We are just two weeks away from remembrance Sunday and so I thought it might be of value to share the following World War II story with you:
Charles Brown a B-17 pilot in the US army, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy on his first combat mission. His bomber had been quite seriously damaged as he and his crew encountered a swarm of Nazi air-planes as they flew in the skies above Germany dropping bombs on a German city below. Half the crew in the plane were wounded and the tail gunner had been killed. They had lost the ability to defend themselves.
Just then a German fighter plane flew up behind them, and At that moment, Charles Brown thought this was the end for him and his crew.
But what happened next was completely unexpected. The German didn’t pull the trigger. Instead, a few moments later the German plane drew up close beside them just three feet from their wing-tip, he nodded and smiled at Charles Brown and his co-pilot Spencer Luke.
Bob Jones writes that what then unfolded was one of the most remarkable acts of mercy recorded during the second world war. Bob Jones writes that “...the German ace pilot Hanz Stigler had every reason to shoot down the American B-17 bomber in front of him. Enemy forces had already killed his brother early in the war and were now bombing German cities. Not only that, if Stigler took down this particular bomber...” due to his record in the air, he would have secured the German equivalent of the Medal of Honour or the Victoria Cross.
In the moments before this incident, as Stigler had prepared to squeeze the trigger, he had thought that it was strange that the bomber wasn't firing back at him. And so, flying a little closer, it became evident that the gunner was dead and most of the crew clearly wounded. The plane had been riddled with bullets, and it was clearly struggling to stay aloft. In that moment, Stigler knew in his heart that if he pulled that trigger, he would be killing the crew in cold blood.
Instead, he opted to do the merciful thing. Stigler signaled to the shocked American pilot and he duly escorted the bomber to prevent it being targeted by anti-aircraft fire, until they reached the North Sea, where he broke off and saluted his adversaries one last time. (Story taken from Bob Jones, quoted from Revwords.com)
At the end of recounting this story, Bob Jones quotes Shannon French: “There is something worse than death, and one of those things is to completely lose your humanity”. Hanz Stigler could have lost his humanity that day, but instead, he chose to act with mercy.
In the 5th Beatitude in Matthew 5:7 we read “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”.
The first thing this beatitude reveals is the centrality of the value of mercy in the teachings of Jesus.
In John’s Gospel Jesus is reported to say, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” John 14:9. And in Colossians 1:15, Paul writes of Jesus when he says “he is the invisible image of the invisible God”. If there is one thing that Jesus’ life reveals about God is that God is mercy.
It is perhaps one of the key things that distinguished Jesus from the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law in his own day. Theirs was a religion that had grown rigid and uncompromising in their obsession with following rules that in the process had become decidedly unmerciful and un-compassionate towards anyone they regarded as failing to live in accordance with God’s requirements. They had forgotten that many of the laws they were following were meant to point them in the direction of mercy. But instead their religiosity had made them rigid and hard hearted.
By contrast, mercy was a central value in the way Jesus treated other people, whether it was prioritising the healing of a crippled man on the Sabbath, or saving the life of a women who had been caught in adultery, or responding to the request of the enemy Roman Centurion to heal his servant. It was in fact Jesus’ mercy towards sinners that made him so offensive to many of the law abiding Jews of Jesus day, and that became a large part of the reason for his eventual torture and execution. In Matthew 12:9-14 we read that it was as a direct result of Jesus act of mercy towards a man with a crippled hand, whom he heals on the Holy Day of the Sabbath, that the Pharisees began to plot against him, discussing how to destroy him.
The religion of the Pharisees had led to a loss of their humanity. Not only did their religion leave them with no mercy or compassion towards the man with the crippled hand, it led them to plotting to destroy the life of the one who had acted with mercy. Jesus act of prioritising mercy above the Sabbath law was such an offense to them that they were willing to break another of the commandments: Thou Shalt not murder.
It is a good question: Does our religiosity make us more merciful towards others? Or does it leave us less merciful? If our religion leaves us less merciful, then our religion has become more like the religion of the Pharisees and less like the religion of Jesus.
Blessed are the merciful…. Why? Because according to Jesus when we are merciful, we are living in alignment with the very nature of God whose Name is Mercy.
But what are we to make of the second half of the beatitude? Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy? Is it suggesting that if you don’t show mercy to others, God won’t show mercy to you?
There are many who might interpret it in that way. But the example of the apostle Paul suggests otherwise.
The Apostle Paul was utterly convinced that God’s love and mercy towards us, was and is, not dependent on our mercy towards others. Why was he so convinced of this? Because it was his own experience.
According to the book of Acts, when he was still known by the name of Saul, we read that he was on his way to brutally oppress and murder the followers of Jesus in Damascus. He was in effect what we would call today a religious extremist. He was engaged in acts of religious violence and terror. He had already stood at a distance watching over the brutal stoning of Stephen and giving his approval.
And now he was on his way to Damascus to do the same to others. There is no other way around it but to admit that Paul had lived as a religious fanatic. If he had had access to bombs as religious extremists do today, you can be sure that the apostle Paul before his conversion, would have been planting bombs and blowing Christians up.
And yet Divine mercy was shown to him on the road to Damascus. A light shone upon him and a voice was heard “Saul Saul, why do you persecute me.” And in that moment, he discovered and experienced the grace of God; that God is merciful towards us even when we are not merciful towards others. And in this experience of Divine Mercy expressed towards him, Paul changed from being a violent religious extremist to becoming a religious extremist of another kind… he became an apostle of grace, of God’s underserved kindness and love. For Paul, God’s mercy is not dependent on our mercy. Rather, Paul would have suggested that we are only capable of acts of mercy, love and compassion because God has first acted mercifully towards us.
What then might it mean to say: Blessed are the merciful, they will be shown mercy?
I have a sense that what Jesus is referring to here is not primarily about God’s mercy towards us, but rather about our human relationships with others. If we treat others with mercy and compassion, we are far more likely to have mercy and compassion reflected back towards us.
This is true to some extent even of snakes, tigers and crocodiles. Snakes tigers and crocodiles will always be dangerous. But if you are aggressive towards them, they will become even more dangerous and aggressive back. But if you treat them mercifully and compassionately, even while keeping proper distance protecting yourself from them, their level of danger will be drastically reduced. Over time a degree of rapport might even develop.
There are some people whose level of consciousness is not very much higher than a snake, a tiger or a crocodile. They are best treated like dangerous animals. You might want to keep a little distance. You might want to put various levels of protection in place. But if you treat them with a level of care and respect and even mercy, while they might still be a danger and still pose a threat, they are are likely to be less of a danger than they would be if dealt with with unnecessary aggression.
If you wish to receive mercy from others, you are far more likely to receive it if you are merciful towards them. If you are unmerciful to others, unless they have been touched in some profound way by the mercy and grace of God, it is rather likely that they will be unmerciful to you in return.
In closing, I wonder, how that unexpected experience of receiving mercy from a Nazi German pilot changed Charles Brown life, and that of his co-pilot Spencer Luke that day? I wonder if it changed their perspective on the war in some way? I wonder what it must have been like for them, the next time they flew off on a mission to bomb another German town or city? I wonder if on that day they may have grown a little more conscious of the common humanity of their German enemies? I wonder, after that incident, if they were more likely to show mercy to an enemy themselves than they may have been before?
What I do know, is that after an extensive search by Charles Brown, the two pilots eventually met each other in person again 50 years later. Hanz Stigler was now living in Canada. As a show of thanks, Charles Brown made Hanz Stigler the guest of honour at a reunion he had planned with his crewmen. At the event, they showed Stigler a video of their children and grandchildren, people who would not have lived were it not for his act of mercy.
For the next 18 years, between 1990 and 2008 Charles Brown and Franz Stigler became close friends and remained so until Stigler's death in March 2008. Brown died only a few months later, in November of the same year.
“Blessed are the merciful”, says Jesus, “They will be shown mercy”.