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Posted: 12/20/2014
Repent and Do Not Judge
Who's To Blame?
Pointing Fingers

In the interest of full disclosure: The stimulus for this reflection comes from a sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Repent and Do Not Judge", preached in London, England, July 8, 1934.Sermon found in The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Isabel Best. Published 2012 by Fortress Press. This sermon pages 127-132. (The sermon was based on Luke 13:1-5, and was preached soon after Hitler's SS troops massacred many of Hitler's rivals in the Nazi party. More than two hundred people were killed in this Putsch.)

Something goes wrong -- or doesn't go the way we want it to go; our first question is: Whose fault is it? Who is to blame? Assigning blame seems to be a human need. We cannot accept that sometimes "stuff happens." Or that many of us might be at fault. Assigning blame seems to wrap up a negative situation. Perhaps wrap-up is necessary for us to move on.

A few weeks ago, the home town pro football team Philadelphia Eagles lost in a blowout to Green Bay, a game many in our area thought would be one that would solidify the Eagles as true Super Bowl contenders. 53 - 20 Packers. Ouch! The Eagles charter flight back to Philadelphia probably had not even lifted off before the blame game started.

Who was to blame? Backup QB Mark Sanchez, with four turnovers? Beloved head coach Chip Kelly and some questionable play-calling? Defensive backs who showed their suspected weaknesses? The big question on the local sports call-in radio show was, "Who is most at fault? Cast your vote!" I doubt there were any players not on some caller's list! A local TV sports show I watch, recognizing there was probably no ONE player at fault, set up a list of five prime culprits and online viewers could vote and assign percentages of blame to each. Percentage of blame!! That's a new one to me.

The need to assign blame doesn't occur only in trivial realms like football games; we seek to place blame for national and world events. Who is to blame for the rise of barbaric terrorism in the Mideast? The epidemic of Ebola in African countries? And who (or what) is responsible for the death of the black teenager shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri? We want to have someone or somewhere to point the finger of blame. (And it would be nice to have the finger point in the direction that fits our view of the way the world should work.) If we can point the finger, maybe we can move on.

None of this is meant to suggest that finding guilt or setting blame is wrong or not necessary. Our legal system depends on assigning blame, determining guilt. Often, world problems cannot be addressed unless we fix some sense of fault for causes. While we will probably always want to assign blame (and in sports doing so can be part of the way fans enjoy the game), we need to realize that placing blame rarely solves a problem or remedies poor performance. As a football coach, I spent hours studying game films, trying to analyze mistakes so we could improve. All this would have been a waste of time if my purpose was simply to decide where to place the blame.

Yes, our need to point the finger will probably remain a part of us. However, in our need to assign blame (and often a rush to do so), we need to be careful that we do not fail to look inward and at least consider what role we have in being "to blame."

The scripture referenced at the beginning of this Reflection, Luke 13:1-5, is one that frankly I never remember reading. Apparently, some Galileans had been massacred by Pilate's soldiers. This recent tragedy was brought to Jesus' attention (probably not to "trap" him as often is the case, but to get his opinion, perhaps how would he judge, how would he assign blame.) In the sermon quoted earlier, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that the situation might have been a news event much like some of those today. Who was to blame? Was it totally Pilate and the harsh thumb of Rome? Was it that the Galileans were gross sinners and were the target of God's wrath? God would not allow such a terrible fate if they had not been guilty, went the judging reasoning.

In this scripture, Jesus also refers to another recent event, more in the "Act of God" category: the collapse of a tower in Jerusalem that killed eighteen people. Many "judged" the situation: again, "punishment for their sins" the popular verdict.

But in response, Jesus totally ignores the blame game. From Bonhoeffer's sermon:

Not a word does he say about Pilate, whether he was right or wrong; not a word about the Galileans, not a word of political judgment, not a word of moralistic judgment. This is very clear (in the story): Jesus does not judge! Jesus does not say which side is right, especially not to the pious, who have interpreted this event so earnestly and moralistically. Jesus says "NO" to them. ... Jesus says No -- meaning, first of all, stop all your advice and interpretations, your know-all judgments. ... Away with all your judgments and saying who is right, one side or the other, be still and silent. ...Jesus is doing the same thing he did throughout his life: calling people to repentance. ... (With this tragedy) we are no longer bystanders, onlookers, judges of these events, but we ourselves are being addressed: we are all affected.

Bonhoeffer stresses that we are not called to judge:

And therefore, first of all: Do not judge, so that you may not be judged! Do not set yourselves up as being better than those Galileans or that Pilate. In the face of such terrible acts of God, do not say with pride, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people ..." Instead, pray silently within yourselves, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" [Luke 18:9-14]. Jesus answers (the question of who is guilty) differently. It is not Pilate or the Galileans who are meant here, but we, we ourselves.

And furthermore, he points out that all of us most likely contribute to the situations we want to judge:

In the face of terrible human catastrophes, Christians are not to assume the arrogant, know-all attitude of looking on and judging, but rather are to recognize: This is my world in which this happened. This is the world in which I live, in which I sin by sowing hate and lovelessness day by day. This is the fruit of what I and my brothers and sisters have sown -- and these people here, these Galileans and Pilate, are my brothers and sisters, in sin, in hate and evil and lovelessness, my brothers and sisters in guilt. Whatever happens to them is meant for me too; they are only showing me God's finger pointed in anger, pointed at me as well. So let us repent and realize OUR guilt and not judge.

In prayer

I read Bonhoeffer's sermon about the time the Grand Jury in Missouri was to hand down its decision whether to indict the Ferguson police officer in the killing of the unarmed young man. Like most people, I wanted to assign blame. But, I knew that my judging would only be on the bits and pieces of the story I heard, on my speculations of motives, on my view of race relations, my biases and prejudices. Through Bonhoeffer's sermon, I heard Jesus telling me that this was not mine to judge. If I did need to judge, look inward.

I wanted to pray for this American story playing out in Missouri. It was difficult to know what to pray. But, finally I prayed that God's justice would be done; that Ferguson-area pastors preaching peace would be heard; that there could be reconciliation after whatever the decision. And then I felt Jesus' nudge to look inward. "And God forgive me for what I have done, AND for what I have failed to do that has contributed to the state of race relations in our land. ... And be merciful to me, a sinner. ... Lord, in your mercy." And those around me said, "Hear our prayer."

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Bonhoeffer Sermons Book Cover Book referenced: The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (

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