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.