10 April 2015
To kill a king or sing his praise?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer died 70 years ago yesterday, hanged just two weeks before American forces liberated Flossenburg prison. His crime was never in doubt. As head of Germany's Confessing Church he had preached against and resisted Hitler's regime, and took part in a failed plot to assassinate him in 1944.
His guilt is a question that has plagued ethicists and theologians these past 70 years. Was his the right cause of action? We remember Bonhoeffer as a martyr and that he surely was, but was the plan to kill Hitler an act of righteousness or a sign of fallenness?
Twitter yesterday was a veritable feast of Bonhoeffer quotes, many providing an insight into the man and what drove him to drastic action against the Nazi regime. "We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice," he said. "We are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself." In a letter written to some of his closest friends at Christmas 1943 Bonhoeffer wrote: "We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms
The contrast between Bonhoeffer's opposition to Germany's leader and what I read yesterday in Psalm 45 could not be starker. Psalm 45 offers a paean to a king and his bride. Verse four recounts: "In your majesty ride forth victoriously in the cause of truth, humility and justice; let your right hand achieve awesome deeds."
As well as likely singing the praises of a king of Israel on his wedding day, this Psalm also looks ahead to another king in the line of David. It looks ahead to Jesus. The Psalm closes with: "I will perpetuate your memory through all generations; therefore the nations will praise you for ever and ever." History has not remembered which king this was originally sung for, but generation after generation has sung it for the king above all kings.
Hitler wanted a rule that would stretch far beyond his lifetime, he wanted a thousand year reign that would be to his credit. While Bonhoeffer failed to bring Hitler down, the Nazis ruled for just 12 years. Bonhoeffer's strength of conviction forces me to think once again about how I relate to those who rule.
It's an apposite time to be thinking about rulers, with just a few weeks to go before we get to vote for who represents us in parliament. I want to both accept the authority their election grants them and maintain my ability to discern whether they are misusing the trust we place in them. In voting for politicians, and threatening to vote them out, we demonstrate our trust in them and also the limitation of that trust.
I think about the actions of those who rule over us – will they ride forth victoriously in the cause of truth, humility and justice? And my actions towards them: do I give them praise and honour, do I criticise them when they do not do what I would prefer, do I hold them to account? Do I opt for silence and inaction – the very acts which themselves can speak louder than words?
On his way to his death Bonhoeffer is reported to have said: "This is the end for me, the beginning of life." And I wonder if he was wrong. There was life to come, but it had already begun; perhaps the actions of his life on earth were part of the coming of the kingdom.
I don't think we just look to the future for God's kingdom to come. We look at the present and the glimpses we can find, we even look to politics to see how, in confused and imperfect ways, bits of the kingdom could be worked out here on earth. Are there ways our vote could lead to that?