In December 1943, German fighter pilot Franz Stigler was in pursuit of American bomber pilot Charlie Brown's plane, looking to shoot it down. If he did, it would earn him the Knight's Cross, the highest honor for a German soldier. But as he approached the plane, Stigler saw that it had no tail guns blinking, no tail-gun compartment remaining, no left stabilizer, and the nose of the aircraft was missing.
Surprisingly, he could also see into the plane, the skin of it having been blown off. Inside, he observed terrified young men tending to their wounded. Stigler could not shoot the plane down. He had been trained that "honor is everything." If he survived the war, his superior officer told him, the only way he would be able to live with himself was if he had fought with as much humanity as possible. Stigler could tell that Brown didn't realize how bad a shape his plane was in. He gestured for Brown to land the plane, intending to escort him. But Brown had no intention of landing in Germany and being taken prisoner along with his men. Stigler saluted Brown and veered away. His last words to him were, "Good luck, you're in God's hands now."
Brown was able to land the plane in England. He continued his Air Force career for two decades, but remained obsessed with the incident. In 1990, he took out an ad in a newsletter for fighter pilots, looking for the one “who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.” Stigler, living in Vancouver, saw the ad and yelled to his wife: “This is him! This is the one I didn't shoot down!” He immediately wrote a letter to Brown, and the two then connected in an emotional phone call.
Stigler and Brown both died in 2008, six months apart. Turns out, both men were Christians and that the obituaries for Stigler and Brown both listed the other friend as “a special brother.”1
That story reminds me of a quote from Gandalf to Frodo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring, “True courage is knowing not how to take a life, but when to spare it.”
I think that story also illustrates vividly the kind of tension that each one of us feels as we try to live out our faith. Like the German pilot we often find ourselves torn between two conflicting obligations—the rules of war and the Sermon on the Mount. Which one do we choose in the moment? We can love our enemies or hate them, bless them or curse them, pray for them or retaliate. The Bible presents the higher calling that we must live by.
Notice to how Paul explained these thorny situations in Romans 13:17-21: “Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good” (MSG).
Every act of grace and mercy given in the face of evil provides the opportunity for something that cannot be achieved through “getting even”—reconciliation, redemption, victory. This is what Jesus did on the cross. He absorbed the evil of mankind into his body and transformed into the redemption of humanity. Love doesn't defeat evil through the exercise of power. Love defeats evil by absorbing its harm and transforming it into good.
1. John Blake, “Tow Enemies Discover a ‘Higher Call’ in Battle,” CNN Living, 9 March 2013,