I’m not sorry he’s dead. I believe every life is precious in the sight of God, and I believe every human being is a child of God, but I’m not sorry Osama bin Laden is dead. I feel a sense of relief that my sons will grow up in a world where they will barely remember a time when Osama bin Laden was alive, because I do not wish for them to see his smug snarling face on TV nor to hear his messages of hate and insane justifications for his followers’ violence. Yet, I also know that my sons will face in their lifetime future bin Ladens who will find new ways to spread hatred and terror around the world. The odds are likely they will experience another 9-11 in their lifetime, and bin Laden’s death will most likely not change those odds.
Oddly, the same day I write this column I responded to an e-mail sent to me last week by one of the 9-11 widows in the congregation where I served in New York. She had sent it last week, before the news broke of bin Laden’s death, but due to my recent move I didn’t check that account until today. As I thought of her and her children, whom I taught in confirmation class, as well as other families who had lost husbands, fathers, mothers, wives, children, and lovers on September 11, 2001 due to bin Laden’s plans, I could muster no sympathy for bin Laden.
I started work at my Long Island church two weeks after the original 9-11 and arrived to find a community in shock, national guardsmen with assault rifles at the train stations and flyers of missing loved ones—by then presumed dead--plastered across New York City and the surrounding towns. The televisions never stopped replaying the images of the planes crashing into the towers. In the months to come, I worked with an interfaith group responding to the terrorist attacks and learned about how the trauma of that day impacted the lives of everyone, from the stock traders killed in the tower to the first responders to the taxi drivers dependent upon fares in lower Manhattan. No, I do not feel anything close to sadness that bin Laden is dead, but I do feel sadness for our world and the cycles of violence we are caught up in.
Now that I’m in St. Joseph, MO, it feels like I’m a world away from 9-11 and its aftermath. Yet, I don’t have to look hard around northwest Missouri to find young women and men in fatigues headed to war, most of whom were children ten years ago when the towers fell. The decisions made after 9-11 to invade Afghanistan and Iraq whether made from a need for retribution, misguided neoconservative ideology, or even sincere patriotism have led to still more deaths and mini-9-11’s for the families of thousands of American service members. Although the advocates for our wars can point (rightly or wrongly) to the fact that there has not been a major successful terrorist attack on American soil in the last ten years as justification for our military efforts, the tens of thousands of civilians killed in both countries beg the question of whether other alternatives should have been considered. Does God hear the cries of a mother whose child has become “collateral damage” in a US missile strike any differently than the cries of a mother whose child has been killed in a terrorist attack? The violence may spring from different motives, but in the end both mothers grieve.
For a time, it was fashionable for American Christians to ask, “What would Jesus do?” I happen to agree with Peter Gomes who remarked that this is the wrong question. The proper question is “What would Jesus have us do?” Asking how Jesus would respond to bin Laden’s death allows us to distance ourselves from the radical call to discipleship that Jesus places upon us, because we can simply shrug and say, “Jesus may love bin Laden, but I’m not Jesus.” No, none of us is Jesus, but those of us who call ourselves Christians must wrestle with Jesus’ words to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I don’t believe Jesus’ command to love our enemies means we have to like them or feel anything but revulsion for the violent hatred someone like bin Landen spews, but I do believe Jesus’ command of love does call us to try and see the God-given humanity in our enemies, even ones who have become inhuman in their hatred. Jesus’ command of love is there for our own protection, so that we do not succumb to temptation and respond in kind to the ones who hate us. We risk losing our own God-given humanity when we seek joyous revenge upon those who have wronged us.
This week I will not feel sadness for the death of bin Laden. I will save my sadness for the victims of his crimes. Yet, I will also, for the sake of Jesus Christ who forgave his executioners and calls us to love our enemies, renew my determination to work and pray for a world where our loving God helps us humans escape from our never-ending cycles of violence and revenge.
Grace and Peace,