I've been reflecting on the recent killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al Qaida leader operating from Yemen, by American forces. A friend asked me if the fact that al-Awlaki was American-born had any impact on how I felt about his death. Those who have followed the story likely realize that this assassination is big news, not just because of his prominence in Al Qaida, but also because it's the first time United States forces have intentionally targeted a homegrown terrorist.
My response to her was that it didn't make much difference to me, that he was a human being and a child of God before he was any nationality or religion. The conversation stopped there.
Then I thought back to a story I once read in an August 8th, 2008 post on the Christianity Today website about theologian and author Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his opposition to Adolf Hitler. The article says the following about Bonhoeffer:
"To this point he had been a pacifist, and he had tried to oppose the Nazis through religious action and moral persuasion. Now he signed up with the German secret service (to serve as a double agent--while traveling to church conferences over Europe, he was supposed to be collecting information about the places he visited, but he was, instead, trying to help Jews escape Nazi oppression). Bonhoeffer also became a part of a plot to overthrow, and later to assassinate, Hitler."
Bonhoeffer later was hanged along with other Jewish sympathizers before he could participate in any assassination attempt. But Bonhoeffer himself acknowledges the hypocrisy of trying to kill another human being, no matter their evils, in the name of a faith that ultimately calls for peace and reconciliation.
It was in his humanity, not in his faith, that he found the compulsion to kill Hitler. All the while he recognized the discrepancy with what he claimed as his beliefs, yet felt helpless to resort to a less violent solution.
In the pop culture sphere, I think of the scene in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker chops off Darth Vader's hand with his light saber, only to look down and realize his own hand had become that of his enemy.
How do we respond like our enemy without becoming that which we hate? Is it even possible? Would I have done the same thing as Bonhoeffer had I found myself in the same situation. Would I go against my own personal principles if the ends seem to justify the means? On a more personal level, would I use force - even deadly force - to protect my family, friends or other loved ones?
I probably would. And I'm not sure why.
I picked up a book recently by Walter Wink, one of my preferred theologians when it comes to putting action behind the rhetoric of faith. I have yet to read anything by Wink that has not rocked my world and caused me to reevaluate pretty much everything from my beliefs to the way I express them in daily life.
His book, "Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way," was no exception.
Deceptively small at a compact 64 pages, every paragraph presents a compelling challenge not only to many common takes on Jesus' approach to authority, but also to anyone who claims to be a champion of the oppressed, marginalized and neglected.
First, Wink quickly goes about dismantling the myth that Jesus was a pacifist. Far from it, actually. Things like turning the other cheek and walking the second mile, in the context of Wink's nonviolent activist engagement, take on unexpected power, much like a black belt in aikido uses the energy of his attacker to overthrow them.
For example, it was legal in the Roman Empire for occupying centurions to force locals to carry their packs up to one mile along the road, but no further. Though taking the soldier's pack a second mile might seem a meek and nice thing to do, he argues it's actually a nonviolent act of insurrection. The soldier actually could be jailed or otherwise punished for violating the law banning exploitation of the local people, but how ridiculous does he end up looking, begging for his pack back from a lowly peasant? And if you insist on carrying the burden further, he also runs the risk of appearing weak, empowering yourself with the very weight he once placed upon you as a symbol of his power and authority.
The great deception, says Wink, is that we Western-minded folks have bought the idea that we have two choices when faced with violence, injustice or oppression: fight back in kind or do nothing. What is required, he says, is a third option, as modeled by Jesus, one that too often Christians and other people of faith mistake as a call for non-involvement.
Creative nonviolent activism is certainly not limited to Christianity, either. Though Martin Luther King is the greatest modern example of this kind of engagement for Christians, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and others have practiced such world-changing commitment to nonviolence over the centuries.
As Wink claims, doing nothing in response to injustice is to implicitly support the violence already being done. But by acting in kind toward our enemy, we perpetuate the violence, becoming no better in many ways than the wrong to which we are responding.
Wink also effectively dispels the myth that violence, in any instance, has ever been a more effective tool than a nonviolent response. Ultimately more blood is shed and more people die, even if it's in our nature to want an eye for an eye.
Sound absurd? Hard to imagine? Wink expects that. As he points out, many of us can't think of the way he understands the teaching and life of Jesus as really a possibility for us. But ultimately, it depends on how you measure success. If we consider the end of Jesus' ministry to be his moment of crucifixion, alone, vulnerable and betrayed by those he continued to love, then his life's mission was a failure.
If, however, we believe that one life - perhaps even our own - is worth giving up for a change that brings hope to thousands or millions of others, many of whom we may never meet, then this third way begins to look like a path worth exploring and trying to imagine.