ growing impatience with the atrocities and in the methods of tolerance that seem to prolong moral injustices. He is stating that once non violence has failed in its task, that more drastic and appropriate measures should be implemented to fight evil on its own ground and with the realization that you can only fight fire with fire.
Martin Luther King was challenged with obtaining equal rights for all citizens regardless of the color of their skin. King utilized non violent protest to stir up enough social tension among its masses that the power structure would be left with no choice but to listen to their grievances and to adjust the laws accordingly. King’s level of action was determined and justified by the level of evil by which its opponent oppresses the people under its power. Where political protests, rallies, freedom rides, and enduring jail cells were enough to make change in Martin Luther King’s case, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was dealing with a whole other evil.
Bonhoeffer was up against a complete monster that was bent on eradicating a whole race of human beings and on the verge of conquering all of Europe. Beginning with Nazi party hate crimes toward its Jewish population, later turned into the implementation of the Nuremburg laws which systematically took away the basic human rights of the Jews in Nazi territory. As these events were unfolding, Bonhoeffer and his family ignored the laws and viewed them as unjust and against their moral beliefs. He had seen the underlying evil of Hitler even though the rest of the German people didn’t. What they saw as necessity, Bonhoeffer saw as crimes against humanity and against the very message of Jesus Christ.
As the violence escalated to encompass more death and to the realization that Hitler would bring their beloved Germany to the brink of destruction, Bonhoeffers’ views of non violence were becoming diluted. The whole world faced the threat of an empire dominating and destroying all that we have worked so hard to achieve, the tolerance and unification of all people and the progress of humanity as a whole.
Bonhoeffer, after exhausting all possible non violent means and enduring all levels of violence, finally realized that sometimes it is required to fight evil with evil and this fact could not be avoided. That the moral route of non violence is sometimes not enough to bring about change and sway the popular opinion of the masses. That often things just don’t fix themselves over time and through natural means. That for justice to come about, those who are in a position to bring about change are obligated to do so as members of a community and are responsible for all those within the community.
Bonhoeffer, once a pacifist preaching his message and advocating for justice and equality as the Jews were being un-fairly treated, is now transformed as the violence and destruction of the third Reich touches every aspect of the globe and devastation becomes more than any moral man can endure. Bonhoeffer, along with other prominent German Citizens and soldiers, found that the fate of Germany and also the direction of humanity was threatened and was up to them to right the wrong of Germany’s grave mistake, Hitler. Bonhoeffer was among a group of conspirators that had been attempting the assassination of Adolf Hitler and were planning to take back control of Germany once he was gone. As seen in Martin Doblmeiers’ Bonhoeffer, in a final heroic attempt on Hitler’s life where the plan almost succeeded, this event lead to the manhunt that would eventually lead to the capture and death of all who were involved which included Bonhoeffer a week before Germany finally surrendered.
Bonhoeffer and King both were fully aware that for change to come about, action was required and if justice was to be had, then the people needed to be united. Both theologians stood for the practice of non-violence in obtaining their goals of equality and both men stood up for their causes with complete disregard for their own welfare against social structures that were destructive or unjust in their operations. These men were determined to be the voices of reason among the immoral and to live by example as carriers of gods laws into wherever human nature contradicts and is destructive to itself. But we learn through Bonhoeffer that every man has his threshold and man will fight for the beliefs that make up his moral conscience, even if that man is a pacifist at heart which demonstrates that there is one undeniable drive that is a life-long pursuit for all, freedom.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “After Ten Years. A Reckoning Made at New Years 1943.” Letters And
Papers from Prison. New York: Touchstone, 1997. 1-18. Print.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “The Church and the Jewish Question.” A Testament to Freedom: The
Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ed. F. Burton Nelson. Harper Collins, 1995.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister. Dir. Martin Doblmeier. Documentary: Dietrich
Bonhoeffer. Journey Films, 2006. DVD.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Twenty-Five Great Essays. Ed. Robert
Diyanni. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008. 114-130. Print.
King, Martin Luther. “I’ve been to the Mountain Top.” Afscme.org 2009. American Federation
of State, County, and Municipal Employees. 19 Nov. 2009. WEB.