What should be the response of a Christian to the killing of Osama bin Laden? The question has come up many times since Monday morning. In fact, as we drove to Tulsa early Monday morning a few of us discussed the implications. Its a complicated issue because it hits us both as citizens of this country and as practitioners of the Christian faith…and, as is often the case, those two characteristics don’t necessarily correlate.
We have members of this church community who lost relatives in the 9/11 attacks, and we have members who have seen friends killed or injured while serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have all felt the sting of these deaths at some level, some of us more directly than others. But we all watched those towers burn and collapse, and those of us from OKC felt a horrible sense of deja-vu as we stared at the remains of a building, knowing all too well what its contents were and what price was just paid for someone’s hatred.
So when you hear the news that Osama bin Laden has been killed, I understand the satisfaction. Yet here is where the discipline of our faith must interfere. It is true that celebrating the death of a life, any life, should be objectionable to the practice of a faithful life, Christianity included. But there is a reason for that, and it is crucial.
It can be terribly easy to look at bin Laden, place all of our anger and pain on his image and then rejoice that this person is dead, carrying away all of our hurt. And it is even easier to celebrate the man who was clearly the head of an organization dedicated to the worst in religion – fundamentalist, militant expressions full of judgment and hatred that instantly label any disagreement “infidel” and assign the death penalty. This man was, unfortunately, the face of Islam for a long time – instead of, for instance, the millions of peace-loving Muslims in the world, or the faces of the young people in the streets of Cairo or Damascus.
So when we look to celebrate, what I would hope that we will celebrate is the chance to have a new “face” for Islam – one that more closely represents it’s profound and important spiritual impact. What I would hope that we would celebrate is a chance to embrace non-violence as a factor for change, not the downward spiral which violence represents. This is not because we don’t think in our hearts that there may be some people who “deserve” violence – read some Bonhoeffer for a unique perspective on this – but because using the tools of the enemy makes us the enemy. How are we to distinguish ourselves from what we are fighting against? Is it only because we feel justified in our killing? Guess what? So do they.
We live in a violent world, I acknowledge that. And I’m not saying that there won’t be times when violence is unavoidable. I am not a pacifist. But to celebrate violence takes us to a dangerous place. I have seen several posts repeated on Facebook – one of them is that in response to the killing of bin Laden we should emphasize an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, which comes from several places in the Hebrew Bible, most notably Leviticus and Deuteronomy. But for Christians we must question this reference, for it is a teaching that Jesus directly refutes. In Matthew, Jesus directly refutes that instruction, replacing it with the idea that we should “turn the other cheek”. This is often interpreted as advocating passivity, but this is really advocating a new paradigm. Do not return evil for evil, do not participate in a system of vengeance. Violence is the trademark of Rome, not of God’s Kingdom.
And that leads me to the other quote I have seen repeatedly on Facebook. It comes in a few forms, some of them accurately quoting, some of them adding a few choice lines. But the original quote, from Dr. King, in his book Strength to Love, goes like this: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
What Jesus and Dr. King, echoing Jesus, say is that our participation in systems that count violence as somehow restorative or redemptive runs counter to God’s plan. It isn’t that we don’t do this, we are human after all. But it is nothing to celebrate. And it is certainly nothing to build a foreign policy around. Non-violence should always be our goal, and our primary means of achieving our goals. As Christians we should be, in other words, oriented towards non-violence as the way that God would have us operate creation.
We had an opportunity immediately after 9/11 to choose a different path. We did not. But we have another chance here. The death of bin Laden represents, even if only iconically, the end of an era. We have a new chance to relate to Islam, a new chance to represent what our primary drivers of change will be and a new chance to demonstrate that we will be geared towards justice for all people, not just selective justice. We have, until this time, dramatically altered many of our core values in response to terrorism. We have a chance to say to the terrorists that they may try and instill fear in us, but we will not bend to their will, nor will we stoop to their level. Where they squash freedom with fear, we should praise and support freedom. Where they demonstrate arrogance and intolerance, we should practice humility and celebrate our diversity. Where they believe that some people count more than others, we should lead with human rights as our primary doctrine.
And, above all, we should not continue a system in which we act like we’re God’s chosen people and our means justify our ends in all cases. This is the mindset of Osama bin Laden. We don’t defeat it by being it, only with more firepower. We defeat it by giving the world an alternative. We drive out hate by being love.
I’m not asking you to mourn the man, but I am asking you to mourn the means. I am asking us all to take a moment to see what kind of world we live in and what steps we are taking to change that world if we are at all dissatisfied with it. I am asking us all, myself included, to consider that although we may rejoice that no more innocent lives will be ended because of Osama bin Laden, that he does not hold the monopoly on evil. We all live with evil and good in us, judgment and grace, hatred and love. And our call as Christians is to remember what comes from God – and what doesn’t – and to choose God’s plan, even when that seems difficult.
No one said that being a follower of Jesus was easy – including Jesus.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake,
and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? – Mark 8:34-37