A Pastoral Letter

Osama bin Laden is DeadOne Christian’s Response


5:38 [Jesus said,] “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

St. John 20:19-31, New Revised Standard Version Bible (© 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America).

There was a day when images were beamed back from distant shores of locals dancing with joy around the dead bodies of U.S. soldiers. We rightly recoiled in horror.

Yesterday President Barak Obama announced that U. S. Special Forces troops located and killed Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks on our country that took place on September 11, 2001. By all accounts, it seems as though the right thing was done. bin Laden’s actions have cost the lives of many innocents, and the ramifications of his deeds range from 1 1/2 oz. containers of liquid in our luggage, to flag-draped coffins returning from faraway lands. A grateful nation commends the men and women of our intelligence agencies and special forces units, and marvels at their long-suffering persistence. We do so with hope that others will think twice before following bin Laden’s lead.

Yet I have been deeply troubled by the response in our country. I have viewed images of dancing in the streets of Washington D.C. I have read public postings in social media networks that express delight at the possibility of bin Laden “burning in hell.” Some are responding to bin Laden’s death with an unrestrained glee. While a highly emotional response is not surprising, nearly ten years after suffering the attacks of 2001, this man’s death is not an occasion for joy and delight.

There are times when taking a human life is justifiable. There are times when ending one person’s life seems likely to prevent greater harm. But as Christians, we must never forget that taking another life is the “lesser of two evils.” Those of us who take part in such actions (whether we bear arms or pay for others to do so), must undertake them with profound thoughtfulness and deep humility.

We worship a Christ who speaks forcefully about these matters. In the Sermon on the Mount, he counsels us: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” As followers of this Christ, we are commanded to neighbor-love (even love of our most despicable neighbors), and expected to pray for (not delight in the demise of) those who persecute us.

This is not an easy road to walk. We will be tempted to join in with the cheering masses. We will be drawn to flex our muscles and chant with the crowds. But we must resist. We must hold ourselves accountable to a higher call. We must grieve the fact that there seems no better way to respond, than to trade death for death, evil for evil. Jesus draws a line in the sand here. Although there are times when the case of greater good causes us to step over that line, there are never times when we rightly respond with joy that we have done so.

Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously agonized over whether or not to join a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. His dilemma was not over whether Hitler should be removed from power. His dilemma was over whether a Christian could, with conscience, join in a plot to end the life of another human being. Bonhoeffer eventually took part in that action, was caught by the Nazis, and lost his life on the gallows of a concentration camp. He remained convinced that he had done the right thing. But it was an action he had to take, not an action that he desired to take; not an action that provided him with any measure of joy or delight.

Friends, as our nation takes stock of what has happened this past weekend, let us respond with restrained gratitude, and with prayerful concern for those who have acted on our behalf. We grieve the fact that we have had to take this action. We grieve the fact that bin Laden has lost the chance to be reconciled with God. We grieve the fact that our world seems to be locked into patterns of conflict and violence.

At the same time, we pray for the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. We pray for the influence in our lives of the Prince of Peace. We pray for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to guide those who lead the nations of the world, that our societies might be more just, our nations might be more compassionate, and terror will find less and less a toe-hold our lives. And we hope that through our country’s actions, our world will eventually become a safer place for all of God’s children.

David J. Risendal, Pastor