When looking back on the Nazi decade, roughly 1933–1945, it is easy to focus on how many Germans enthusiastically fell in line with the Nazi’s aggressive political ideology and demonically racist policies. But there were also Christians who tried to stand up against the Nazis in various ways. Theologian Martin Niemöller was a decorated World War I U-boat commander who, as a German patriot, initially saw much good in the early National Socialist (Nazi) movement. But Niemöller ultimately stood against the Nazis and spent seven years in prison and concentration camps for his stance. After the war he led a theological movement demanding that Germans publicly admit their collective guilt for Nazism and the Holocaust, co-authoring the controversial Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt by the Protestant Church of Germany (1945).

Another example is the Austrian Catholic martyr, Franz Jägerstätter. Jägerstätter was a small-town farmer of modest means. He was also a patriotic Austrian who served as his local town’s mayor and went through compulsory military training. He opposed the Anchluss forced integration of independent Austria into the Third Reich and repeatedly refused to take the required oath to Hitler. As the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie depicts, the oath was no small matter: all German and Austrian troops were required to swear a personal oath to the Fuhrer:

I swear to God this holy oath
that I shall render unconditional obedience
to the Leader of the German Reich and people,
Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces,
and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared
to give my life for this oath.

Because he was a farmer, and thus was in an essential profession, Jägerstätter was able to defer military service in the early years of World War II. However, when he was called to active service in 1943, he continued refusing to swear the sacrilegious oath to Hitler. Despite volunteering to serve as a medic or in some other capacity so that he would not participate in killing on behalf of Hitler and the Nazis, Jägerstätter was imprisoned. On August 9, 1943, he was executed via the guillotine.

These examples help us as this series of essays looks at making right distinctions between different forms of force and violence, based on arguments from my forthcoming book, A Basic Guide to The Just War Tradition: Christian Foundations and Practices. We begin with the just war statecraft principles of legitimate authority, just cause, and right intention that inform the distinction between legitimate force and illegitimate violence. Force is lawful, restrained, focused on justice and security, and used by those in authority. Violence, in contrast, is unlawful, unrestrained, excessive, and used beyond or outside right authority. Whether we are speaking of individual criminal behavior or the excessive and vindictive use of violence by state actors, the principles of legitimate authority, just cause, and right intention provide a moral framework for evaluating policies and actions.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Conspiracy to Eliminate Hitler

When it comes to resisting the Nazis, perhaps the most famous example is the Protestant theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his participation in a plot organized within the Germany military to stop the war by assassinating Hitler. Bonhoeffer was one of the pastors who refused to serve in the national German Protestant church as it came increasingly under the thumb of the Nazis. One of the notorious Nazi policies was to ban individuals of Jewish ethnic heritage, even if they were long-time professing Christians, from participating in local churches. This was one of the many ways that ethnic Jews were marginalized and cast out of society. As early as 1920, the Nazi Party Platform associated all Jews iwith the secular materialism of revolutionary Communism, as in this party statement:

We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.9 

Bonhoeffer and others actively spoke out against the Nazis and published a statement in 1934 known as the Barmen Declaration. The declaration opposed elevating the Fuhrer as spiritual leader of the church, banishing non-Aryan Christians from ministry, and other ways that a Nazi-affirming religion perverted biblical Christianity. Bonhoeffer and his allies set up a rival denomination called the Confessing Church and for some time Bonhoeffer led a secret seminary to train pastors. Over the next few years Bonhoeffer was increasingly muzzled by German authorities for his anti-Nazi stance. During this time he knew that he could not swear an oath to the Nazis if conscripted and he sought ways to alert his contacts in the United States, Great Britain, and elsewhere as to just how bad conditions were in Germany. In 1939, he presciently wrote, “Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization.”10

As early as February 1938 Bonhoeffer met members of the resistance who sought a way to end Hitler’s rule. Bonhoeffer’s intermediary was his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnányi, who helped Bonhoeffer join the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. Bonhoeffer kept a low profile within the Abwehr, traveling to nearby countries under its auspices in order to secretly meet with foreign governments and raise the issue of Allied recognition for a German government should Hitler be deposed. Thus, Bonhoeffer directly supported conspirators who sought to assassinate Hitler. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and he spent the next two years in prison. He was ultimately hung on April 9, 1945, at Flossenbürg concentration camp, along with six resistance leaders including Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (head of the Abwehr), General Hans Oster, General Karl Sack, and General Friedrich von Rabenau. 

Bonhoeffer felt compelled to act in the time of crisis, writing, “If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes . . . Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior.”11 What are we to make of a German pastor and theologian, the author of The Cost of Discipleship, going beyond passive resistance to joining an assassination plot and seeking the overthrow of his country’s government? Is there a moral basis for this? Was Bonhoeffer a martyr or a terrorist?

Before we look at the larger political issues at hand, it is noteworthy that the Nazi evil hit quite close to home for Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, Sabine, had married an ethnically Jewish man. He had many friends who were imprisoned, exiled, ruined, or murdered by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer covertly traveled to communicate with American, British, and other contacts about what was happening to Germany’s Jews. When he took an academic appointment in America in 1939, he almost immediately felt duty-bound to cut his time short and speedily return to Germany, despite the fact that that move essentially sealed his fate.

Bonhoeffer was a Christian first and foremost, and thus he well understood that he was a citizen in two polities, but that his ultimate allegiance must first and always be to that city which has God as its king. Moreover, Bonhoeffer knew that the kingdoms of this earth were measured against the neighbor-love and justice of the City of God, and, therefore, the Third Reich was opposed to Christ. He made a series of choices that distanced him from the racial dogma and political tyranny of the Nazis, including rejection of what became the blasphemous German national church. He loved his neighbors. He wanted the best for the German people, and for the human race more generally, and came to believe that what was best in the long run was the defeat of his country’s grotesquely evil government in order to stop the sins of Nazism. Bonhoeffer was willing to put his life on the line in order to support that effort, never resorting to criminal acts against civilians or other evil activities that would have directly harmed those outside the Nazi apparatus. He sought, to use biblical terms, the “good of the city,” not just in Berlin but globally (Jer. 29:7). Most importantly, as we can see from his voluminous letters and other writings, this was a man motivated by love of God and love of neighbor, not hatred.

Terrorism: Bonhoeffer vs. Colombia’s ELN

Was Bonhoeffer a terrorist? Certainly not. He was an unlikely hero and martyr participating in organized resistance within his own country, attempting to stop a terrible an unlawful conflict. In stark contrast stand purportedly Christian groups liberationist groups such as Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Africa or the Colombian terrorist organization, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN).

Terrorism is the use of violence by non-government actors, usually against non-combatants and private property but also against government targets, which is designed to terrorize the public and change government policy. Terrorists usually claim to be so oppressed that the ballot box is not open to them; however, in reality, terrorists from Che Guevara to Osama bin Laden lack the credibility and support base to win elections and thus they turn to unlawful violence.

Terrorism, therefore, is not just perpetrated outside rightful political authority: it is a direct assault upon it. The Bible teaches that political order is a moral good. Terrorism undermines that order, limiting the reach of the rule of law and eroding public trust. In our time, terrorism often takes on the trappings of “holy war.” Terrorism is not just unlawful. It is evil.

One need not go further in the just war criteria than the fundamental tenet of legitimate authority when considering terrorism as immoral and unlawful. However, terrorism fails the other criteria as well. There is no just cause that can legitimize bombing malls, subways, and public buses. It is impossible to conceive an ethical right intention that deliberately targets houses of worship, grocery stores, and queues in front of public offices. There is no need to go further through the jus ad bellum (ethics of going to war) criteria.

Some might object, “Aren’t the oppressed sometimes forced to terrorism?” It is important to note that terrorism does not fall into the ethics of going to war, but rather the ethics of how war is fought. Terrorism is a tactic employed by criminals and usually directed at civilians crowded in non-combat zones such as schools, houses of worship, tourist crowds, shopping malls, and public transportation. Therefore, the answer to the question is, simply, “no.” It is not true that the terrorist, who deliberately targets the vulnerable in order to spread terror, is just a freedom fighter. Indeed, over the centuries customary international law has come to distinguish legitimate freedom fighters from terrorists. Legitimate freedom fighters, even if poor insurgents, abide by the laws of armed conflict because they represent and seek the good of the local population. Legitimate freedom fighters may not have expensive, standardized uniforms but they do wear a patch or insignia demonstrating their identity as an organized combatant organization. They make explicit, public political demands that are for the common good, not merely a revolutionary, religious, or ethnic few. They have an organization and are under authority. In just war terms, freedom fighters accept at least two forms of authority.12 The first is that they behave in accordance with customary international law as it is now codified in the Geneva Conventions; the second is that they submit to some form of organized authority, which means they “are under the command of a person responsible for his subordinates.”13 All of these points are now part of international law, recognizing legitimate freedom fighters in places such as Burma, Kurdistan, Bosnia, and some countries in Africa.

Individuals such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer used unconventional tactics against a superior foe without attempting to terrorize the general populace. We can, therefore, tell the difference between legitimate acts of resistance and ugly terrorism. At one end of the spectrum, the Irish Republican Army deliberately planted bombs in public places, murdering unarmed civilians. They even attacked the British Prime Minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street, with mortars, killing several people. This is terrorism. At the other end of the spectrum, during the 2022 Russia-Ukraine conflict, “weak” Ukraine refused to countenance reprisal (terrorist) attacks on Russian cities. Similarly, General George Washington provides a historical case in point. General Washington operated under civilian political authority, the Continental Congress. He enforced discipline and trained his unprofessional troops. He forbade and punished theft, rape, and abuse of civilians. The Continental Army may have been many things, but it was clearly not terroristic.

You may not have heard of them, but there do exist terrorist groups that claim a Christian justification for their murderous violence. Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN)) justifies its behavior using revolutionary, so-called Christian “liberation theology,” which is rooted in Marxist dogma. For much of its existence, the intellectual vanguard of the ELN was comprised of left-wing Catholic priests, most famously Father Camilo Torres Restrepo, a former university professor, who provided much of the weak theological rationale for the movement in its early years. Torres was killed fighting in 1966 but his memory has inspired a generation of radicalized priests and subsequent ELN leaders, such as Spanish priest Father Manuel Perez, who have claimed that Jesus Christ was a revolutionary fighting against oppression and therefore other revolutionaries have a moral obligation to follow Jesus’s example: not simply to be witnesses against corruption in Colombia and in the institutional Church, but to take up arms until all of Colombia is liberated from injustice, inequality, and poverty.14 In reality, the ELN employs tactics such as kidnapping, terrorism, and violence against private citizens. It finances itself through demanding ransom for kidnapped prisoners, extortion for ostensibly “protecting” oil pipelines, and most recently from narcotics sales. A large-scale attack on a public square in 2019 killed nearly two dozen innocent people, wounding over sixty others. The ELN is a terrorist organization that uses lofty rhetoric to justify heinous acts. The ELN’s barbarism is more akin to an ideological holy war, where the ends justify any means, than a social justice movement.

In sum, terrorism is morally illegitimate. It violates the just statecraft principles of legitimate authority, just cause, and right intention. It is not a moral way to change public policy, even in situations of injustice.  Terrorism, as an operational strategy, typically attacks “soft” targets such as civilian population centers. Terrorists actively seek unprotected civilians, private property, and unsecured government locations upon which to wreak havoc. Furthermore, terrorists typically seek haven by hiding within the civilian population. By doing so, they not only violate the principles of ethical combat but they, wittingly or unwittingly, draw civilians into the battlespace. When civilians are killed because terrorists have gone to ground among them, the moral responsibility for those deaths resides, at least in large part, on the terrorist.


9. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The German Churches and the Nazi State,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, accessed July 11, 2022, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-german-churches-and-the-nazi-state.

10. This information was included a letter that Bonhoeffer wrote from America about why he had to go back to Germany.

11. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1954), 64.

12. The classic statement of this is derived from the Third Geneva Convention, Article 4 on prisoners of war.  “Art 4. A. Prisoners of war, in the sense of the present Convention, are persons belonging to one of the following categories, who have fallen into the power of the enemy: 
(1) Members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict, as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces.
(2) Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfil the following conditions:
(a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
(b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
(c) that of carrying arms openly;
(d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.”  Available at: https://www.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/7c4d08d9b287a42141256739003e63bb/6fef854a3517b75ac125641e004a9e68.  Accessed November 11, 2015.

13. See the quoted statement under the Third Geneva Convention, Article 4, A.(2)(a) above.  

14. Cristina Rojas and Judy Meltzer, eds., Elusive Peace: International, National, and Local Dimensions of Conflict in Colombia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Virginia M. Bouvier, ed., Colombia: Building Peace in a Time of War (Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2009).