As we look back into history, we find few writings that directly address the topic of moral complicity. On the other hand, deep intellectual and spiritual wrestling with the responsibilities of the individual Christian in relation to the societal issues of his or her day can be described as the mark of the great Christian thinker. Augustine of Hippo preferred a private life of solitude but instead came to see his responsibility to teach, lead, and nurture the church as of higher priority. Throughout his years of church leadership, he actively opposed the teachings of the Donatists and Pelagians in debates and written treatises, seeing these heretical teachings as a very grave danger to his precious flock and the very future of Christianity. One could surmise that he would have seen himself as complicit in their ruin had he not taken up the mantle of educating them and opposing the arguments that could lead them astray. But we have no evidence from his extensive writings that Augustine allowed this as an option or struggled with this question, accepting instead his roles as the calling of God, to whom his only true responsibility lay and from whom all his other responsibilities flowed.

Nearly a thousand years later, Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas would begin to address various aspects of moral complicity in his writings to the church, although still without discussing the subject directly. In his Commentary on Sentences, he differentiates the degree of one’s culpability for an action based upon one’s level of knowledge concerning it, stating that “one kind of ignorance excuses from wrongdoing; another kind, however, partially excuses; and yet another kind excuses neither completely nor partially.”1 In Summa Theologiae, Aquinas also develops the concepts of political power and order, basing them on his understanding of natural law:

“There is a threefold order necessary for man. The first comes from comparison with the rule of reason, inasmuch as all our actions and our passions should be measured by the rule of reason. Another order comes from comparison with the rule of the divine law, through which man ought to be directed in all things. If man were naturally a solitary animal, this double order would suffice; but because man is naturally a social and political animal, as is proved in Politics I, 2, it is necessary to have a third order, regulating man’s conduct with the other men with whom he must live.”12

It is also interesting to note that, although Aquinas addressed the need for a divine law, human conscience, and the limits of obedience, these are not developed in such a way that they are seen as in tension with human law, either requiring resistance or resulting in situations of complicity.

Seven hundred years later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was confronted much more 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. Writing between 1939 and 1943, he pulls no punches: “The Church confesses herself guilty of breaking all ten commandments, and in this she confesses her defection from Christ. She has not borne witness to the truth of God in such a manner that all pursuit of truth, all science, can perceive that it has its origin in this truth. She has not proclaimed the justice of God in such a manner that all true justice must see in it the origin of its own essential nature. She has not succeeded in making the providence of God a matter of such certain belief that all human economy must regard it as the source from which it receives its task. By her own silence she has rendered herself guilty of the decline in responsible action, in bravery in the defence of a cause, and in willingness to suffer for what is known to be right. She bears the guilt of the defection of the governing authority from Christ.”2

The word “complicity” may not be found in this passage but the concept is loud and clear – the silent Church is complicit in the horrors then unfolding at the hand of the German government. 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.

Having looked at the issues surrounding moral complicity from a few perspectives through history, it is useful to ask if this is a uniquely modern concept or dilemma. The responsibility not to participate in the wrongful deeds of others is certainly not confined to the modern age. But the complexities of interconnected motivations, compartmentalization, bureaucratization, institutional largesse, and international influence that color the understanding of Bonhoeffer (and perhaps call for a term derived from the Latin complex) are rooted solidly in modernity. It is perhaps instructive to note that the English word “complicity” was first used around 1656, near the beginning of the modern era. The distinctly different character of the observations and responses of Augustine, Aquinas, and Bonhoeffer fits well with the concept of a superculture unfolding in three stages. This way of looking at the progression of a culture, proposed initially by Pitirim Sorokin and developed further by Harold O. J. Brown, describes the earliest stage as ideational, the second as idealistic, and the third and final as sensate.3 Ideational mentality sees God as the highest reality, with the good being what God wills, and spiritual truth the only truth. Augustine thought only in terms of his calling by God and responsibility to Him rather than struggling in some way with his responsibility to man. Issues of complicity thus received little serious thought as decisions were cast firmly in the light of obedience to God. An idealistic culture continues to rate spiritual truth and values above all else but it also appreciates the realities and values of the sensory world. Consistent with this dual focus, we see that A quinas, operating in a culture that had by then become idealistic, could see the need for defining relationships and responsibilities between people in the light of God’s love and natural law but without the complexities that would come into the culture at a later time. The sensate culture is interested only in the material, that which appeals to and affects the senses. Brown places European culture’s entry into the sensate phase coincident with the beginning of the modern era in the late fifteenth century. And so, we find Bonhoeffer struggling with the relationships and responsibilities presented by a fully-developed and degenerative sensate culture mired in all the complexities of modernity. All of this suggests that while Augustine may provide an example and Aquinas some guidelines, it has been left to us in the modern age to address the full impact of our potential complicity and deal with its many forms and faces.

1 Mary T. Clark, An Aquinas Reader. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), 282-3.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics. (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 115.
3 Harold O. J. Brown, The Sensate Culture: Western Civilization Between Chaos and Transformation. (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996), 9.