Civil disobedience and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Fanø address

November 5, 2018

“What use to me are crown, land, folk and fame?

They cannot cheer my breast.

War’s in the land, alas, and on my name

I pray no guilt may rest.”

M. Claudius [adapted by Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

Imagine yourself addressing, not only fellow countrymen, all with total contempt for one another’s politics and theology, but also international clergymen, each in total possession of opposing judgments (and perhaps misjudgments). Some perspectives in the crowd regarding the situation in Europe are based on first-hand observations, while others are based on speculation from outsiders. There is no singular audience to keep in mind as you speak.

Imagine the anxiety rising in your chest cavity as you climb atop a platform before a large crowd. Up until this point, you had advocated for peace through the lens of biblical idealism, without fear of war in Europe. Now, you are faced with rumors of war, led by your own country—will the Bible still do? The situation is fraught. You clear your throat before you open your mouth to speak.

A conflict between Bonhoeffer’s conscience and the populist will of the nation confronted him. His reputation, livelihood, and personal safety were at stake. Remember, Bonhoeffer had not yet considered the famous assassination plot he would later conspire in 1944. At this stage, the Bonhoeffer we meet at Fanø was faced between the choices of speaking up or remaining silent. This was Bonhoeffer’s choice: it was time to speak up for peace in Europe.

The crowd assembled at Fanø was larger than any Bonhoeffer had ever addressed before (and Bonhoeffer much preferred to preach to small, defined crowds). He must have been nervous. The audience consisted of Nazis, English politicians, and clergyman from many nations and denominations. These groups did not share similar political or theological views; the room was tense.

“From the first moment the assembly was breathless with tension,” recalls one eyewitness, and one of Bonhoeffer’s students at Finkenwalde, Otto Dudzus. “Many may have felt that they would never forget what they had just heard. An English politician who was present is said to have been annoyed about the defective sense of reality in the theologians. Was he still of that opinion a few years later? Bonhoeffer had charted so far ahead that the conference could not follow him.”[1]

In 1934 when Bonhoeffer addressed the Fanø Conference, the situation in Germany had deteriorated significantly. Paul von Hindenburg, supreme commander of the armed forces, had died, removing the final obstacle in Hitler’s way, on his quest toward absolute power. The German people, humiliated in World War I, felt powerless and overlooked by the rest of Europe. They desired a strong man to lead them to restore their former national glory. Hitler obliged.

It was after Hindenburg’s death that Hitler combined the offices of Reich Chancellor and Führer, giving him absolute power. The summer of 1934, German pastors were swearing allegiance to Hitler from the pulpits of local churches during worship. The Confessing Church was thereby drawn into open conflict with the German Christians, because they would refuse to swear allegiance to the Führer. The Barmen Declaration was drafted the same year.

So, Bonhoeffer’s country was deeply polarized between the nationalist, populist, patriotic German Volk—those loyal to Germany and longed to regain international respect (those who would follow anyone who promised geopolitical salvation)—and those who could read the proverbial writing on the wall. Though we may now judge Hitler’s trajectory clearly in hindsight, the minority of Germans who resisted Hitler could only speculate about the direction of the country. They feared global warfare, and bloodshed similar to that of the First World War.

As Bonhoeffer rose to the speaking platform in Fanø, this was the situation he faced.

“Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God,” Bonhoeffer declared. “They are won where the way leads to the cross.”

Bonhoeffer continued:

Why do we fear the fury of the world powers? Why don’t we take the power from them and give it back to Christ? We can still do it today. The Ecumenical Council is in session; it can send out to all believers this radical call to peace . . . The hour is late. The world is choked with weapons, and dreadful is the distrust which looks out of all men’s eyes. The trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. For what are we waiting? Do we want to become involved in this guilt as never before?[2]

With these public statements, Bonhoeffer defied government authorities, colleagues from Berlin University, fellow German pastors, and Hitler himself (and any international attendees who extended loyalty to Hitler’s government). At least half the audience left deeply offended.

While we, in our chronologically privileged position, may view Bonhoeffer’s ultimate disobedience to Hitler through violent means, Bonhoeffer’s choice to speak at Fanø was one of civil disobedience. The Valkyrie Plot was a last resort, a decade after the Fanø address. The speech at Fanø was one of both defiance and one of peace.

Relevance for today

Bonhoeffer’s case is both helpful and unhelpful for us today, as Christians seek to bear righteous witness in tumultuous times. His case is helpful because he exhibited tenderness of heart, diligence in thought, and heroic courage—these are values that can be expressed in any situation. His case is unhelpful because he lived in an unparalleled time—there has not been a time like Bonhoeffer’s, before, or after, the Second World War.

Nevertheless, there still are a few conclusions that can be drawn in regards to disobedience to government authority from Bonhoeffer's speech in Fanø. Not everyone who condemns injustice today performs civil disobedience. If social media is any indication, modern-day political advocacy is seldom civil. Public discourse is often vitriolic, seldom issue-based, and almost always pulled in opposite directions by political polarization in American society.

This should not be the case. We can learn from Bonhoeffer at these points.


What about the Valkyrie Plot? The civility of Bonhoeffer’s disobedience in Fanø would be contrasted a decade later when he conspired with others to assassinate the Führer.

For Bonhoeffer, violence was a last resort, and cannot be considered civil disobedience (Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience do not have a similar point of contrast, for example—they never took up this extreme measure).[3] Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer’s is an interesting case, because he embodied a wide range of methods of resistance throughout his life, as the situation in Germany escalated. His resorting to violence was only after Hitler had exhibited the most heinous forms of evil; he had to be stopped.

Bonhoeffer’s actions leave some wondering—when is it okay for a Christian to take up arms in revolution, and when should he/she civilly disobey?

Throughout his life, Bonhoeffer’s advocacy for peace was always measured against the prospect of more dire circumstances. Adolf Hitler’s legacy speaks for itself; Bonhoeffer never overestimated the threat. However, we may overestimate or underestimate our own circumstances using our own political calculus. Society can afford neither forms of miscalculation.

In deciding when to disobey, the question we are really asking is, “What time is it?” Accurately diagnosing the situation we are in is the linchpin issue for bearing righteous witness. If we miscalculate, it might be too soon to act (thus taking history into our own hands); if we miscalculate, it might be too late to act (thus failing to bear witness at all). Both undermine the Christian’s credibility.

Bonhoeffer was not perfect—far from it. But his life does serve as one model for how Christians may begin to imagine navigating a perilous future. I’ll close with how Bonhoeffer understood his own actions, at the end of his life; the following scene is now widely known:

During one of their daily walks around the prison yard in Tegel [prison] Dietrich Bonhoeffer was asked by a fellow-prisoner how as a Christian and a theologian he could take it upon himself to participate in the active resistance against Hitler. In the brief time given him under the eyes of the warders, he answered with a story: If he, as a pastor, saw a drunken driver racing at high speed down the Kurfürstendamm, he did not consider it his only duty to bury the victims of the madman, or to comfort his relatives; it was more important to wrench the wheel out of the hands of the drunkard.[4]


  1. ^ I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 90.
  2. ^ London: 1933-1935, “Address to the Fanø Conference: English Transcription”, 309.
  3. ^ Bonhoeffer was deeply impressed by Gandhi, and later regretted failed plans to visit him in India.
  4. ^ I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 82.

Devin Maddox

Devin Maddox is the trade book publisher at B&H Publishing Group. He is also a Ph.D. student in Applied Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, focusing his research on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and writing. He and his wife, Cara, and three boys live in Nashville, Tennessee. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24