The Christian response to Osamagate 2011.
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.