Dietrich Bonhoeffer — “When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it . . . Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.” – Ethics
“There is hardly anything that can make one happier than to feel that one counts for something with other people. What matters here is not numbers, but intensity. In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life; the modern ‘efficient’ man can do nothing about human relationships. God uses us in his dealings with others. Everything else is very close to hybris. Of course, one can cultivate human relationships all to consciously in an attempt to mean something to other people . . . ” — Letters and Papers from Prison
I still remember BlackHawk Down. The images beamed back from half-way around the world of locals dancing with joy around the dead bodies of U.S. soldiers. We rightly recoiled in horror.
Last Monday, President Barak Obama announced that U. S. Special Forces troops located and killed Osama bin Laden, and there was partying in our streets. After all these years, I’m still not sure what to think about our actions in response to 9/11/01. Something had to be done. And we hope that what has been done will deter others from following in his footsteps. But I am troubled. And we knew this could not end, if it ever does, without some moral ambiguity.
I have had a few conversations with various of you this week about how disturbing the response by some has been to this particular death. We have seen images of people dancing in the streets. I heard an interview of a Port Authority Police officer, who lost so many on that day, expressing surprise if his son who lived in constant fear for his father’s life, were not out partying at ground zero.
While a highly emotional response is not surprising, nearly ten years after suffering the attacks of 2001, this man’s death is not an occasion for joy and delight.
I would argue that there are times when taking a human life is justifiable. There are times when ending one person’s life seems likely to prevent greater harm. But as Christians, we must never forget that taking another life is the “lesser of two evils.” Those of us who take part in such actions (whether we bear arms or pay for others to do so), must undertake them with profound thoughtfulness and deep humility. Before God, we may only hope for grace.
Here on these Sundays after Easter we look to a man who was so profoundly important to the lives of so many people, that after the empire of Rome took his life on charges of insurrection, his message of peace and hospitality did not diminish, but grew – so that when they came across a stranger, they shared bread and called the experience of God, they offered words of peace, even in frightening spaces – and discovered their enemy was a human. The God they bore witness to in those frightening moments, overcomes boundaries and fears, so that we can say now, “even death itself.”
I am not telling you today how to think about this. As I hope I do not ever tell you how to think. I am telling you that a Christian response is not necessarily an easy response. If we assume that the message of Jesus is a presupposition for thinking, not only about church life, but about living in general, then we can at least acknowledge that it is a great challenge to live our lives with the integrity and decency and above all love that Jesus showed even to those who would kill him — to live as though we have overcome even death itself and be able to say — “Peace.”
It is no accident that the early followers of Jesus called their new religion, not Christianity, but “The Way” It is easier, when the journey is difficult, if the journey itself becomes the goal – if instead of the means justifying the ends, the ends become the new means in an every expanding experience of new life. In this way, our lives are lived, in each moment according to our better angels, and the temptation to join the crowds who dance around his corpse is resisted and called what it is – a self-defeating exercise in retribution.
One of the great heroes of the Christian faith is the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who agonized over whether or not to join a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. His dilemma was not over whether Hitler should be removed from power – that was clear. His dilemma was over whether he personally could , as a follower of this Way, join in a plot to end the life of another human being as a means to achieve that end. Bonhoeffer eventually did take part in that action, was caught by the Nazis, and lost his life on the gallows of a concentration camp. He remained convinced that he had done the right thing. But it was an action he thought he had to take, not an action that he wanted to take; not an action that provided him with any joy.
Where do we go from here? What do we say about these things? Like any thinking about ourselves in relation to the world, to say nothing of God – we must begin with humility. Ten years later, and I cannot say with any real peace of mind, how we ought to have reacted. It seems quite clear that the mastermind of terrorism activities around the world, not just in our country, has been stopped. We grieve the world in which we live where acts of terrorism must be met with acts of violence. But let us not join in the refrain that we have so often heard from our president and others – that nothing can stop us.
It is hard to hear the word of peace from a stranger and discover in her the very presence of God. And that, my friends, is our task – it is what it means to find our life in Christ. It is what it means to affirm that we are all children of God.
May we have the humility and the grace to live into this gift, that we need not lift arms of war, anymore. Amen.