"The moment a person accepts responsibility for other people - and only in so doing does the person live in reality - the genuine ethical situation arises. This is really something different from the abstract way in which people usually seek to come to terms with the ethical problem. The subject of the action is no longer the isolated individual, but the one who is responsible for other people. The action's norm is not a universal principle, but the concrete neighbor, as given to me by God. The choice is made no longer between a clearly recognized good and a clearly recognized evil; instead, it is risked in faith while being aware that good and evil are hidden in the concrete historical situation.
To act out of concrete responsibility means to act in freedom - to decide, to act, and to answer for the consequences of this particular action myself without the support of other people or principles. Responsibility presupposes ultimate freedom in assessing a given situation, in choosing, and in acting. Responsible action is neither determined from the outset nor defined once and for all; instead, it is born in the given situation. The point is not to apply a principle that eventually will be shattered by reality anyway, but to discern what is necessary or 'commanded' in a given situation. One must observe, weigh, and judge the matter, all in the dangerous freedom of one's own self. One must indeed enter the sphere of relativity, in the twilight that the historical situation casts over good and evil. The self-denial often necessary for those who act responsibly is to prefer what is better over what is less good, since 'absolute good' is capable, to an even greater extent, of provoking nothing less than evil. The so-called absolute good would in such a case be bad, and that which is relatively better is 'absolutely' better than the 'absolute good.' This throws the freedom of those who act responsibly into the sharpest relief: it is freedom from servitude even to an 'absolute good'."
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "History and Good " in Ethics, 221-222.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
History and Good .
One of the people in my life for whom I have the highest degree of respect and admiration brought Bonhoeffer's life to my attention today. When they mentioned his name, I chuckled at the providential irony that I am supposed to be reading Bonhoeffer's Ethics this week for the current blog reading project going on over at Jeremy's blog. I continued to read in my assigned reading and found the following gem of a quote. As I get older, I am sometimes tempted to believe the mark of sin and death is the reality of situations that do not offer a clear moral absolute. Sometimes there is little confidence that you are doing the right thing in a situation. But I was surprised to learn that Bonhoeffer calls this tension the "freedom" of the Christian - abandoning abstract reasoning in favor of concrete historical situations within a community.