My blog may well be too erratic to have any sort of “best of.”
And of course I am not generally a topical sort of writer. But when I penned some thoughts on the church’s response to the death of Osama Bin Laden, I hit a nerve. I have neither before nor since had anywhere near this level of reaction to anything I’ve written–from all kinds of people all over the world. Some broke my heart–like the man who said he would have become a Christian a long time ago if he knew there were Christians who thought this way. Or the man whose father was an Iranian terrorist, but is now an evangelist in the US–and how devastated he had been by the reaction of fellow believers to the developing story. And of course, some were positively scathing. So I’m revisiting these posts here in full, Osamagate Parts 1 and 2. My sense is that even though we are well past this particular news story, we are nowhere near beyond the broader questions all of this raised for the church and the world.
On Sunday nights, I go to bed about the same time as your average 6-year old. I was reading myself to sleep by 9pm after preaching Revelation all weekend, and thus didn’t hear anything about the death of Osama Bin Laden until Monday morning. And in true 21st century fashion…I actually found out via social media. A self-proclaimed news junkie, hearing major news by way of Facebook and Twitter first felt a bit like a personal defeat, but no matter.
Of course by the time I was reading all of this, there was a bit of stir already within the Christian community as to what extent it is appropriate to celebrate anybody’s death, even a profoundly evil, murderous man. I did not read anything where anybody I knew personally said anything indicative of “real Christians are all pacifists, Bin Laden should not have been killed, this is a terrible thing, this is a sad day for the world.” What I did read—consistently from people from the Renovatus community especially, was reluctance about the idea of celebrating Bin Laden’s death with glee and dancing. Folks who felt that literally screaming and shouting over any death felt unsettling, even eerie to their Christian convictions. These were not soft-headed, soft-hearted, buy the world a Coke and sing Kumbaya hippie kinds of responses (No “all we need is love, people.”) From a Christian perspective, Bin Laden was not only a troubled and sociopathic individual but a lost human being headed for divine judgment. I can’t imagine much of anybody who did not breathe a sigh of relief that to see the legacy of evil of this man cut short. I can’t imagine much of anybody who isn’t glad to see some level of closure to the ongoing saga relatives of people who died on 9/11 have endured. I felt the relief, I felt the closure.
But to express in some measure that the Christian response should at the very least be somewhat measured and sober in tone, acknowledging that the entire cycle of violence Bin Laden symbolizes is a product of a deeply broken world…to acknowledge that the job of the Church is to love our enemies into the kingdom rather than rejoice over them giddily because of the cross of Christ, is apparently controversial. I must confess to being perplexed by this. And of course when Christians appeal to Scripture in some capacity, the trump card is immediately played: How would YOU feel if your mom was killed on 9/11? Other variations of this response whenever Christians attempt to talk about how we ought to respond to violence in the world demonstrate remarkable, er, creativity, along the lines of: “what if your grandmother was gang raped—what would you do?” “If your family was chopped into tiny pieces and someone burned down their house and then urinated on the ashes—WHAT WOULD YOU DO?! WHAT WOULD YOU DO?!” (There is always an implicit “BOOM,” at the end of this question—like I’m dropping the mike on you, sissy.)
Let’s be very clear: I have a REAL temper, and I am not saying this in a life-relating, I’m really just one of the boys preacher kind of way…I am telling you the truth. I have felt like resorting to violence in matters so mundane as being cut off in traffic while attempting to merge onto 277, or trying to talk to Christians who resort to quandary ethics from 1974 in conversations about morality instead of deeply engaging Scripture in a meaningful way. Given such weakness, I make no claims as to what I would or would not do if “the worst thing” happened in my life. God help me.
But of course I am a follower of Jesus, which means my job is to reflect in a disciplined way on the implications of the cross of Christ for how I view the world in any and all circumstances. Thus how I feel or don’t feel, what I would do or not do, is not the ultimate question. The question is, what does a cross-shaped life call for? What does it look like, in the words of Revelation, “follow the lamb wherever he goes?”
In this day and age, to believe both that the cross of Christ is the atoning sacrifice for sin and the only way of salvation AND that the cross of Christ provides the example for how I conduct myself in the world is apparently odd indeed. Because only conservatives care about salvation and only liberals care about following the lived example of Jesus. If I hear one more variation of this false choice from one more person, I am going to slap the living—no I won’t, I am going to have to return to the cross again.
So let’s talk Scripture. Yes, there are many passages in the Old Testament that celebrate the demise of an enemy—and people worked their Strong’s concordance for the first time perhaps in many moons to find them yesterday. David celebrates even the babies of his enemies having their heads dashed against the rocks. There are many examples of raw, authentic prayer where David lashes out at his enemies. The Israelites celebrated when Goliath’s head was cut off. On the other hand, there are many OT references floating around since yesterday like Ezekiel: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33.11)
An impossible scenario, right? We just keep playing Bible arm-wrestling and whoever can line up the most texts wins–we will out proof text each other. You’ve got your references, I’ve got mine—we are post-modern people and we will pick the texts we like the most. Hippie Christians vs. UFC Christians, whoever makes it out of the steel cage. The problem of course with all of this is that the full expression of God in humanity is in the person of Jesus Christ. His teachings, contrary to a lot of popular fundamentalist study Bibles, are meant to be applied seriously. The Sermon on the Mount is the magna carta of the kingdom of God, not a list of suggestions, idealistic teachings about the millential reign, or a mere attempt to demonstrate that “nobody can really follow the law anyway.” The cross of Jesus Christ judges and relativises the way we think about violence and power, and sets the agenda and the posture for any and all Christians of all generations: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
Do I think you need to feel bad for having a desire for justice, a desire for closure, or for feeling good that a bad man won’t be able to bring death and destruction to this world anymore? No. Do I think it is okay to rejoice or glory in any human’s death? No. This side of the cross, we only get to glory in one death. This is not a peculiar position, a doctrinal quirk, a novel way of looking at things. This is what the world looks like for people who believe the world definitively changed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is what it looks like to take the cross seriously and to bring every other thought and emotion under its shadow.
I wouldn’t bother to write about this at all if I simply thought that this was all about this one evil character and this was a one-off affair. The problem is, I am convinced this is part of a larger trend in American Christianity, where the kingdom is being divided from the cross, the theology of the crucified God (as pertains to salvation) is being detached from the example of the crucified God (as it pertains to daily life), where the Church is being divided into “conservative” and “liberal” instead of the only categories that exits in God’s economy: faithful or unfaithful. I am convinced that we aren’t doing a good job of blessing our enemies, and I’m not talking about Bin Laden. There is an increasingly pious justification for an us vs. them posture that is about conquering the enemies of the cross rather than laying down our lives for them. And that, not some genetically engineered Russian in a Left Behind book, is the spirit of antichrist.
When those in the Church think their brothers and sisters are weak, sentimental and soft for taking the words and example of the head of the Church seriously, the movement is in trouble. The people I know who are living out our command to be peacemakers in volatile parts of the Middle East, unarmed save for the gospel, are the most courageous people I’ve ever met. If you follow the logic far enough of where a lot of people are trending, you would almost get the idea that people like them or even Jesus Himself was a weakling for allowing His life to be taken instead of calling down the angels of heaven. When the reality is, the cross of Jesus redefined what strength and courage means forever—we conquer by sacrifice. This is not just for Jesus—we too will overcome the evil one only by “the blood of the lamb, the word of our testimony, loving not our own lives even into death.”
For the last 2,000 years, we haven’t been living in an Old Testament battle epic against the Amalekites, we’ve been living in the kingdom of the one who told Peter to put away the sword. We are indeed at war, but it is not with flesh and blood but principalities and powers, cosmic forces of darkness in high places (Ephesians 6). We do indeed taunt an enemy, but that enemy is death and hell—the foes that Jesus disarmed, stripped and publicly ridiculed in front of the whole universe through His death (Colossians 2.15). This is not advanced Christian theology—this is gospel 101. The terror of the Son of love dying on the cross is more terrible than any act ever perpetrated by any terrorist, and indeed the sting of all other earthly terrors has been swept up in this death. The worst thing that could ever happen in human history has already happened—and God already conquered by resurrection. The death and resurrection has already changed the world, and all other lives and deaths are only a footnote to that. I think I’m on the verge of writing in tongues, if such a thing were possible.
But I’ve said more than I meant to, because the truth is I was deeply encouraged by the responses I read from the Renovatus community. Sometimes we might be tempted to wonder if it is possible to craft a whole community around the gospel in such a deep and thoroughgoing way that an entire congregation is conditioned in a counter-cultural way, so that the very inclinations of their hearts have been altered. Can such a thing happen? Is it possible for a Christian community to be odd in the world again? Is it possible for God’s people to set apart by a holiness that is incomprehensible to the world again? Could the gospel become odd in a land saturated with religion?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
For a taste of this, I offer without names remarkably consistent comments/quotes offered up by the Renovatus community and friends of the Renovatus community. They spread like wildfire without any instigation or commentary from me. I’m proud of them. There is diversity in nuance among these responses, but the common threads are pretty clear. I’m thankful for your peculiarity, Renovatus:
I will never celebrate the death of an enemy. I will not dance like a fool at the so-called “justice” of it. I mourn for the deaths both at his hands and ours. Maybe this is a sign that the Christ in me is greater than the fear that permeates our culture and world.
I mourn the people lost on 9/11 and will never ever forget that horrible day. my heart still aches to think about it. but another man’s death doesn’t make me want to celebrate at all.
“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. 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.”
I am proud of friends and family in the military, who sacrifice so much in obedience to politics they have no control over, who do their best to protect us and keep our borders safe. I grieve for a world that is lost and look with hope towards a world that will be. The death that really changed the world happened over 2,000 years ago.
There was only one man’s death that changed everything, and we celebrated that a week ago. (Or lack of death, really!)
Maybe I am a complete weirdo, but even though I am glad that Osama bin Laden is gone as a threat, and even though I think this kind of military action is sometimes necessary, it is hard for me to celebrate the death of any man, especially in light of what eternity may mean. It’s more sobering to me than a moment of celebration.
I celebrate justice and not death. I also support our troops and they deserve the honor.
Sorry guys, but I just can’t get excited about people dying, regardless of who they were or what they did.
Does it not strike anybody else as kind of disgusting for a crowd of kids in D.C. to be singing the “Na Na Na Na” song right now?
I mourn the loss of a strong life-force today, a misdirected boy who grew into a destructive man. Who can celebrate at the death of a lost human?
As a Christian I believe in justice but it deeply saddens me that we can become excited over a dead man (Osama Bin Laden) who never accepted Jesus as Savior.
Osama bin Laden is dead. And I am glad justice has been met. But as a Christian, I cannot rejoice over the death of my enemy. Be careful Church.
It’s a dangerous thing when humans get an appetite for blood. I’m happy for the relief this will bring to the military families that have sacrificed so much, but I don’t want to ever be on the side yelling “Crucify Him!” My bloodlust is satisfied at the table of Eucharist, and I am thankful for the mercy shown to me. I have not received the justice I deserve, thank God.
I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive responses I’ve received about yesterday’s piece on what I labeled (with tongue firmly in cheek) as “the Christian response to Osamagate.” I’ve heard wonderful things from folks from all over the country who felt it struck a chord with them, and for that I am grateful and humbled. Well at least, there was mostly positive feedback. I heard that a good friend of mine linked the story to an unofficial message board that some folks in my native denomination use to talk about church, culture and, um, other stuff for which I would have no category. I know a number of folks who have participated in some level of something akin to dialogue on this site over the years whom I love and honor respect, and consistently speak words that inspire and provoke the Church. So I don’t want to take away from that. That said, I have generally stayed away from the forum because I historically found the level of discourse to be devastatingly stupid—to the point to where I actually felt myself getting dumber when I would look at it. I am open, of course, to changing my opinion about such things. But I glanced over at a few of the responses last night and got a great chuckle, as the boys did not fail to disappoint.
In response to the entry, the responses included “Perhaps you guys should plan a memorial service and a day of remembrance for your fallen hero” and “You are right…we have misjudged Osama…he has done no wrong.” I was impressed by the nuanced, articulate responses which so incisively cut to the chase and engaged the blog piece, which clearly stated that “Osama is awesome and we should, like, totally not hate on him—peace and love!” That was PRECISELY what I said. It would be tempting to say that they didn’t read the piece, but that would be unfair…as such responses don’t show evidence of people who read at all. But this one response from my drive-by caught my eye: “if you’re going to advance theological positions like this you have a connected obligation to break them down into practical application, beginning to end. With respect I’d like to ask you to start with 9/11 and go from there with practical application of this theology and specific things the US should have done in response. I don’t intend to disagree or argue, I just want to see how it works because I can’t envision it.” Okay, that remark is not dumb at all. Practical application of this theology and specific things we can do? I’ll be your huckleberry. But only in context of the strategy of the Church—which is all I addressed to begin with.
As I grow deeper in my convictions regarding the vocation of the Church to be cross-shaped peacemakers, I do in fact find the most common objection to be: “this stuff is just not practical.” Especially given the number of people who are just counting down to Armageddon and waiting for the fireworks to begin, such work can even seem like an impediment to the return of Christ. (More on that tomorrow) But of course, “what do you really do with this” is a perfectly good question, an important question.
For starters? I don’t recall making any judgments or suggestions about what any governments of any nations should or should not have done about anything. I would be in over my head. I wrote to the Church about the Church’s posture towards the world. Yesterday’s post was about not allowing ourselves to get caught up in the spirit of the age, keeping the posture of our hearts in line with that of Jesus Himself to His own enemies. Since there is no atrocity in human history, from crusades to holocaust to 9/11, that were any worse than human beings killing God, and yet His response was “Father forgive them for they no not what they do,” I felt that Christians should be careful that we keep our hearts in check. There are many other potential Bin Ladens in the world, and we have to avoid a root of bitterness that would keep us from doing our job well. There can be no enemy in the world that we do not love.
As to how it is done? Well, my whole adult ministry has been lived under the influence of my spiritual grandmother, Sister Margaret Gaines, who showed me firsthand how one life lived faithfully in a Palestinian village can change the temperature of one small part of the world—how the gospel can be lived with grace and truth to Muslim neighbors. (The more people enlighten me, the more I regret all the time I’ve spent being shaped by her tears and stories—there are so many e-mail forwards I could be circulating, inflammatory news commentators I could be listening to, and message boards I could be posting on! I feel so naïve now.) There is enough I could share about her life as strategy that I could write a book about it.
Unlike Sister Gaines, I don’t feel called to become a full-time missionary to the Middle East, but at Renovatus we’ve adopted Beirut as our international mission. Coming off my second trip there in the last two years just two weeks ago today, I saw God do astonishing things there. As you may know, the US has upped the travel advisory and stated that no US citizen should travel there right now. With all the upheaval in the region and the growing presence of Hezbollah there, a lot of people discouraged us from going. But we went—and I’m so glad we did.
Last time I preached in Beirut, I preached in a large open-air celebration in downtown Beirut. The believers have such a good relationship with the Muslims in that area, they allowed us to preach in the center of the city right in front of the largest Mosque in Lebanon. It was remarkable—we saw so many come to Christ. This time, we were in a large indoor theater, where again saw many come to saving faith. I couldn’t believe the level of openness and receptivity to the Gospel. One of the most moving stories was when a Muslim woman came down to the invitation in tears, wearing a burqa. Given her family situation, she could not bring herself to invite Christ into her life that night. But she wept as she asked us to pray for her. She said while I was preaching, she felt something she had never felt—and she used words that were not in the sermon at all: “I feel like I need to be cleansed from the inside out!” That has haunted me for weeks.
Additionally, the local believers in Beirut—who have really had to struggle with the whole media spectacle over the US pastor burning a Quran (which has greatly hindered their relations with Muslims there)—worked it out for us to visit some key political leaders. We met with the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Lebanon (as you probably know, Saudi Arabia is still closed to the Gospel). We told him that the actions of that pastor does not reflect the heart that American Christians have for the Muslim world and that we loved their people. Remarkably, we were able to embrace him and pray for him in the name of Jesus Christ. (this pic is from that visit)
We ended up sharing the same sentiments with the head of the Lebanese military court and praying with him. Totally unexpected, we were invited to the Presidential Palace to meet with the President of Lebanon himself, where we were also able to share our love for their people as representatives of the body of Christ in America. We were able to pray over Him as well. All the major Arab news outlets picked up the story and footage was broadcast all over the Middle East. (Pic is our team from Renovatus and our Lebanese friends with the President in the Presidential Palace)
Nothing we did was remotely noble or heroic—it was a 10-day trip just to support an amazing work God is doing on the ground there with or without any of us. The heroes are the ones who are navigating these tensions on a daily basis and living faithful lives in front of their Muslim neighbors. But as a practical strategy, I can propose these ideas from my time in places like Beirut and Aboud:
1. Get to know a Muslim and love and serve them really, really well.
2. If and when you do get such an opportunity, don’t say insulting or condemning things about their religion. Listen a lot, serve with humility and without agenda, and when the Holy Spirit gives you the opportunity—share how the love of Jesus has transformed your life.
3. If you have the means, travel to the Middle East where you can get connected with local believers there and learn about what they are doing firsthand. If you can’t do that, find a work you can support with both prayer and finances.
“You mean that is all?” I know, it doesn’t seem impressive as a strategy, does it? Alas, I feel like I’m giving antiquated and outdated ideas at best. Sure, the courage of a handful of faithful people seemed to turn the world upside down (in the phrase of Luke in Acts) in the first century, but that’s when the world was safe for Christians. They didn’t have to deal with enemies of the cross or people who wanted to harm them, and are thus an inadequate model for us. Going to people you do not know armed with nothing but the power of the gospel and the love of Jesus Christ had pretty mixed results at best. I mean really, what did the stuff this Paul person did in Rome ever really accomplish? And that whole thing of Philip going to the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8—it was just one Christian living out his calling in relationship to one guy! People act like one redemptive relationship could turn around a whole continent or something.
Today’s complicated world calls for new strategies. Instead of being careful to make sure the tone, tenor and content of our message to the world is full of love, compassion and blessing even and especially to those who would harm us, we should embrace the kingdom tools of fear, suspicion, anger and inflammatory rhetoric. Given the clear failure of the early Church of wearing down their enemies with relentless love, we’ve got to get into the 21st century. After all, we’ve got Armageddon to rehearse for! No more talk of this idealistic cross business. This is a time for pragmatism, not fairy tales.
But wait a second…the question addressed how a nation should have responded after 9/11. How would this theology have played out there? How should I know? I never said anything about how nations should deal with other nations, I wrote about how the Church should be the Church—how we have to be careful not to harden our hearts in rejoicing over the death of our enemies so we will keep a spirit of love and sacrifice towards them; how we must be obsessed with loving them instead of beating them. That is the only thing I’ve got a strategy for, and somehow I think the stakes are significantly higher in this discussion than any nationalistic strategy. It seems to me the most important thing the Church can do for the world is to be really good at being the Church. And if that doesn’t work out…sorry, I’ve got nothing.
But perhaps it seemed I neglected the post 9/11 side of the question… That’s because nothing that happened on 9/11 changed anything about the Church’s strategy. We’ve only had one strategy since (depending on whose calendar you are using, give or take a year) around the year 33, and we cannot alter it no matter what beautiful or terrible things happen to the world around us. Practical strategy post 9/11? I do have one thing. We have to take off our shoes when we go through airport security now, so post 9/11, I might recommend you leave for the airport a little earlier than you did pre 9/11 when you are on your way to go see what the Spirit of God is up to in the Middle East.