Am I the only person that sees all the worms crawling out of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s can? What do we do with a Christian pastor plotting to assassinate a world leader?
My first instinct is to stand up and applaud. Put the hammer down, Dietrich! Burn those Nazis. Free the concentration camps. Show the world that Christians can do more than smile and give really good back rubs.
Justice is a human instinct. Everything in us resonates with the need for wrongs to be set right. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. That’s God’s law, and it is good. God’s people have always resonated with a need for justice and a frustration with its delay. Just read the Psalms.
But then there’s this other thing . . .
The same God who claims to be a God of justice tells his people to bless those who curse them, and pray for those who persecute them. He says to love our enemies. If they strike us on the cheek, turn the other one. In the same way, Paul tells believers never to repay evil for evil. Let God deal with it.
On top of this, Paul says in Romans 13 that all governing authorities are established by God, and to oppose them is to invite divine condemnation. He claims that these authorities are actually ministers of God to their citizens.
Besides. Thou shalt not kill.
So what right does Bonhoeffer have in plotting against the life of another human being, especially a governing authority? Shouldn’t he assume that Hitler would not be in power if God didn’t want him there? Shouldn’t he try harder to love his enemy, turn the other cheek, encouraging Jews to do the same? Shouldn’t he be praying for Hitler’s salvation and leave the rest to God?
This apparent contradiction between love and justice can handcuff Christians. What are we supposed to do when someone breaks into our houses and wants to hurt our children or rape our spouses? Should we grab a baseball bat or get on our knees?
A careful study of Scripture does not reveal a schizophrenic, two-headed God, promoting violence one minute, and love the next. No, God is love, through and through. He is also holy, and all of his actions must be seen through the lens of these eternal qualities.
If a loving mother raises her voice or grabs her child by the arm, we can assume that it is for the good of that child. It may look aggressive, but we know that the mother is trying to educate or discipline that child, or maybe trying to move it out of harm’s way. Either way, it is an act of love. Even if her fingers leave a bruise.
In a similar way, God works through history to align the world with his vision. He does it in his own way and his own time. Sometimes it is one dramatic moment (the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Resurrection, Pentecost), and sometimes it takes years or even centuries (the labor of the prophets, the Babylonian exile, waiting for first and second comings of Christ). We can go story by story from Genesis to Revelation tracing this epic redemptive program.
Jesus told a parable about wheat and weeds. A good farmer planted wheat, but an enemy came and planted weeds. Rather than trying to pull up the weeds, which would directly impact the wheat, the decision was made to let them all grow together until the harvest, then sort them out.
As we wait for the final harvest, we should expect the roots of the wheat and weeds to intertwine. There will be suffering. There will be casualties. But the promise is clear: The harvest will come. The plants will be sorted out. There will be justice. And God is very clear about who holds the scythe: “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.”
It is this very hope that allows us to love our enemies. Check out this quote from Joshua Ryan Butler in his book, Skeletons in God’s Closet:
Our world is crying out for God’s justice. Hope in its coming can break our cycles of violence today. If God holds vengeance in his hands, then we do not have to take it into our own. Jesus proclaims God’s kingdom will be victorious in the end. And it is with this confidence that Jesus calls us to confidently suffer well, as he did: to receive the blows and turn the other cheek, to love those who abuse us and forgive our enemies.
God is not a pushover. His love is not passive. But, as Butler points out in his book, God calls his people to defend the weak, protect the vulnerable, and vindicate the poor, standing against tyranny and violence. Sometimes that means picking up a baseball bat to defend my vulnerable wife and children. Or standing against the tyranny of Nazi Germany.
When Paul writes about God establishing and using human governments, he is talking about the purpose of government, not each individual leader and system. No government promotes chaos, inviting their citizens to steal from one another, or take a life, or drive drunk. Governments, even corrupt governments, are interested in keeping the peace, which in its own superficial way serves God’s penetrating purpose.
We should support the local authorities in their efforts to keep the peace, and trust the wisdom of our ultimate authority, but never pick up our own scythe and start our own private harvest.
When Jesus suffered the injustice of his execution, he did so with justice in mind. His resurrection would make a way for the very weeds that nailed him to a cross to be transformed into wheat. He loved the weeds. But he wanted wheat.
When someone comes against me, I shouldn’t see myself as wheat defending against the weeds. Hey, we’re all born as weeds. Jesus died for me when I was a weed. His love transformed me. And continues to transform me. Shouldn’t I have the same hope for the weeds that bully me and try to rip me off? Shouldn’t I stand alongside our compassionate Savior and participate in his efforts to turn weeds into wheat, even if that means I am wronged or persecuted in the process?
We still have time. Which is good news for my heart, which still needs a lot of weeding. But we also have hope. The harvest is coming. And justice will win out.