The Popular Bonhoeffer Quote That Isn’t in Bonhoeffer’s Works

Did Bonhoeffer say, Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”?

The appeal of this quote is understandable. The powerful arrangement of words elevates the importance of the cause and bringing Bonhoeffer to one’s side only strengthens the sense that the cause is just. However, since the quote isn’t his, using it is a false witness.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a modern day hero among evangelical Christians. Killed by the Nazis in 1945 for resisting the regime, Bonhoeffer’s fame among evangelicals increased after the publication of Eric Metaxas’ acclaimed biography of the Lutheran pastor. For many Christians who feel compelled to take a stand on principle, Bonhoeffer has become an inspiration and guiding light. On that point, perhaps the most repeated and celebrated quote attributed to Bonhoeffer is “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

These are bold words and together they have helped strengthen the conclusion of many persuasive appeals. Though they are powerful, they are not from Bonhoeffer. According to my research and the Bonhoeffer scholars I consulted, these sentences can’t be found in any of his writings or speeches.

This may come as a shock to countless (really, I stopped counting) Twitter and Facebook users who have posted a picture of Bonhoeffer with that quote attributed to him. The quote is on many lists of essential Bonhoeffer quotes (e.g., see Relevant Magazine’s list). Many politicians and authors have used it to make their many points.

I became interested in the quote while researching this May 22, 2016 tweet from Eric Metaxas:

As Bonhoeffer said “Not to cast a vote for the two majors IS to cast a vote for one of them.” – Ethics, pp. 265-6

Although it wasn’t obvious to me at first, this was a joke based on “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Metaxas posted this in response to a Twitter user who described people who plan not to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

At the time, his Twitter followers didn’t get the joke. Here are some of their tweets in response: “sounds like Bonhoeffer made a boo boo,” “Mr Bonhoeffer was right about many things but still a mere mortal!” and “Sorry, but I think the great Bonhoeffer whiffed on this one.” I couldn’t find anyone who questioned the authenticity of the modified quote.

My entrance into the thread was in late July when a Twitter user asked Metaxas for the quote’s source. One purchased Bonhoeffer’s book on ethics to look up the quote but couldn’t find it. After several days on July 31, Metaxas tweeted

This has gotten out of hand. The ORIGINAL Bonhoeffer fake quote was intended as an OBVIOUS joke. It obviously failed. (emphasis in the original)

Like his Twitter followers, I also looked for the source of the “original fake quote.” In doing so, I learned something more interesting; the popular quote on which Metaxas’ joke was based (“Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”) had been incorrectly attributed to Bonhoeffer.

Questioning the Quote

As far as I can tell, the authenticity of the quote was first questioned in 2013 by Doris Bergen in a book edited by Clifford Green and Guy Carter titled Interpreting Bonhoeffer:

Many lists of “Bonhoeffer quotes” include a sharper indictment: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” See also Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), back flap. However, this formulation has not been found in Bonhoeffer’s works.

In a 2015 issue of the Australasian Journal of Bonhoeffer studies, Erich von Dietze also cast doubt on the quote.

While commonly attributed to Bonhoeffer, the origin of this quote remains uncertain. The quote has been referenced to Metaxas, E. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy – A Righteous Gentile vs the Third Reich. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010).  However, I have not been able to find it in this work.

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