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Learning from two great people

Tuesday night, my wife and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary with Thich Nhat Hahn. The fact that a couple of thousand other folk decided to join us for the dharma talk from this Nobel Peace Prize nominee didn’t deter from the wonder and joy of the occasion. This Buddhist master has guided millions of men and women on their spiritual journeys, and it was good to, once again, be reminded of all that this great man has done for my wife and me in our long journey of marriage.

Thich Nhat Hahn’s continuing emphasis on the importance of compassionate listening has enabled us to ride out the storms that disrupt any relationship. His reminder that acts of loving kindness are at the heart of what it means to be fully alive have helped us over and over again to maintain a kind of equanimity even in the midst of those troubling and troubled waters that terrify any married couple.

We are grateful for this Buddhist’s past guidance and wonder if he can help us as we look to solve another problem, not in our marriage but in the world.



The nearly constant and always disturbing reports that we are about to embark on a war against Iraq are causing some of us to look deeply at our understanding of what it means to be a loyal citizen and, at the same time, a committed Christian. Our tradition is filled with examples of how others have reconciled this tension and now, apparently, we will soon be called on to do the same.

On our drive home that inspiring evening, I realized that two men, both spiritual masters, both cherished as wise mentors, one Buddhist and the other Christian, are guiding me through this treacherous time. Thich Nhat Hahn counsels compassion and non-violence. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer also counsels compassion, but his is tempered with a swift, certain and violent action.



Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during World War II. He was active in the underground movement against the horrors of Nazism. He actively participated in establishing the anti-Nazi Confessing Church of Germany and was instrumental in a rescue mission that helped a small group of Jews escape over the German border and into Switzerland.

More problematic was his involvement in the unsuccessful attempt at assassinating Hitler. You may remember reading of the failed effort. The bomb intended for Hitler failed to detonate, and it placed the group of conspirators, some of whom were Christian like Bonhoeffer, squarely into enemy hands.

How could a committed pacifist engage in such violence? Bonhoeffer reasoned: “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

He was arrested and convicted April 9, 1945, only weeks before Hitler committed suicide. Bonhoeffer was hung from the gallows at Flossenburg Prison. His writings, both during his days as a pastor and as a prison inmate, continue to influence millions of men and women, Christian and otherwise, who struggle with questions of faith and citizenship.

Is it time for Saddam Hussein to be wrestled from the driver’s seat or are there still, as my Buddhist teacher reminded us on Tuesday, other options available?

Had Bonhoeffer been successful in his assassination attempt, it is possible that thousands of innocent people may have been saved from their untimely deaths in the gas chambers. Does the analogy between these two demagogues, Hitler and Hussein, fit? Can the assassination of Hussein be justified on the same grounds Bonhoeffer used against Hitler?

The tension between the teachings of these two great men, Thich Nhat Hahn and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pulls me taut. In my non-violent moments, I can’t help remembering reading of the naive prime minister of England, Neville Chamberlain, returning from a diplomatic mission to Germany in 1938 and promising that Hitler would be a docile ruler and that there would be “peace in our time.” And yet, when I start justifying the killing of another despot, I concede, as both Thich Nhat Hahn and Jesus have taught me, that violence never ends violence.

Reasonable people certainly may disagree on this, but eventually, and maybe very soon, we will have to decide. All our future anniversaries may depend on it.

Rich Mayfield is pastor of the Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church and a regular columnist for the Summit Daily News.


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