Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Time is the most valuable thing we have, because it is the most irrevocable. The thought of any lost time troubles us whenever we look back. Time lost is time in which we have failed to live a full human life, gain experience, learn, create, enjoy, and suffer. It is time that has not been filled up, but left empty.”
This quote implies questions we bring to religious community to examine. What are we to do with the gift of this day? How shall we live so that we do not squander the irrevocable gift of time? What does it mean to live well and how ought we to find a balance between experience, learning, creation, enjoyment, and suffering?
Bonhoeffer also wrote, “The capacity to forget is a gift of grace. But so too, memory, the recalling of lessons we have learnt, is also a part of responsible living.”
Religious community is a community of memory and tradition. What have we forgotten and what ought we to remember? Which lessons from the past teach us about responsible living today?
Come, you questioning, seeking, discovering souls! Come into this place of honesty and discovery, of challenge and hope.
You can tell what kind of Sunday morning it is going to be by what I wear. When the focus is on the sermon as the central spiritual moment of the service I usually just wear a suit. It makes me look like a Baptist. When ritual has a more important role I wear my preaching robe and stole. I get to look like a priest. But, when I wear my robe and academic hood, as I am this morning, you can expect that I am going to present you with something more academic and intellectually centered.
This morning, the singular goal of the sermon is to cause you to consider a challenging question, an important question, an uncomfortable question. I am going to ask you to go with me to a place that is intense intellectually and emotionally. I am going to ask you to go to a dark place with me. It is neither my expectation nor my hope that you agree or disagree with me. It is my hope that you find these ideas provocative.
At the Academy Awards next Sunday one of the most mentioned films will be Inglourious Basterds, a film that has received eight nominations, including a nomination for Best Picture. Inglourious Basterds is directed by Quentin Tarantino, a polarizing figure even by Hollywood standards. His films tend to garner mixed critical acclaim at the same time that Tarantino is widely vilified for the graphic violence that appears in his movies. Torture, vengeance, and other forms of calculated violence are frequent themes that run through his films, from Reservoir Dogs to Pulp Fiction to Kill Bill. And, Inglorious Basterds contains as much violence, if not more, than any of his previous films, but this time the violence was received much more positively by the critics. This positive reception has to do, I believe, with the fact that Nazis are at the receiving end of the violence. In this film Brad Pitt plays Aldo Raine, a man with a Southern accent and Native American blood, who leads a Jewish-American special operations unit behind enemy lines in Nazi occupied France. This unit ambushes groups of Nazis whom they kill and scalp. No brutality is spared. In another plot line, a theater owner in Paris (Melanie Laurent) who witnesses her parents’ death at the hands of the German SS keeps her Jewish identity a secret and plans to burn down her theater when Hitler attends the opening of one of Goebbels’ propaganda films.
You could argue that Tarantino’s movie is just a movie. But it is interesting to me how the film has been received. More than one critic resorted to rhyme, writing that film possesses a “gory glory,” or some blending of the words “gore” and “glorious.” The response to the film by Jewish critics has been especially divided. Some have praised it as “transcendent.” Others have said the film basically turns Jews into Nazis. But, let’s leave the land of the theater, the land of fantasies violent or otherwise, and enter the world of reality.
In the real world of history attempts were made to assassinate Hitler, though without Tarantino’s theatrical fanfare. German theologian and clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a leading member of the Confessing Church which opposed the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer was also an active player in plotting a conspiracy to kill Hitler. For his role in the resistance he was arrested, imprisoned, and was later executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp.
Over the past month I have read Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison and also some of his theological works. In divinity schools Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological writings remain popular among religious liberals and religious conservatives alike. In Westminster Abbey a statue honoring Bonhoeffer as a martyr of the Twentieth Century stands alongside statues honoring Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero. Like King and Romero, Bonhoeffer died living out his faith to the best of his ability. Unlike King and Romero, Bonhoeffer expressed his faith by plotting violence.
I bring up Dietrich Bonhoeffer for a reason. If there was ever an example of violence that we would think of as right, as justified, it would be hard to come up with a better example than Bonhoeffer’s attempted assassination of Hitler.
It is possible to argue that Bonhoeffer’s actions were right. But can we also call them righteous? Is there ever glory in what is gory? I invite you to step inside Bonhoeffer’s theological world and listen to his own words: “When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it...Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace."
One author describes Bonhoeffer’s theology this way, “[Bonhoeffer belived that a] Christian must be prepared, if necessary, to offer his life for this. Thus all kinds of secular totalitarianism which force man to cast aside his religious and moral obligations to God and subordinate the laws of justice and morality to the State are incompatible with his conception of life.”
In other words, Bonhoeffer stops short of saying that by choosing to try to kill he is following the will of God. Instead, he says he is following the dictates of his own conscience. It is a spiritual decision. He believes that being obedient to his religious sense and to his conscience justifies violation of the laws of the State.
Well, we live in a world where a lot of people believe that God tells them to kill or who say that their act of violence is religiously justifiable. This describes members of Al Qaeda and suicide bombers. It describes the man who shot Dr. George Tiller and every shooter or bomber who has ever terrorized a women’s health care clinic. It describes members of our government who believe that they are chosen by God and that this chosen status means they are immune from error. In a way it also describes the Timothy McVeighs of the world as well as the man who last week flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas.
Theologically, morally, what do we do with someone who decides to kill, whether this person believes he has been given clear instructions from God or whether he, in Bonhoeffer’s words, decides to “take guilt on himself”? So far, this has all been very theoretical and speculative. I want to bring it into this room.
I want to share with you a story from only a few years ago. Early in my ministry I went on a retreat with several seasoned ministers who were well-versed in the history of our movement. At one point during the discussion on the first evening the subject of Fred Phelps came up. Making reference to the history of our movement, one of my colleagues spoke. “You know what we would have done back in the day?” one of the wizened ministers asked rhetorically, “We would have found somebody and paid them to burn his church to the ground. And, if he tried to build it again, we’d have it burned to the ground a second time.”
This comment made me a little uncomfortable. But, to be completely honest with you, back in the day this was exactly what many Unitarians would have done. It is what they did do. From the late 1700s to almost the present day, Unitarians used the influence and power born of their religious connections for all sorts of things, including violence. Here in Kansas, John Brown’s funders were a group of influential New England Unitarian clergy and their connected congregants. Five of John Brown’s “Secret Six” were Unitarians. They not only funded John Brown here in Kansas but armed him for his raid on Harper’s Ferry as he attempted to overthrow the United States government.
Or, consider the life of William Howard Taft, who served as Secretary of War under Teddy Roosevelt, as President of the United States from 1909 to 1913, and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1921 to 1930. Between his Presidency and his time serving as Chief Justice, Taft served as the moderator of the American Unitarian Association. Taft’s presidency is not remembered for being particularly effective, but he did distinguish himself as an advocate for world peace which he pursued through internationalism, arbitration, and treaties. That is, of course, if we don’t count his invasion of another country and overthrow of its government. When Nicaragua threatened to try to build its own canal connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific, Taft dispatched naval warships to seize coastal cities, exile the Nicaraguan President to Mexico, and set up a US approved government. This began a 22 year military occupation of Nicaragua’s ports. As President of the American Unitarian Association, Taft punished Unitarian ministers who opposed US intervention in World War I and revoked the fellowship of pacifist ministers.
While Taft’s persecution of pacifist ministers looks really bad today, he served our movement during an era when it was far from a foregone conclusion that Unitarian ministers would speak out against war. (Today, if you kicked out ministers critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan you wouldn’t have a whole lot of UU ministers left.)
So, what do we make out of knowledge that our Unitarian forebears did things like hire arsonists to take care of elements in their community they didn’t care for? John Brown was not an isolated incident. If you scratch the history a little bit, you find many examples of Unitarians sending somebody to knock on some heads. The mentors of those ministers at the retreat and the mentors of their mentors served during a time when a German pastor attempted to assassinate Hitler. Ours is a young nation and you do not need to go back too many generations to find Unitarian ministers and lay people who hung out with John Brown’s “Secret Six.” In fact, Unitarians of the day were extremely fond of John Brown. Louisa May Alcott wrote a poem in honor of John Brown entitled, “With the rose that bloomed on the day of John Brown’s martyrdom.” Amos Alcott honored John Brown with a sonnet that declared that Brown sits next to the throne of God, exalted as the Messiah of the slaves. Lydia Maria Child wrote a poem in Brown’s honor as did Edmund Hamilton Sears. Julia Ward Howe, whom we remember for her pacifism, penned several poems praising John Brown. In one poem, entitled "The First Martyr," Howe touches her pregnant belly and gives thanks that her unborn child will be born into a world that John Brown helped make better. [These poems and more can be found here and here.]
Today I would guess that we would react more negatively than positively to John Brown, though I am sure we could find people willing to argue both sides. I would also guess that we could find people willing to argue both sides of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though I doubt too many of us would categorically reject his attempt to assassinate Hitler.
So, why not hire an arsonist to burn down Fred Phelps’ church? I cannot say for certain that my senior colleagues were daring me to do just that. I cannot say for certain that they were seriously proposing it. From the feeling in the room, I doubt many of them would have shed a tear. Just for the record, let me say that I think that it would be a bad idea to set fire to the Westboro Baptist Church. For one thing, we would not want someone to burn down our church because they disagreed with us. For another thing, I do not believe that doing things that might generate sympathy for Phelps is a good idea. So, clearly and for the record, I am not suggesting or recommending or advising that any of us commit or conspire to commit arson. Are we clear on that?
But, is there a time when it is right to kill? Is violence ever justified? Besides the example of Bonhoeffer, one might point to more recent examples of genocide. Should the United Nations send more units to Darfur to protect Sudanese refugees? Should the United Nations or the United States have acted more quickly to stop the genocide in Rwanda that may have killed as many as one million people?
U.N. Peacekeeping forces operate under the philosophy of not firing unless fired upon, but using weapons as a deterrent is still a form of violence. And, it is a form of violence that I would expect many of would find acceptable in certain circumstances. Perhaps we could argue that violence in self-defense or in defense of the defenseless can be acceptable. If I am Dietrich Bonhoeffer do I join the Confessing Church in Germany? Yes, I do. If I am a member of the U.N. Security Council, do I advocate for forces to be deployed in order to protect Sudanese refugees from violence? Yes, I do. If I am Bill Clinton, do I send soldiers to Rwanda on a mission to save helpless people from a brutal death? Yes, I do.
Those are my honest answers. You can feel free to disagree with me. I would tend to agree with Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”
But, if I choose to be responsible and not to extricate myself, as Bonhoeffer puts it, I have put myself in a precarious place. If I believe that it is worthy to protect Sudanese refugee camps, then why not attack a group of Janjaweed militants as they move towards villages in Darfur? And why not attack the Sudanese government in Khartoum that sponsors the Janjaweed militias? If Hitler, who else? If Rwanda and Sudan, where else? At what point to you hire an arsonist? Where do you draw the line?
We should rightly be afraid that justifying some acts of violence can lead to the rationalization of much greater brutality. In his book The End of Faith, atheist author Sam Harris draws a line that I find unconscionable. He argues for all out nuclear war against the Islamic countries, even if the cost is the lives of “tens of millions of people in a single day.” Harris writes,
“If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or [even] what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own… It may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.”Perhaps what I am describing is the proverbial slippery slope. If you are willing to justify violence in some situations, are you in danger of eventually promoting nuclear holocaust? Yes, maybe there is a slippery slope, but as moral agents our lives are lived in the precarious position of being on the mountain. And the mountain has more than one side. The other side of the mountain is equally precarious. Sure, Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero may have stood at the top of the mountain as serious and powerful players in the struggle for justice. But there is a slippery slope of pacifism as well. The slope goes from passionate engagement to lazy engagement to being opinionated but failing to act to growing cynical to the point of self-extrication.
The precarious predicament is the sheer fact of being alive.
I want to return to the question of religiously motivated violence, of whether gore is ever glorious. Religiously speaking, I believe we open ourselves up for trouble whenever we claim that God is on our side, that God endorses or condones violence. Too often we jump to the question of whether it is acceptable to kill in the name of God, to enact violence in the name of faith. The religious question, I believe, is rarely about violence. It is much more often about sacrifice. Are you willing to go to jail for what you believe? Are you willing to trespass at the Sudanese embassy in order to stand in solidarity with the people of Darfur? Would you, like Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb, answer the call to Selma and march with King even though you run the risk of being fatally attacked by Klansmen? Would you hurt your own bottom line by divesting yourself from corporations that earn their profits through injustice? We move too quickly towards the question of taking life. We gloss over the other side, the religious question of for what should a person be willing to give a part of her life, or even her whole life.
I began this sermon by invoking the Quentin Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds. His film, I believe, is clever. After producing film after film that gets criticized for glorifying violence, Tarantino answers his critics by saying, “I bet I can create a film that will get you to glorify violence as well.” And, for the most part, Tarantino was successful. Critics fawned over the film’s “gory glory.” So, who exactly are the inglourious basterds? I would argue that they are not Brad Pitt’s special unit of soldiers. We are the inglorious ones. The inglorious ones are us if we are seduced into believing that violence is glorious.
[Note: More thoughts can be found on the film Inglourious Basterds in a subsequent essay that I have posted here.]
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
______, The Cost of Discipleship
Dave Eggers, What is the What
Christopher Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists
Christopher Hedges, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning
Jeff Sharlet, The Family
A Very, Very Short List of Films to Stimulate Discussion about Violence
The Hurt Locker
The Fog of War
The Power of Nightmares (3-part BBC Documentary)