Osama bin Laden, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and N.T. Wright

I hear you.  How on earth can I justify putting those three names anywhere near each other?  Well, hang with me for a bit - I'm processing the interesting international events that have unfolded over the last few days and this is just how it goes with me!

As the news of Osama bin Laden's demise spread far and wide, I thought of Tom Wright's excellent book Simply Christian.  It's aimed at both everyday Christians trying to make sense of the world around them, and at non-Christians that may wonder why we make all the fuss about Jesus and the Judeo-Christian story.

In Simply Christian, Tom identifies a few universal human traits that he calls "echoes of a voice" - echoes, in fact, of the voice of God.  I thought today of one of those echoes that has many times reverberated off the walls of my heart during the last troubling decade.  That is, the longing for justice.

Tom reasons that our longing for justice - the universal desire we have to see wrongs righted, to see criminals thwarted, to see the innocent protected - is a steadfast pointer to the voice and will of God himself.  These impulses are remnants, he says, of Adam's original vocational call - to steward the Earth and all its inhabitants with wisdom and justice for all.

To me, that's not only brilliant but emotionally satisfying as well.
But I'm also drawn to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's provocative situation and viewpoint as I ponder how the world will respond to bin Laden's death.  For me, Bonhoeffer's Ethics, on which I've written a few times around here, is the gold standard on justice and dealing with evil.  

I have great respect for Bonhoeffer, as do so many Christians, because of the unique perspective (smack in the face of Hitler's Evil) from which he reasoned.  Theorists and practitioners alike pay homage to him because of this.

FYI, World War II began with Bonhoeffer as a pacifist, and ended a few weeks after his execution for helping to plot Hitler's assassination.  

So if you can't stomach a full reading of Ethics (few people can!) in order to understand how the great theologian saw his responsibility to take decisive action in the face of encroaching evil, then watch Tom Cruise's Valkyrie to get the gist of what Bonhoeffer was involved in.  At his death, Bonhoeffer was no simple pacifist!

And so, how do I see the events surrounding bin Laden's death?  Well, I see both Wright's and Bonhoeffer's positions as complements in the appropriate American response to bin Laden's Evil.

In my eyes, I see our longing for justice (Wright) as the prime motivator to take the responsible action (Bonhoeffer) necessary to stop al Qaeda.

Given that we're suspended between the inaugurated but not fully completed Kingdom that Jesus announced in the 1st century, and the fully consummated Kingdom to come that Jesus will bring when he returns - this is the only way in today's broken world to keep Evil from overwhelming the planet.

Please understand that I am not joyous at bin Laden's demise - I'm not giddy and I'm not partying.  No, for me this is one more sober reminder that we are not yet in that great Kingdom that the book of Revelation promises to those that follow Messiah.

But I am pleased to see that human beings still possess the capacity to implement Justice (as temporary, as imperfect and as imprecise as our version 1.0 of it may be).  

And I'm encouraged to hope ever more for Justice, version 2.0 - the reign of Messiah himself coming to planet Earth - where there will be no more sorrow, no more crying and no more pain.  

For on that Day, these former things will have all passed away.


Unknown said...

I was looking around trying to see if NT Wright had posted his thoughts on the week's events when I came across your blog. Thanks for the intelligent, compassionate and biblical expression.

Mike Aleckson said...

And thank you, yacandcrew, for stopping by and for your kind words!

Anabaptist said...

'Given that we're suspended between the inaugurated but not fully completed Kingdom that Jesus announced in the 1st century, and the fully consummated Kingdom to come that Jesus will bring when he returns - this is the only way in today's broken world to keep Evil from overwhelming the planet.'

But it wasn't the way Jesus himself chose, nor that he told his disciples to follow.

He refused the help of twelve legions of angels. He told Peter to put up his sword. He commanded not only neighbour-love, but enemy-love. He said that the way into the kingdom is strait and there are few who go thereby.

And he told his followers that those who would be his disciples must follow in the way of the cross.

The extent to which this ethical stance is to be translated into the public, political realm is debatable. But it is difficult to see how Christian discipleship can be prayed in aid of this revenge killing.

Mike Aleckson said...

Thank you, Anabaptist, for your calm tone in this interesting storm of an issue.

Remarkably, I wrote a post last night dealing with your very point.

I'll sum up a bit of it here.

Taking Jesus and the 12 chosen leaders of his "reconstituted Israel" out of their historical contexts is a common anachronistic mistake for at least two reasons.

Jesus fulfilled a very particular and well-defined role in the history of Israel and the world. His Father advocated the use of force for centuries before him, and Messiah himself will return with unprecedented levels of force when he judges the world and brings his Kingdom.

Yahweh clearly has no problem using force to accomplish his purposes, and Jesus doesn't either as is proven by both the Messianic expectations put forth by the Prophets and by John in Revelation.

So the first problem is one of history and theology.

Second, we have a logical problem. Taken to its logical conclusion, the "straight road" you describe will have few people on it indeed. Because to get on that road, we must allow Evil to murder, rape and torture whomever it will. We must indeed become complicit in Evil acts - not lifting a finger to defend ourselves, our loved ones and the innocent.

In that line of thinking, Hitler should have been allowed to pillage Europe, Asia and the Americas. Instead of merely 14 million victims, he should have been allowed to take the skin of hundreds of millions of people and turn it into lampshades.

No, that position is neither logically nor theologically defensible.

A better question, a better way forward - is to ask "If we are not to turn Jesus's 1st century actions into 'timeless truths', then exactly why did Jesus, during his first advent, advocate peace with the Romans? What was the purpose of his position, at that time, in the context of the fulfillment of his Messianic vocation? Why would Yahweh have no problem with the use of force before Jesus, nor does he have a problem with it at the end of the age - yet he advocates peace with Rome during Jesus's first appearance?".

That's a line of questioning that I believe can provide a viable way forward!

Thank you again, Anabaptist, for your response!

Anabaptist said...

A few responses, Mike, with thanks that you are not getting hysterical or pompous, as so many do when confronting thses issues.

First, the word is 'strait' (as in 'straitjacket', which means constricting. This isn't mere pedantry, but goes to the heart of Jesus's message, namely, it ain't easy following him. It puts tight constraints on our natural thoughts and inclinations. Misreading the word as 'straight' misses the point.

Second, you use the technique of reductio ad Hitlerum (in an unfortunately tasteless way) giving no thought to the causes of Hitler's opinions, rise and popularity, including the unjust Versailles settlement and its reparations, which left a seething sense of injustice in the German people, who sought scapegoats and looked for revenge and return to greatness. WW1 in its turn was the product of violence. And so on: revenge and violence leading to revenge and violence.

Hitler didn't come from nowhere; he came from centuries of Christendom, with its Augustinian hermeneutic of applying the Old Testament to the present day -- a hermeneutic I note you are happy to apply yourself.

At some point the cycle of violent revenge needs to be broken, or it simply goes on and on, getting worse and worse. Redemptive violence is a myth, deep seated in the corrupt human mind. It goes against nature to resist the idea and to follow the path Jesus set by teaching and example.

Which leads to my third response, namely that it is not difficult to neutralise and de-ntaure the teaqchings and example of Jesus by misapplying the 'timeless truths' argument. It is very easy to talk of the sermon on the mount as being idealistic, and setting goals that are not necessarily achieveable. This is simply to avoid the ethical imperatives of the sermon on the mount and instead to follow the wisdom of this world.

The actions ascribed to God in the Old Testament have been a source of deep and prolonged debate from the time of Marcion onwards. The Marcionites adopted one extreme solution to the clear ethical problem (ignore the OT altogether); Augustine adopted the other extreme (incorporate fully the OT into the basis for Christian ethics). So I certainly can't allow you to get away with your 'viable way forward', setting the agenda within Augustinian and Christendom terms.

I find your hermeneutic for the interpretation of the Apocalypse highly questionable, and suggest that you need to think again about the rather simplistic way in which you are applying the Bible.

Maybe consideration of that would be a viable way forward.

Mike Aleckson said...

Thanks for the detailed response, Anabaptist. I will attempt a volley. :)

1) Though I did choose to use the word "straight", I did not misread your word "strait", nor did I miss the intent.

Clearly, I understood your meaning as evidenced by my response, "'the straight road' you describe will have few people on it indeed." Your point is that few will find such a narrow way, and my point is that your way is narrow indeed if it requires us not to defend ourselves under any circumstances, and to let those around us be ravaged as well. I stand by my original assertion.

2) Your use of "reductio ad Hitlerum" is amusing. You are to be commended for your understanding of the foundations of logical thinking, and for your sense of humor. :)

However, I take strong issue with your dismissal of the reductio as "unfortunately tasteless".

Only a person living in affluent (by world standards) conditions would characterize my point in that way. If you were one of the 14 million people brutalized by that monster, or the multiplied millions of their descendants that were affected - I am quite sure you would not question my taste in using the example.

I do not question that there were many factors (some, perhaps, that should have been resisted with force!) involved in Hitler's rise to infamy. However, none of those factors absolve him for his ghastly deeds. Surely you cannot think his actions were warranted based on such factors!?!

And I do not argue for the obfuscatory label "redemptive violence". I merely point out that a reading of the OT, complete with a thorough understanding of the Messianic Hope as expressed from its genesis in I Samuel all the way through the Gospels - does not eschew force, but rather depends on it.

Put simply, the OT clearly depicts Yahweh using force to execute his will, and Revelation says he will do so again. How you can ignore that is beyond my ability to comprehend.

3) I expressly deny ever saying that Messiah's message on the mountain is unattainable. There is ample evidence all over this site that I believe, through the Spirit living inside us, that insofar as it depends on us - the sermon is attainable.

Of course, there are others in the world, some of which wish to rape, pillage, torture and murder. Nowhere in the Sermon are we admonished to allow such Evil to overwhelm the Earth.

That is the essence of the Now and Not Yet structure of Judeo-Christianity that I believe Christian Pacifists miss.

4) I'm afraid that my way forward is indeed the way I'll pursue here on my website. You, of course, are free on your site to chart whatever course you wish.

5) I'm not sure what part of my hermeneutic for interpreting the Kingdom to come and the Judgment which accompanies it is questionable. Most variants of Christianity agree on this.

6) If by "simplistic way" you mean "simple", then I take that as a compliment. I indeed have spent many years trying to see Jesus as an average 1st century Jew likely would have. And I've found such "simple" historical/political applications to be the most helpful.

If, however, by "simplistic way" you are questioning my intelligence, or the sophistication with which I approach the Judeo-Christian story - then I invite you to read more of my posts on this site.

After that, if you still believe me to be simplistic in that derogatory sense, then I shall merely wish you the best in your endeavors, for you must have a very high IQ indeed!

Sincerely - thanks for the interaction, Anabaptist. Peace!


Sam Andrews said...

Let us take a few of Anabaptist's comments in smaller segments....

Anabaptist said...

"WW1 in its turn was the product of violence. And so on: revenge and violence leading to revenge and violence.

Hitler didn't come from nowhere; he came from centuries of Christendom, with its Augustinian hermeneutic of applying the Old Testament to the present day -- a hermeneutic I note you are happy to apply yourself.

At some point the cycle of violent revenge needs to be broken, or it simply goes on and on, getting worse and worse."

Honestly your analysis here could not be more naive or simplistic. The "cycle of revenge" you speak of is exhibit 'A'. The true cycle is not a 'cycle' at all. It is EVIL you speak of, and that has been a continual flow from men and women for thousands of years. Hardly 'cyclic' in nature, revenge is just a few grains of sand in a dump truck of Evil.

Hitler is not a product of Christendom as you falsely claim, or a pawn in the "cyclic cultural revenge" a concept that you pulled from a poorly written textbook. Hitler was a product of evil, abuse, neglect, and his own sinful choices spawned from his false belief systems and abuse of drugs and alcohol. Your naive comments show an utter ignorance of human psychology and a complete lack of the working knowledge of how a young personality is damaged or destroyed beyond hope by generational sins....the gift that keeps on giving. Hardly building blocks made of Christ's teachings.

The best way to deal with evil is to confront it and put a stop to it. Been there and done that, I expect you have not. But Christ has, just ask the folks He drove from the Temple with a scourge. If you have any doubts about the physical impact that violence can have, ask someone you love to whack you with scourge and then tell you how much they "love you".

Anabaptist - Your macro view ignores the micro reality of individual choices. It turns a blind eye to the the true macro view of evil, and fixates on revenge, a photon in the spectrum of earthly evil.

There is no debate about God's natural law, and the consequences of sexual immorality or worshiping multiple false gods, the results of such are historical facts hardly up for debate by educated humans.

Your statement about the reaction of people to "unjust Versailles settlement and the seething sense of injustice" seems to support Mikes point of view as relates to Tom Wright's comments. Perhaps you all agree on something, even if you are not listening.....

Mike Aleckson said...

Interesting, Sam. I'm intrigued by your rejection of the common argument for a "cycle of retribution".

You see it as a more or less linear cascade of evil, punctuated by "a few grains" of righteous and just acts.

I think your characterization is revolutionary, and appropriate.