Follow Bonhoeffer?

There’s a quotation which can be found online. It runs as follows:

“If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi. But if your enemy has no conscience, like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer.”

This is commonly attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And there could be nothing more satisfying than having two of the twentieth century’s greatest moral leaders – Gandhi and Bonhoeffer – referred to in this way by a third – King. There’s only one problem. There’s no evidence to support the claim that King ever said or wrote this. What there is, however, is another quotation by Stokely Carmichael. In it, he seems to be either referring to or at least paraphrasing something King said. “Dr. King’s policy was, if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption. In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.” (Göran, 2011, 00:00) However, as this mentions neither Gandhi nor Bonhoeffer, it doesn’t go any way to proving either King’s or Carmichael’s authorship of the original quotation. As a result, all we can do is take it at its anonymous face value. Here it is again:

“If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi. But if your enemy has no conscience, like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer.”

Gandhi’s “opponent” was the rule by the British Crown on the Indian subcontinent. While many atrocities were committed in the name of the Raj, it’s at least to be supposed that those behind it nevertheless had some sort of conscience. Bonhoeffer’s “enemy”, however, was markedly different. The moral sense of right and wrong of Hitler and the Nazis was far removed from anything which could be recognized as such. As a result, it can be said that they had no conscience. In this case, Gandhi’s ethos of passive resistance – with its emphasis on the refusal to cooperate with legal requirements – can be seen as futile. The Nazis simply didn’t take no for an answer. As a consequence, Bonhoeffer deemed that other measures of resistance were more appropriate, and so he became a double agent and joined the plot to kill Hitler – a decidedly non-passive act. To “follow Bonhoeffer”, then, means to take extreme action in an extreme situation.

Whether he was justified in doing so can be left up to the conscience of each person to decide. (For information on the theological background of Bonhoeffer’s outlook in this regard, see “Bonhoeffer on Resistance” by Michael P. DeJonge)



Göran O. (2011). The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. Retrieved from:


Picture by the author – Follow Bonhoeffer