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April 8, 2010
Morningside Heights is a fine place to be on a day like today, so sunny and warm. Columbia students fill the streets and the sidewalk cafes, wearing clothes they haven't worn since they arrived here last August. Every flowering tree and every daffodil is in bloom: in the median on Broadway, on the cathedral close, behind the iron gates at Barnard and Columbia, hidden from the street in the courtyard at Union Seminary.

The neighborhood has changed, of course, since the 1940s, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer left here for the last time. But spring in New York was beautiful then, too-- beautiful and safe. He could ride out the war here in safety. He did not have to return home. But he did, of course. He told Reinhold Niebuhr, the friend and colleague who brought him here, that he wouldn't be able to help rebuild Germany after the war if he refused to participate in its agony during it, and so he sailed for home.

Home, and a wrenching moral dilemma: how far does a person go in resisting evil? Many of us wonder, sometimes, if we would have the courage to accept death for the sake of what we hold sacred. Such courage is a gift-- martyrs don't so much muster it as receive it. But what about a further courage? Are there times when the gift would be given, not just to face death, but actually to kill? We recoil from the very idea: suicide bombers may call themselves martyrs, and we snort at this: they are murderers. New Yorkers know whereof we speak.

But after he returned home, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his brother and a few others decided to stop the madness by killing its architect: a bomb in a briefcase, planted beneath Hitler's chair at a meeting. The plot failed -- somebody moved the briefcase-- and the conspirators were rounded up, imprisoned and executed at Buchenwald.

If you have the chance to assassinate Hitler, do you do it? Do you take on yourself the stain of killing? For all killing -- regardless of its manner and motive -- leaves a stain, and the stain is indelible. Once done, it cannot be undone. You may judge the cause to be worth the stain, but it will never not have happened. You will have blood on your hands forever.

Moral decision stains us. Our choices are seldom between pure good and obvious evil: usually, all options are muddy in some way, and remaining spotless ourselves is not among them. My own clean hands cannot be my highest good, because I don't live alone in this compromised world: I affect it not only by my actions, but by my inaction. While concerted nonviolent resistance has indeed toppled empires, the moral purity of the uninvolved pacifist is a self-serving illusion. He may not participate, but he always permits.

This Sunday, April 11th, Trinity Wall Street observes the 65th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's execution by the Nazis. It begins at 2pm. Read more at
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