Impossible Choices

Mark 13 1-8
Impossible Choices
November 15, 2015 Veteran’s Day Observance

By Kim Blocher

In Book Club this week we discussed The Nightingale, by Kristin Hanna. It was a fascinating book about occupied France in WWII.

Synopsis- FRANCE, 1939: In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive. Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

Things that look so very solid and permanent, aren’t. In our group’s discussion of the book, we realized how very fragile and thin is our veneer of civilization. Life looks normal, you go about your daily business, and all of a sudden the rug gets pulled out from under you. And how very ironic it is that this same week the attacks in France happened. In 1939 the French people would have never believed that their beloved capital would see German tanks rolling into the City of Light or jackboots marching down the boulevards. Well until Friday, no one in France would have believed that such barbarity and cruelty would unleash this sort of human tragedy. And yet this is an everyday event in many places in the world today.

We are at war. Our leaders and would-be leaders seem to have trouble saying this. And yet this is global jihad and eventually it will touch all of western civilization. It is unlike the wars for which we will be recognizing our veterans later in the service. Those, for the most part, were wars waged against a defined enemy and a sovereign state. Jihad is not like that…it has no territorial boundaries. The Islamic State rejects peace as a matter of principle, genocide furthers their cause, and its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of change because it believes that it is a headline player in the end of the world. Like Jesus in our gospel passage today….they also believe that there will be an end of the world as we know it now. But they think they’ll be in charge of it and the end will be glorious for them. Right now ISIS is hitting what they can reach. Paris. Eventually, their reach will increase and we will need to decide what sort of peacemakers we plan to be.

There are different models for peacemaking. There is the prayerful detachment from the world in a cloistered monastery. There is the pacifist Amish disavowal of armed conflict. And then there is the non-violent, yet active, resistance as most recently espoused by Martin Luther King Jr. And he learned much of his strategy from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his response to Nazi Germany. I want to share a bit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story…as a reminder of someone whose deeply held Christian beliefs forced him to decide how he would wage peace.

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 in what was then called Prussia, to an aristocratic family with deep roots in the Fatherland. He completed degrees in theology and was ordained into the Prussian church. His promising academic and ecclesiastical career was dramatically altered when the Nazi party ascended to power in 1933. He was among the first to denounce the oppression of the Jews and was first to call for the Church to resist the persecution. He famously declared that the Church must not simply “bandage the victim under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.” Hitler had co-opted the German Church and placed himself at its head and Nazis in positions of power within it. Bonhoeffer and others formed the Confessing Church in response, and eventually the seminaries went underground. He joined the German resistance movement, realizing that he must participate in the destruction of his own country in order to save Western civilization. The impossible choices that confronted him are staggering. He was executed by the Nazis for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1945, two months before the allied troops arrived to liberate Flossenburg prison.

A quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “The Cost of Discipleship”, written in 1937 :
Our adversaries seek to root out the Christian Church and the Christian faith because they cannot live side by side with us, because they see in every word we utter and every deed we do, even when they are not specifically directed against them, a condemnation of their own words and deeds…We do not reciprocate their hatred and contention, although they would like it better if we did, and so sink to their own level. Soon the time will come when we shall pray…And what prayer, what confession, what hymn of praise will it be? It will be the prayer of earnest love for these very sons of perdition who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred, and who have perhaps already raised their hands to kill us. It will be a prayer for the peace of these erring, devastated and bewildered souls, a prayer for the same love and peace that we know, a prayer that will penetrate to the depths of their souls and rend their hearts more grievously than anything they can do to us. Yes, the Church which is really waiting for its Lord, and which discerns the signs of the times of decision, must fling itself with utmost power and with the panoply of its holy life into this prayer of love.

This is not passive resistance. It’s really not even “turn the other cheek.” This represents an active form of engagement, a struggle against the kind of evil that must be answered. From the days that humans first walked the earth we’ve been a study in contradictions. We are both good and bad. Impossible choices are thrust upon us and human wisdom is not sufficient to make those choices. And human institutions will always disappoint.

Those stones of which Jesus speaks in the passage from Mark were almost 40 feet long and 14 feet wide. That Temple would have been the grandest structure that anyone living in Israel had ever seen. It was a building for the ages, and one that spoke of power, wealth and permanence. And yet Jesus knew it for what it was. Temporary. God had a different Temple in mind. His new temple was his son Jesus Christ. That Temple was not destroyed on the cross, but lives here in the Body of Christ.

This is the beginning of the birth pangs, a kingdom that is already but not yet. Every world crisis brings forth books and sermons describing the evidence that the end times are here. And there will be on TV this morning preachers saying just that. But those prophecies do not constitute the testimony that Jesus is asking from his followers. Our testimony is that God is good all the time, even when the world is not. God’s agenda, God’s goal, is the only one on which we should stake our life. And that goal will only be accomplished at the coming of the Son of Man. But we have a role to play in the becoming, and it is our most urgent duty to discern that role.

I listened this week to a radio program on NPR called Snap Judgment. The program host interviewed Dr. Lee Warren who wrote a book called No Place to Hide. He describes his experience of being an Army neurosurgeon on the front lines in Iraq. He worked in a hospital unit much like we used to watch on the old show MASH—canvas tents and medical staff doing the impossible, making impossible choices. And they didn’t just treat American and allied troops; they treated Iraqi civilians and terrorists alike. When the terrorists, or enemy combatants, were brought in for treatment—they were designated by a number written on their forehead in sharpie pen.

Dr. Warren described a particular incident. They were anticipating an influx of wounded, and the airport had just been closed so the supply plane would not be arriving. Dr. Warren inventoried his supplies and realized that he only had 4 sets of neurosurgery instruments left. They were used once and discarded because of infection. He held his breath and hoped there would not be five patients, or more. He treated three patients in brain or spine surgery. Then an American soldier came in, shot in the head and gravely wounded. Dr. Warren prepped him for surgery. The patient’s buddy, a corporal had accompanied him in, and pleaded with the doctor to save his friend’s life. In the meantime #2172, an enemy combatant, was brought in with a gunshot wound to the head. The corporal told the doctor that 2172 had shot his buddy, and the corporal int turn, had shot him

Who to save with the remaining set of instruments? The doctor got ready for surgery on the American, and in the meantime #2172 was also being prepped for surgery with the other neurosurgeon.. Dr. Warren picked up the instrument, made the incision on the American’s skull, and handed the instruments and told her to sterilize it. Surgery on #2172 began and in this way, both patients were operated on. It was an impossible choice to make, and Dr. Warren could not choose one life over the other. Both survived. The postscript happened when there was a call over the loudspeaker of the hospital for A negative blood. The corporal whose friend was in surgery, gave blood. He was giving it to #2172, the man he had shot. The doctor asked him if he knew what he was doing and the corporal said…”yes, I know. I shot him so I guess I’m responsible.”

They are who they are, and we are who we are. We cannot sink to their level, instead we can rise to the challenge held before us. On the cross, Jesus made an impossible choice for us, and we can make impossible choices for the good of others and the things we hold dear. From Hebrews 10:39 we have this promise: “We are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.”