Last night I woke up somewhere between 1-2 am, and as usual, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I tend to grab my phone to check the time and then hop on Facebook for a few minutes. Of course, it only took me a matter of seconds once I opened up my Facebook application to see the news spattered across my newsfeed that Osama bin Laden had been killed. My first gut response was, “Good!” but then as I read various people’s reactions to the news, I started to more seriously consider this piece of news and its implications. There is no doubt that this is a significant moment in American history. This is a man who has reveled in the atrocities of the world and has cast a dark cloud of terror over the past decade. The world is probably better off without him. And yet, is this moment a call for celebration, or is it a moment in which we come to recognize and grieve over the absolute brokenness of our world? Is this a moment for Christians to rejoice, or a moment for Christians to pray and work towards the day when God’s peace will reign, when the lion will lay down with the lamb, when death will be no more?
I’ll be honest and say that a question that I perpetually struggle with and will likely struggle with until the day I die is the place and use of violence in our world, especially for Christians. My senior thesis in college sought to answer this question, and it drove my Masters thesis at St. Andrews. I’ve spent hours upon hours writing on this topic and many more hours reading about it and thinking on it and wrestling with it, and will continue to do so. With that said, I believe that the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers us some wisdom during this significant moment of American history. Please bear with me, this may be a longer post that usual, but I think it is a topic that needs careful consideration and faithful reflection.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who lived and worked during the reign of the Third Reich of Nazi Germany. He has been celebrated by many as a martyr for the faith, being one who spoke out and acted against the inhumane acts committed by the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer, from the beginning, had strongly rooted beliefs in non-violent resistance. He stood firmly in line with the long tradition of Christian pacifism. Nonetheless, as the atrocities of the Third Reich continued, he found himself drawn in to the underground political resistance and took part in two assassination attempts on Hitler’s life. How did Bonhoeffer make this move from pacifism to actively trying to take a life? Did his ethics change? Were his actions justified? Is violence ever ok in the eyes of God? These are all questions that help frame our response as Christians to the death of Osama bin Laden.
In his essay, “The Church and the People of the World,” Bonhoeffer focuses on the idea that God has commanded peace among his people and his Church. Bonhoeffer saw it as the primary responsibility of Christians to keep this command, and he saw two possible responses to it: 1) to strive always to live into peace or
2) the hypothetical question of the serpent: “Yeah, hath God said…?” This question is the mortal enemy of all real peace. “Has God not said? Has God not understood human nature well enough to know that wars must occur in this world, like laws of nature? Must God not have meant that we should talk about peace, to be sure, but also make ready tanks and poison gas for security?” And then perhaps the most serious question: “Did God say that you should not protect your own people? Did God say that you should leave your own prey to the enemy?
For Bonhoeffer, the only response was the first response, to strive towards that ultimate peace. Peace lies in the hands of God rather than in weapons and in violence. The way of peace is not one of security, but of one that leads to the cross. This is the peace that God demands. If evil does not meet the resistance that it expects, it will eventually run itself to a standstill. Violence that fails to evoke violence in return fails. (He explores this more in his most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, which is a book every follower of Christ should read). But how does a man who holds to this belief come to the point of trying to take another man’s life?
One thing that Bonhoeffer did not do was to retreat from the reality of the world. For years he attempted to work through the means of non-violent resistance. For years he led a resistance movement within the German church, attempting to jam a spoke in the wheel of the Third Reich. But those efforts did not make much difference and the Nazi machine continued to commit worsening atrocities as Hitler pushed across Europe and sent more and more Jews, gypsies, and others to concentration camps. Bonhoeffer came to a point where he started to feel the need to move towards other forms of resistance. Nonetheless, he continued to remember that “those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Even though Bonhoeffer was making this move towards a more violent resistance, he still saw these actions as always subject to judgment from God. Bonhoeffer became a double agent in the Abwehr, an underground political movement that was seeking to overthrow Hitler and the Third Reich. Outwardly, he appeared to support Hitler, but in reality he was an information gatherer to further the efforts of overthrowing Hitler. Eventually, these efforts still proved not enough, and he took part in two unsuccessful assassination attempts on Hitler’s life. Bonhoeffer was arrested shortly thereafter, not for these attempts, but for his participation in “Operation 7,” which was an initiative to smuggle a group of Jews out of Germany. While Bonhoeffer was in prison, his participation in the assassination attempts were uncovered, and it was for this that he was hanged.
I share all of these details to lead up to this point, which I think is crucial: Bonhoeffer did not see his actions of violence as a good under any circumstances. Instead, they were only a lesser evil than the evils being perpetuated by Hitler and his regime. Bonhoeffer knew that if he took up the sword that he would perish by the sword, and he did not try to deny this. Even through this difficult decision, Bonhoeffer knew that assassination was not something that God could approve of, but nonetheless, because he had such a strong sense of social responsibility, he felt that he had no choice but to sacrifice himself and immerse himself in the world and the ways of the world in this particular instance. But he says these words that are certainly also for us today, at this moment of history:
Before other people, the man of free responsibility is justified by necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience; but before God he hopes only for grace.
I recognize that the death of bin Laden is welcomed by many. I understand that some people who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks might be feeling some sense of closure or justice. I myself feel a bit of relief at the news. I certainly remember my sheer horror, anger, and grief as I watched the events of 9/11 unfold, and I have not forgotten. I do not forget the great sacrifices our military men and women make each day to prevent things like that from happening again on our soil. I do not deny that the bin Laden’s death may have been a necessary evil, and a lesser evil than the evils he perpetuated, but it is still an evil just the same. If Bonhoeffer’s witness has any truth to offer us, it is this: violence and killing are never something that God desires. Our actions may be justified before our fellow human beings, they may be justified before our own consciences, but they will never be seen as a true good before God. I am thankful that we do have the hope of God’s grace, but every act of violence, every act of killing, even if we believe it is justified, requires us to go before God with truly repentant hearts.
As I look at news articles and videos from around our country responding to the death of bin Laden, and the celebratory fervor that is taking place, I understand something of the sentiment, but find the gleeful abandon very troubling. Yes, it was at the hands of this man that thousands of our citizens were killed. Yes, it was at the hands of this man that sons lost fathers, husbands lost wives, parents lost children. Yes, he has caused grief for some beyond which I am able to imagine. Yes, this man committed evil acts and rejoiced in atrocities. Yet I can’t help but find this truth continue to nag at me: for Christians, the only death worth celebrating is the one that takes away the sin of the world.