In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, I find myself harboring a spirit of celebration somewhere in the depths of my soul. The challenge, of course, is to make certain that I am celebrating the right thing with the right spirit.
And so, allow me to attempt to name what I believe is prompting the celebration within me.
I celebrate that I live in a country that refuses to allow terrorism to have the final word—a country that dares to maintain a social morality that refuses to accommodate murderous attacks and terroristic savagery.
I celebrate that, in a world that is notoriously forgetful, I live in a country that dares to believe that justice is something that deserves an urgent pursuit, even ten long years after the tragic events that generated this particular hunger for justice in the first place.
I celebrate that there are brave and sacrificial soldiers who willingly place themselves in harm’s way because they believe that making a stand against terrorism is an important enough endeavor for which to die.
Perhaps most specifically, I celebrate because bin Laden’s death reminds us that, even though moral ambiguity abounds in the global community, one still cannot ultimately escape the harsh consequences of villainous actions, even if those actions are fueled by religious zeal. In this regard, bin Laden’s death results in something significantly more than an individual corpse. In fact, his death becomes nothing less than a stark tapestry into which the various threads of America’s grief, anguish, outrage, and fear are redemptively woven.
That tapestry, of course, is not something cosmically magic or globally panacean. Draping it over one’s shoulders will not make all things right in the world. But the tapestry hangs on the wall of human history as a poignant mnemonic, helping humankind to remember never to abandon its responsibility to name and address the reality of evil.
Personally, I celebrate the existence of that tapestry, though it was created with blood-stained thread.
And yet, in the midst of the celebration, why do I feel a nagging need to remind myself of how dangerously fine the line is that exists between pursuing justice and gaining a bloody revenge; between making a stand against terrorism and reveling in the gory details; between celebrating the defeat of wickedness and a jingoistic glorification of a country’s militaristic prowess?
Perhaps the tension within me has something to do with portions of Scripture that I cannot seem to escape these days, much as I try. Though I would rather focus on the Old Testament stories of military conquest and triumphant campaigns, my heart keeps drawing me back to the author of Proverbs, who has the audacity to tell us that we are not to “rejoice when [our] enemies fall” or to “let [our] hearts be glad when our enemies stumble” (Proverbs 24:17).
Much as I would prefer to remain focused on Joshua and the bloody battle of Jericho, something in my spirit pushes me toward the prophet Ezekiel (who, by the way, knew a thing or two about terrorism, having lived through the bloody horrors of the Babylonian exile). To be honest, I long for Ezekiel to confirm that God is driven by the same desire for bloody vengeance by which I am often driven. Instead, Ezekiel speaks for God in this manner: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11)
Much as I attempt to fixate on the imagery of an angry Jesus turning over tables in the temple and shouting about the stiff necks of hardhearted people, the image that shines forth most brightly in my meditation is the image of Christ on the cross, looking compassionately upon the “terrorists” who have ripped off his flesh and driven spikes into his body.
Secretly, I have always harbored a vengeful fantasy in which Jesus, in that moment of profound suffering, pulls one of his hands from the cross, extends it toward his enemies, and, like some messianic militant, sends blades of lightning through the hearts of his torturers and tormentors.
As it all unfolds, however…well, you know the story. Jesus opts for an absurdly and counter-culturally non-vengeful response: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). Could there be any more dramatic evidence that Jesus was not kidding when he taught us to “love [our] enemies” and to “pray for those who abuse [us]?”
These are moments of Scripture that remind us of the peculiarity of our narrative as followers of Jesus. And therein lies the tension within me. As a patriotic American, I want to cheer the death of Osama bin Laden, but the Way of Jesus will not permit me to do that if such cheering causes me to be irreverently glib or hateful toward a fallen enemy and his people. If I am to take Jesus at his word, even Roman executioners (and, by implication, modern-day terrorists) do not stand outside the stream of God’s outpoured grace. Jesus, in other words, demands something radically different from me than bloodlust and scornful gloating.
If you sense that there is any truth in what I have said, then I invite you to ponder how an American Christ-follower might respond differently and counter-culturally to the death of Osama bin Laden—not because the Christ-follower is any better than anybody else, but simply because the Way of Christ demands a holier response than what many in American culture are currently offering.
I long to be the kind of Christ-follower, for example, who responds to bin Laden’s death by praying humble prayers of thanksgiving for the God-given hunger for justice that sustained the hunt and for brave soldiers who completed it. At the same time, I pray for deliverance from a cold-heartedness that would inspire me both to ridicule a fallen enemy and to demand the widespread distribution of the bloody photos of his corpse.
I long to be the kind of Christ-follower who is able to locate bin Laden’s death in the panorama of God’s holistic redemption of the human pilgrimage (instead of seeing it primarily as a nationalistic conquest for the good old “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”).
I long to be the kind of Christ-follower whose heart breaks afresh for the families and friends of the victims of the September 11th attacks. These are precious souls who still deserve a place within prayerful hearts. I do not honor them if I allow them to become nothing more than an emotional fuel that I can pour upon the fire of my hatred.
I long to be the kind of Christ-follower who is not so blinded by his country’s militaristic precision that he forgets to repent over a human context in which people crash airplanes into buildings, fire missiles upon one another, and cheer for bloodshed. Irrespective of my nationality or my place in the scheme of things, I am inseparably connected to the impulses that have led to such a violent context. Humble repentance is my only safe option.
Most of all, I long to be the kind of Christ-follower who responds to bin Laden’s death with a deeper and more holistic commitment to the Way of Jesus Christ—a Way in which justice is seen as a companion to peace and not as a stepping stone to an arrogant and irresponsible nationalism.
How do I become that kind of Christ-follower? There are no shortcuts. But I will pray. I will occupy my thoughts with things other than hatred and vengeance. I will name things within me that need to be named and allow the Spirit to change the things within me that need to be changed. I will stubbornly refuse to be governed by emotions and impulses that prevent me from being authentically human (even though those emotions and impulses may experience some momentary victories along the way). I will allow others to hold me accountable for my behavior and discipleship.
Most of all, I will remind myself daily that I may be the only portion of Jesus that some will ever see and the only portion of Scripture that some will ever hear. If that is indeed true, then what are people seeing in the way that I respond to the death of my enemy?