I just read Strange Glory, a biography of Dietrick Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and minister who was part of the German underground that attempted to kill Hitler. (I got a free review copy from speakeasy.net; I wasn’t paid for a review, blah blah blah.) Bonhoeffer was only peripherally involved in the plot to kill Hitler, and in fact advised a high-placed officer not to kill Hitler until they had a better plan for what happened afterward. Still, Bonhoeffer travelled a long way from his earlier pacificism.
It’s easy to hate Nazis. Nazis make moral complexities simple — they’re evil, kill them. But the history of people killing for God is a long and ugly one, and it’s still playing out today.
Strange Glory was uncritically supportive, not to say fawning, of Bonhoeffer’s moral choices. But the Nazis thought they were on God’s side, too — in fact, their belt buckles said “God With Us.” The bombers in Paris thought they were doing God’s work, as did the shooter at the Planned Parenthood clinic. Probably the people burning black churches (yes, this year, not the ancient Jim Crow past) thought they were doing God’s work.
And, of course, the Bible is full of stories about killing for God.
We like killing for God. It makes us feel good. Strong. Righteous. Smite the evildoers. Kick some butt. Bring ’em on!
But what, really, is the difference between righteous anger and cruelty? Both make us feel good about hurting others. Having enemies is such a seductive solution. Not only are all the problems located in them, but we get to vent our aggressions — and feel blessed for doing so. Because “they” — whoever they are — aren’t quite like us. Not quite human. Not quite real. They’re monsters, animals, devils.
But I have a monster in me, too. I have my very own predator, my own killer. I have enemies I’d like to see strung up on the White House lawn. (For me, they are the greedy corporate lords and their lackeys in Congress.) There’s a part of me that wants nothing more than to dance on their graves. Because they’re Just Plain Evil. No good in them. Not like me. Other. Different. Less.
But they aren’t. They’re people just like me. And so are the Paris bombers, and the church burners and ISIS, and the Nazis.
Is it ever right to kill our enemies? Is there such a thing as a just war? Are there enemies so evil that it’s a moral imperative to slaughter them?
This is a difficult and complex question. But our propensity to form enemies, scapegoats, and blame them for our problems is so pronounced, and so poorly checked, that I start from a place of assuming that we almost always commit some evil in our enemy formation process. We dehumanize, we glory in our cruelty, we blame others for what we’re unwilling to see in ourselves.
I am deeply troubled by the reversion to tribalism and enemy formation in world politics. Terrorism is a tool used by governments — including ours — as well as ISIS and “lone wolves.” This issue informs — poisons — every level of our culture, from police killing unarmed black men to Donald Trump wanting to block all Musims from entering our country.
It was only when Bonhoeffer was in prison, utterly powerless, that he was able to truly embrace the beauty of life. Power clouds the mind. So does privilege, and fear, and hate.
Jesus tells us to love our enemies. There is nothing in our enemies that isn’t already in us. When we hate, we hate ourselves. When we kill, we kill a piece of our own soul. It’s loving that is painful and difficult. But that’s where we grow. That’s how we heal.
Killing Hitler didn’t help Bonhoeffer. Loving God, loving his enemies, did.