What I’m about to type is going to make some people angry. So, let me begin with a couple of disclaimers that I hope the reader will keep in mind.
- I am not sad that Osama Bin Laden is dead. I say that neither with pride and satisfaction (though many feel those things) nor with embarrassment. I’m just being honest. One thing I know for sure is that he won’t kill anyone else, or plan anyone else’s death. He also won’t commit atrocities in the name of God. Those are good things.
- I am a strong supporter of the men and women who serve and who have served in the U.S. military. I have seen the unfathomable cost of their service up close. I have had the honor of spending thousands of professional hours helping many of these brave people find healing for minds and souls that have been horribly damaged by the terrible things they beheld or felt they had to do while serving their country. I believe that many of them (along with many people who serve in civilian law enforcement) do so with a genuine spirit of self-sacrifice. They are literally willing to lay down their lives for others. I can pay people no higher compliment than to observe that their service in that way truly demonstrates a Christ-like spirit. I have great respect and admiration for those who are motivated by that spirit.
With those things on the table, I have to also say that the death of Bin Laden has left me with some deep feelings of unease. One reason for this disquiet is very practical: I simply do not believe that my loved ones are now any less likely to be harmed by a terrorist than they were a couple of days ago. In fact, the immediate danger may be even greater, given the compulsion for retaliation and the fact that this mass murderer, apparently living in camouflaged and sequestered opulence while simultaneously condemning capitalism is now a martyr in the minds of many.
The other reasons for my discomfort over the recent historic events are more theological. Jesus did say, “love your enemies,” after all. I can’t help but think about that now. I think it’s in the top two or three hardest things he asked us to do, especially at a time like this. My question is, do you think he really meant it? What if he did? Some Christian people are troubled by that question now. More disturbingly, I think many others are not troubled by it at all. In fact, to many Christians, the words of Jesus are completely irrelevant to our reaction to the news of Bin Laden’s death. We long ago jettisoned that “love your enemies” thing, along with a bunch of the other really hard stuff that he talked about in the Sermon on the Mount. As a functional and practical matter, it seems to me that many Christians have absolutely no interest in applying this teaching to their lives. What Jesus said literally has nothing to do with how they think about such matters. That’s a pretty strange way to be Christian, isn’t it? I am no good at loving my enemies. I hope and pray that at least I will learn to want to get better at it, rather than take pleasure in the demise of my enemies because “they had it coming.” If I understand the Bible, we all have it coming. If Jesus’ words do not speak to the death of Bin Laden, then to what event could they possibly apply? I think followers of Jesus are obligated to think about that. Isn’t Jesus asking us to love Bin Laden? Does that mean we can be glad he’s dead? I don’t pretend to have glib answers to that question, but I do believe that Christians should be asking it of themselves.
Another thing that messes with my head about all of this is what it says about the nature of violence as an idol, as an instrument of power and, with apologies to Marx, a kind of opium of the people. The violent death of an enemy satisfies our longing for a reckoning. I’ve heard people say, “He’s been brought to justice.” What happened is that he got “double-tapped,” with two slugs in his brainpan and the remains got fed to the sharks. A statement was made: “If you murder a bunch of Americans, we will hunt you down and bring you to justice by killing you violently.” Our country, the justice for which it stands, and by extension, our religious freedom (for which I am incredibly thankful) is made secure at the point of a gun. It’ll be maintained as long as we can do violence better than our enemies can. In that context, can American military power become an idol – the powerful force in which we find security and protection? If our sense of security comes from our ability to enforce our will on others by violent force, do we compromise what it means to be a servant of the Prince of Peace? When Peter and John were arrested (as recorded in Acts 4,) their religious freedom was threatened. Interestingly, they did not take up arms to protect their right to speak the truth about God. They instead prayed that God would give them boldness to speak, even if it meant their lives.
None of the questions or ideas I’m posing are my original thoughts. They’ve been debated and fleshed out for generations. I don’t pretend that we can arrive at all of the answers now. I’m just saying that the events of the day provide an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate that God’s idea of justice is not the same as that of our worldly culture. God’s direction for how to treat and think about our enemies is also not the same as that of the world. Neither is God’s idea about what constitutes strength and power.
God will bring real justice at the new creation. When that great time comes, power will not rest in the human ability to enforce one’s will if you’re better at the use of force. Peace will not be what happens when we finally kill off all of our enemies. It will be what God brings when he heals the nations, destroys death (God’s enemy,) and sets the broken creation right.
Until then, we should try to love our enemies. We should grieve death and violence in all of their forms and pray against their dominance in our world. We should work to embody forgiveness, peace and grace; thereby living lives that preview the new earth that God will one day bring to completion. May he do it quickly.