Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a well regarded German theologian who became known as an opponent of the Nazis during the rise of German nationalism in the 1930s. It was in those dark years that Bonhoeffer organized various religious forces in opposition to Hitler’s policies but gradually, over time, resistance among clergy and laity waned as the days grew more dangerous.
One German pastor is an example of this attitude among churches. Hermann Gruner sounded all too much like a modern day evangelical Trumpian when he stated: ‘It is because of Hitler that Christ, God the helper and redeemer, has become effective among us. … Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the Church of Christ.’
Another pastor of the time was less wordy but just as blind: ‘Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.’
Christians so impassioned by their nationalism and politics that we are left with little doubt as to where their allegiance and hope really was.
As the church slid more and more into bed with the fascist government, Bonhoeffer desperately moved from being a pacifist to a more aggressive attitude where he even worked for the German Secret Service as a double agent in order to smuggle Jews out of his country.
Bonhoeffer was later involved (though not directly) in a failed plot on Hitler’s life. The attempted assassination was made even worse because Hitler used its failure as ‘proof’ of God’s protection and favour.
When Bonhoeffer later reflected on how a pacifist could be involved in an attempt to kill someone, his response was that he had wrestled with it but he eventually decided it was less of an evil than standing aside while Hitler gained power. Ultimately he knew that God understood his heart and he was willing to rest his actions in the grace of God.
As the war was ending, an order was given for Bonhoeffer to be executed. A doctor in the prison witnessed his hanging and commented that he had never seen someone die so prayerfully and so peacefully.
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‘So, are you saying that my grandfather was wrong for volunteering to fight in the war?’
‘Do you think it’s wrong to serve in the military?’
‘Would you just quietly stand by if someone attacked your country and was threatening your life and freedom?’
‘Would you just stand by if someone broke into your house and let them assault your family?’
These are typical arguments people have against pacifism: it’s not practical, not courageous, not respectful. Without addressing those individually let me say that none of them are simple questions. The good news is that God is gracious, whatever our response, but it still doesn’t change anything: the world wants and needs us to be people of grace and peace.
As I said at the beginning of this series, I very much respect those who have fought for our freedom. Especially those factory workers, bricklayers, shopkeepers and anyone who volunteered to do what they believed was right and stormed the beaches. As well as the powerful coalition of people who stayed at home and contributed from behind the lines. These were valiant everyday people of conviction.
And I don’t know how I would act if someone broke into my home. I think my instincts would be to find a non-confrontational way but ultimately I suspect I would resort to aggression if needed. It’s even possible that something inside of me would trigger and the violence would get out of hand.
The good news is that Jesus knows very well how human we are. So if (when) we fail – if I fail – to make peace, there is still safety in the understanding and grace of God.
Nevertheless peace must be our goal because violence is awful. We believe in peace because aggression never truly brings resolution but rather causes new kinds of violence. Ultimately we believe in peace because Jesus says that’s how we are to live.
Our culture is very combative from road rage to politicians to violent video games and movies. Even many homes are not peaceful and our children grow up never having learned the art of negotiation or relationship. People I know on social media often cross the line from expressing their political beliefs to angrily talking over their opponent. Closed minds, waiting to trap and ‘Aha!’ each other.
These too are wars in need of grace and peace.
As I was writing this, the news reported a mass shooting in Virginia Beach. To date, twelve people have died in addition to the gunman who succumbed to his wounds on the way to the hospital.
Once again I am reminded of how hollow anger and violence are – they produce nothing but more anger, violence and immeasurable pain.
Once again the White House lowered their flags to half-mast and once again everyday citizens mourned. Oddly, the country with by far the most guns and soldiers in the world remains the only one unable to stop regular mass violence. Powerless in their power. Rotting from the inside out.
But this series isn’t about our good friends and neighbours south of the border and you don’t need me to tell you that war is a bad thing. These posts have actually been about blind tribalism, the temptation of power and misplaced trust in human wisdom. Mostly it’s about the danger of Christians placing their priorities and their hope in their country rather than in Jesus.
In Ancient Rome there were religious professionals called augurs who observed natural signs (especially the activity of birds) to discern the will of the gods. The first emperor Romulus is said to have been chosen this way. The eagle was admired by the Romans because of its strength, grace and skill and so it was selected as the symbol of their empire. The god Jupiter divinely selected the new emperor by sending an eagle to land on the next chosen Caesar.
When Jesus came along, God’s approval at his baptism was described as a dove descending on him – symbolic of the Spirit of God: gentle, fragile, peaceful. It was a Kingdom in contradiction to the ways of the empire and it would have been obvious to everyone.
Something tells me that Jesus would come into direct conflict with our nationalism and our church leaders if he was here today.
Peace isn’t a new idea; it’s just a difficult idea.
And it’s a worthwhile idea because it’s a divine idea.
Our hope – our only hope – is not in politics, legislation, militarism or empire. Rather our hope is in the ways of peace and love: the dove and the Lamb. It is about Christians and our responsibility to begin to transform this place back into a garden.
Let me leave you with this vision that the writer of Revelation shared with us. It’s a word picture of the Kingdom that God will bring on our earth some day. The world we all wish for, hope for, wait for. The world that people of faith practice in the now.
Come, Lord Jesus.
So he took me in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.
I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there. And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city. Nothing evil will be allowed to enter, nor anyone who practices shameful idolatry and dishonesty—but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.
No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever.
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 (NLT)