Wise Words from a German: Osama bin Laden, Bonhoeffer and the Gospel of Jesus

The events of September 11, 2001 define my generation.

I was a senior in High School when the terrorist-driven airplanes hit the World Trade Towers. I will never forget the shock that I felt as the news continued to go from bad to worse. One plane. Two planes. Another hit the Pentagon. One more in Pennsylvania, saved by the last-ditch heroics of the passengers from their destination in the nation’s Capitol. We all remember the broad sweep of emotions. What I remember most was the overwhelming sadness of what we had lost. Anger, too, was building up as we could not process such an unprovoked act of violence. I will never forget those emotions.

A Word from a Wise German

Amidst all the sadness, there is one prayer by a man from Germany that I will never forget. It was not Luther, Niemoller or even Bonhoeffer who prayed. It was an exchange student named Stephan who prayed.

Stephan was living with our pastor and his family, who had a son about our age. My brother and I would give the pastor’s son and Stephan a lift to school in our dad’s ’88 Bronco II. My brother and I had started to get into the blues at the time and we had gotten our hands on a George Thorogood disc. Now, George is known for his drinking songs and that is about it. Stephan, having been brought up on Hefeweizen, would join in the family band, belting out lines like if you don’t start drinking, I’m gonna leave. I have to be honest, most of the fun was drowning out the pious protests of the fourth passenger. I’ll repent for that later, for now, lets get back to the story.

It was the day after the terrorist attacks that our schoolmates gathered at the flagpole to pray. Some prayed for justice to be done. Others prayed for a swift end to any conflict to come. Still others prayed for the families of the victims. For a collection of teenage theologians we were doing a pretty good job, I would say. Then it was Stephan’s turn to lift up his voice. His words stick with me today.

Lord, I pray for those responsible for the attacks. I pray you would be merciful to them. I pray you would forgive them. I pray you would make them your own.

This was a different kind of love. This was something beyond the normal scope of our concern. This was a love reserved for…enemies, for the unloving and the unloved, love for…religious, political and personal adversaries. Stephan’s prayer showed what Bonhoeffer would have called a “distinctly Christian” kind of love. This is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer laid it out:

To the natural man, the very notion of loving his enemies is an intolerable offence, and quite beyond his capacity: it cuts clean across his ideas of good and evil. More importantly still, to man, under the law, the idea of loving his enemies is clean contrary to the law of God, which requires men to sever all convection with their enemies and to pass judgment on them. Jesus, however, takes the law of God I his own hands and expounds its true meaning. The will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them.

Is the Death of Osama bin Laden a Cause for Rejoicing?

Sure, that sounds very spiritual and all, but what if your enemy is really bad, like Benito Mussolini, Pol Pot, or Joseph Stalin? Is there a point that our love for our enemies comes to an end? Can we hear Jesus tell us: love (our) enemies and pray for those who persecute (us) and reinterpret that to mean: hate your enemies and those that persecute you? Can we call ourselves followers of Jesus and take a starkly contrary position to him on such an important matter?

Just the other day President Obama told us that the man behind the tragedies of “9/11” had been killed. “Justice has been done.” We all watched as the crowds around the White House lawn celebrated in familiar chants of “USA, USA”. The past ten years of our men and women- my generation- searching for this rouge had finally come to a conclusion. We can all understand the jubilant, proud chants of victory that seemed to spring up like water from a well of emotion. The word “closure” has been used in nearly every interview from basketball coaches to civic leaders.

These reactions are disturbing as they are natural.

We serve a God who loves his enemies. Yes, hell is a real place. Yes, Jesus said at the end of time that he would lock away anybody who refuses to follow him into hell and throw away the key. Yes, justice is important in the economy of God. We cannot minimize or overlook the real suffering that Osama bin Laden has wreaked on God’s own image-bearers. God will get blood for his evil- either on the cross (we do not know his final thoughts, nor are we his judge) or on his own head. That same standard applies for all of us. We serve a God who destroys his enemies.

This same God has told us time and again that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He desires all men to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth. Jesus loved even Judas, knowing his black heart. Ultimate victory, for God, does not mean that he will dance about the graves of his enemies. The same should apply for us today.

Yes, there is one less evil man in the world today. The problem is that there are still 6 billon of them. The same seed of rebellion that caused Osama bin Laden to murder without cause is inherent in each and every one of us. We are all enemies of God, or have you forgotten Genesis 3? We have declared war on God. He will win. You can go willingly, as a P.O.W. turned servant turned son, or you can go fighting down to your dying breath. Either way, God will win.

Justice and Mercy- The unlikeliest of friends

And so I represent my favorite non-biblical teacher in the right light, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not executed for being a good citizen. He was executed for trying to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The same man who encourages us to defeat our enemies by loving them was not loyal to his principles but to the leading of Jesus. Bonhoeffer, like us, was not called to an ideal innocence. He was called to take on the guilt of others, following the leading of Jesus. And because of this, he did not feel the need to justify his actions. He left that to the will of God.

Life in Christ sometimes bears little resemblance to what we would expect. That is what we get for following  a person instead of a set of rules. There is no prescription in this life- simply a homeless, wandering rogue teacher who calls himself “Healer”. We follow his voice and leave our actions to his judgment. It is like Bonhoeffer said as he awaited his death: The responsible man delivers up himself and his deed to God.

In the end, mercy and justice are not at odds. Our call is to be sober because of justice and rejoice because of mercy.

And we will put our lives in the hands of God.

4 responses to “Wise Words from a German: Osama bin Laden, Bonhoeffer and the Gospel of Jesus”

  1. OK, I admit it. I went to bed PO’d….I mean REALLY PO’d at your mentors’ FB posting after the news of OBL’s death. Why can’t I be happy about “justice” being served? I could easily see that chanting USA USA was as wrong as poking a stick in his dead eyes, but I was home, watching TV and relieved that at least this thug couldnt do any more harm to us.I guess I am still trying to find the right folder to file this is in, and I was kinda waiting for your wise words. Love ya, …u 2 Tal.

  2. Nice post. Tough truth.

  3. Great post. Love the story about Stephen’s prayer in the wake of 9/11! I was sickened at the “Christian” response to Bin Laden’s death. Justice and mercy sure are an unlikely pair in our small minds and hearts but sometimes they can find room on the dancefloor to dance together.

    1. Well-said Gar! So easy to take mercy or justice & forget the other. The middle way is so hard but so true!

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