Bonhoeffer and bin Laden: Why we can’t rejoice

Bonhoeffer and bin Laden: Why we can’t rejoice

Bonhoeffer and bin Laden

Why we can’t rejoice

By Andrew Zirschky

It is ironic that exactly a week after Christians in America were overcome with the emotion of Easter, that they were overcome again Sunday night with emotion concerning the death of another man.  This time a Muslim.  This one far less likely to rise from the dead.  This one reviled instead of worshipped.

Human emotion is a curious thing, and I was curious to watch my Twitter feed late Sunday evening change in tenor like a plastic mood ring.  When the news broke of the death of Osama bin Laden, the web erupted in a display of emotion.  First, confusion, then disbelief, then relief.  And then came the rejoicing.  That caught me off guard.  Maybe the emotions we all felt caught us off guard.  I soon had a message in my inbox from one of our CYMT graduate residents: “I think it is interesting to ask, ‘What is the Christian response to this?'” she wrote, “because in so doing it makes you realize that your initial thoughts aren’t Christian at all.”

What should American Christians think and feel at the news that a man, a human being, has been hunted and assassinated under the direct orders of our president?

Mixed emotions and mixed thoughts are appropriate, and I am more comforted by those who do not know how to respond than I am by those who waved flags, shouted joyfully into the night, and toasted the death of Osama with glasses held high.  I’m uncomfortable with the latter, not because I am a Muslim, or a supporter of terrorism, but because I am a Christian.

In sorting through appropriate responses for American Christians, I believe we might find help in the words and actions of German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the height of World War II.  An avowed pacifist, Bonhoeffer nevertheless found himself embroiled in an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler.  The plot was discovered, he was arrested in 1943, and hanged by the Nazi regime as the war was coming to an end.

Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, left incomplete at his death, provides helpful theological thought about violence in the face of horrendous evil.  Bonhoeffer took the interesting stand of proclaiming actions such as those he agreed to participate in against Hitler as unrighteous but responsible, sinful and yet without better option.  Bonhoeffer did not rejoice at the prospect of killing, rather he mourned, admitted the sinfulness of the undertaking, and reserved all judgment of such actions for God. “In the extraordinary situation Bonhoeffer found himself in, he felt compelled to act as he did, but only with a profound sense of ethical humility,” says pastor and theologian Mark Brocker. [1]

In Ethics, Bonhoeffer argued for extraordinary situations in which none of the options available for action or inaction could avoid guilt, unrighteousness and sin. On such rare occasions, says Bonhoeffer, we may find ourselves in a place where we must not “decide simply between right and wrong and between good and evil, but between right and right and between wrong and wrong.” [2] In those times, both action and inaction lead to evil.  The tragedy of our world is the evil into which we are drawn, even when we hope to remain aloof.  This is why we as Christians cry for divine salvation.  Human action is not enough to combat the evil that persists in our world and in our own hearts.  As one commentator on Bonhoeffer has said, “Tyrannicide is sinful even if it is the least sinful option remaining.” [3]

Whether or not we can consider the murder of bin Laden as one of these extraordinary situations is certainly up for debate.  But whether you believe it was necessary or gratuitous, Bonhoeffer would say to us all that “ultimate ignorance of one’s own goodness or evil, together with dependence upon grace, is an essential characteristic of responsible historical action.” [4]

But what’s interesting in situations such as the murder of bin Laden is that we are so sure of the goodness of our actions.  “We are quick to pronounce ethical judgments or to baptize our personal political views as God’s will,” says Brocker, commenting on Bonhoeffer. [5]  Indeed, that’s where many Americans, and many Christians, rushed to last night.  And Bonhoeffer, who lived through such decisions (decisions that seem in the light of history more clear cut than the assassination of bin Laden) would remind us that the only proper response is ethical humility, acceptance of our guilt, and prayer for God’s grace.

Bonhoeffer would say that those who rejoice at the death of bin Laden and proclaim the actions of the United States as just do so based upon ideology.  They “consider themselves justified by their idea” but “those who act responsibly place their action into the hands of God and live by God’s grace and judgment.” [6]  In other words, there is no room for bravado and rejoicing at the assassination of bin Laden, there is only room for humility, and the pleading of God’s grace in light of our actions.  This surely seems strange in view of the crimes committed by bin Laden, and yet, Scripture reminds us that we all stand guilty before God. “There is no one good, not even one,” the apostle Paul reminds us quoting the Psalmist (Romans 3:12).

Human actions that claim to be truth and to correspond to reality are lies and deceptions.  Bonhoeffer was unflinching on this point even contending that dogmatic assertions of any action as good or evil were “pretensions and hypocrisy.” [7]  Attempts to judge one’s actions results in irresponsible action, whereas responsible action “renounces any knowledge about its ultimate justification.” [8]

For Bonhoeffer, the Christian attempts to live life by God-given discernment doing what discernment tells him that Christ would do, and yet without certainty that Christ indeed would do such a thing.  While we might find guidance from God, our decisions are human decisions made within the boundaries of human reason and action.  Therefore, says Bonhoeffer, human action “can never prematurely judge its own origin, essence, and goal, but must completely surrender such judgment to God.” [9]

It is ethical arrogance that leads us to rejoice in death.  Whether you believe that responsible action should have led us to the murder of bin Laden, or whether you believe responsible action would have kept us from this, Bonhoeffer calls for a Christian response that is sober, even mournful, as it recognizes my guilt, our guilt, and the guilt of others.

Where Bonhoeffer leaves us is with ignorance at to the goodness of our actions, he calls us toward humility in those actions, ownership of both repentance and guilt in the midst of those actions, and utter dependence upon God’s grace to judge our actions. There is no room for rejoicing.

Article was originally posted at www.YMtoday.com

[1] Mark S. Brocker, “Bonhoeffer’s Appeal for Ethical Humility” online at http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/August-2003/Bonhoeffers-Appeal-for-Ethical-Humility.aspx
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Fortress Press, 2005), 245.
[3] Eric Meyer, “Violence and Disciples: Bonhoeffer on Resistance and Responsibility,” Regent College, unpublished paper, April 10, 2007. Accessed at: http://ericdarylmeyer.files.wordpress.com/2007/04/final-paper.doc
[4] Ethics, 268.
[5] Brocker, “Bonhoeffer’s Appeal for Ethical Humility.”
[6] Ethics, 268.
[7] Ibid., 314.
[8] Ibid., 268.
[9] Ibid., 267.

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