Dietrich Bonhoeffer was confronted directly and personally with the need to face the issues of social responsibility and moral complicity engendered by the policies of the Nazi regime in his native Germany. His writings on our personal responsibility as Christians and that of the church to live true to Christ in the context of an imperfect and opposing world were collected after his death in Ethics, first published in 1955. After describing the moral crimes of the Nazi regime under which he chose to live and the complicity of the German church in that government and culture, he went on to describe the structure of a responsible life based on our relation to Christ, living in tension between the negation of condemnation and death and the affirmation of creation, atonement, and reconciliation. “Our life is created, reconciled and redeemed; it finds in Jesus Christ its origin, its essence and its goal.”1 The responsible life is dependent on the acceptance of our own guilt, obedience to the call of a rightly-oriented conscience, and living in the personal freedom only available in Christ – all made visible in concrete actions towards our fellow man.

But the societal conditions that forced Bonhoeffer to deal with the issues of responsibility and moral complicity also acted powerfully upon the lives and thoughts of others in Europe and throughout the rest of the world as well. I had surmised that C. S. Lewis and others in his literary circle, living in Great Britain through the battles of World War II, may have addressed the issues of moral complicity either before, during, or after the War. A visit to the Wade Center in Wheaton – featuring the works of C.S. Lewis and six of his contemporaries and closest friends – seemed to hold valuable possibilities in researching this topic. A discussion with the research consultant on staff there – a man intimately familiar with both the published works and informal letters between Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, Owen Barfield, George MacDonald, Charles Williams, and Dorothy Sayers – revealed that little was likely to be found among the writings of this group. Lewis’s Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength cover topics associated with the dangers of modernity in education and big government but do not deal directly with the complicity of individuals within society. Of this crowd, the letters of Dorothy Sayers were thought to hold the most promise.

As a novelist and playwright living in Great Britain, her perspective on and opportunities for engagement with the German war machine were considerably different from Bonhoeffer’s. Even so, she saw the threat of both tyranny and heresy (she regarded the German rulers as having chosen to invert evil and good, treating evil as good and vice versa) and rose to combat it with the tools at her disposal. At the request of the British government, she wrote a Christmas pamphlet entitled Begin Here, viewing this as an opportunity given her by God and arguing that people should use the upheaval caused by the war as an opportunity to return to spirituality and individuality and to transform their attitude towards work.2 She also gave a group of lectures for the Workers’ Educational Association and authored a series of articles about the War featuring her well-known fictional character Peter Wimsey. Lord Wimsey can be found writing of personal responsibility as all-important and of learning to guide the State rather than be guided by it. She was also called upon to give a lecture at a conference called “The Life of the Church and the Order of Society.” Her subject was the Church’s place in society – contrasting the two extremes of complete isolation from corrupting secular concerns on one end, with so complete an involvement on the other that ecclesiastical law becomes the law of the community. Rejecting both extremes, she concluded that the Church must concern itself with social and political matters and make its voice heard while at the same time not identifying itself fully with any particular organization or policy, maintaining its authority by remaining detached. There is at least the suggestion of complicity on the part of some here, especially when she connects the second extreme directly with the situation in Nazi Germany.

The notion of calling is an important one here. We are not all called to the same kind or level of engagement in our society over issues of moral complicity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Sayers, and C. S. Lewis each lived an exemplary Christian life through a time of horrific deeds and abundant examples of complicit behavior. And yet each was called by God to a different response to those times. C. S. Lewis comments little on the issues of complicity of the day – the Lord directed his attention elsewhere and we have been blessed with the rich fruits of his literary career. Dorothy Sayers was called to respond to the evil she saw in the Nazi regime by teaching and encouraging those involved in the British war effort. But it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was called to speak out and conspire against that government, actively choosing not to escape the call on him, returning from a safe haven to a likely death in Germany.

1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics. (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 216.

2James Brabazon, Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981), 177.