Saturday, November 01, 2008

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Ayers

I've begun listening to a Teaching Company course on Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life. The first lecture focused on the impact of great books on the character and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a promising theologian who left academia to become a pastor who ministered to the people. But during World War II, he also joined an underground movement in Germany that sought to oppose and assassinate Adolph Hitler. He reasoned that the call to undermine and destroy the evil that was Hitler and to save Germany from destruction was higher than his duty, as a German citizen, to obey his country's unjust laws and evil leaders. He was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned for a year and a half before he was hanged naked by piano wire in particularly brutal fashion. While imprisoned, he was able to read the Bible, Plato, and Plutarch and write his Letters and Papers From Prison.

When I heard the part of the lecture addressing Bonhoeffer's opposition to Hitler, I thought of a discussion I heard on talk radio a few days previously about William Ayers. In the late 60's and early 70's, Ayers took part in protests of the Vietnam War that included bombings of the U.S, Capitol building, the N.Y City Police headquarters, and the Pentagon. Nobody was killed in those explosions, but some of his fellow protesters were killed by accidental explosions of the bombs they were working on. Ayers went on to become a respected education reformer in Chicago who served on a board with Barack Obama to distribute education grants, hosted a meeting for Obama's first run for office, and contributed a small sum to Obama's re-election to the Illinois State Senate. John McCain supporters have seized upon this modest association between the two men to accuse Obama of "palling around with terrorists." The implication is that Obama either likes terrorists or that he, at least, lacks the good judgment to shun them.

Defenders of Obama typically argue that his dealings with Ayers have been too insignificant to reflect badly on him. In other words, as bad as Ayers might be, Obama didn't have enough of an association with him to be tarred by it. But the talk show host the other night asked a provocative question. If Ayers did what he did because he believed that he had a higher calling to oppose our government's unjust and horrifically destructive war in Vietnam, is he someone who should be condemned and shunned as a terrorist, or should he be embraced as a true patriot? After all, in the Declaration of our nation's independence, Thomas Jefferson argued that the people have a right to oppose, by whatever means necessary, bad government. Isn't that what Ayers did decades ago?

Now it might be argued that Ayers used unnecessary as well as ineffectual means to oppose the Vietnam War. But if his motives were good, should we condemn him and Obama's relationship, such as it was, with him? I'm inclined to think that we shouldn't.

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