Say unto them, [As] I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?
There is no particular feeling that Christians must have about Osama’s assassination. Christians may cheerfully celebrate the death of any tyrant, or be surprised at an assassination’s precision, or skeptical of the merit of all violence.
I can understand the reaction of any person whose family member was killed the attack on 9/11 or our consequent wars abroad. I can see the explanations who blame our own government’s sordid history. But although the killing may have vindicated some, marked a completion for others, we may still affirm a reverent agnosticism about God’s presence in that violence.
Certainly scripture repeats the sense of joy when defeating one’s enemies; it also reveals and limits that joy. The tradition demonstrates our tribe’s eagerness to destroy our enemies for good reason: they would destroy us also, and are intent on doing so. Although I personally cringe when I witness any delusional, premature triumphalism, the delicious taste of victory and revenge is appealing. It offers a seductive, compelling kind of meaning.
Still, the truth is this: we still have enemies. Others will arise. Perhaps Bin Laden had unified our own balkanized, fractured society. Both those who oppose and support capitalism; those who oppose and support gay liberation, could each take some shared concern thatOsama sought to destroy all the markets and liberalism the west held dear. This truth was not up for debate, the evidence was there in his speeches and videos, at Ground Zero. He made it easier for one president to invade two countries without asking for any financial sacrifice.
However, we treated Osama like a God. We constructed him as an embodiment of evil, framed him as a madman, evading any inconvenient reflection about what he represented. It was easy to do. He dismissed the power of non-violence. He did not seek peace, nor forgiveness. He thought that the west, and its Muslim sympathizers, only understood the power of the gun and deserved it’s judgment. It was enough that he carried the sword and encouraged others to do so, and perhaps that’s all our leaders needed to know.
Although we want the future to become clear, aside from God’s victory on the long side of history, the details will remain obscure. I doubt there will be more targets for the angry then there already are. And I’m not sure how deeply Osama will become a martyr, for after the recent events in the Middle East, there are more heroic, less violent martyrs from which to choose. We don’t know if this will bring us some space, greater focus, or direct us to important issues.
But aside from the exhilaration of unity, it will not establish the Kingdom of God, and whatever grace we feel will be temporary. Victory’s sweetness won’t redeem our own mistakes, change the minds of our remaining enemies, or lead us into full employment.
And although it is useful for us to make moral critiques of our leaders, we must remember that leaders must engage a messy world. Their choices are limited, and few of them are good. In this case, we were fortunate. Instead of invading an entire country at great cost, Obama kept his promise find OBL with reverence and gravity, as a leader who understood his own power and responsibility. He used evidence that was found without torture. He chose against alternative attacks that would have most likely caused enormous damage to life and reputation. He clearly understood that he’d bear the consequences of a failed attempt. And he nonetheless went after an enemy who provided great political cover for previous presidents. The tradition does not insist that our political leaders be saints; it merely hopes they be wise, with God’s grace and mercy. Their decisions will be imperfect. But may they understand the consequences of their actions and do what is just, knowing randomness and luck determine the fate of the most well considered decision.
Those of us committed to the tradition, may nonetheless take the challenging view against a culture that understands vindication as the ultimate lens of correct judgment. The Holy Spirit that Jesus breathed upon the disciples was established like so: if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. When we are mocked, challenged, disabused, we forgive so we may not be like them; and when we cannot forgive the sins of others, we remain like them. This description of the Spirit revealed that only forgiveness has any hope of halting the violence as culture’s dynamic force. It does not mean we have been unrealistic: those who do forgive will inevitably be faced with carrying their own crosses. They may become victims themselves. And this is a choice our political leaders cannot be expected to make as a choice on behalf of others.
We must also remember that this world is broken, and we have no choice but to participate in its brokenness. We stumble along, not knowing what the future brings, sometimes hurting people along the way. We may become soldiers, not merely to defeat our enemies, but to protect the innocent, knowing that there will be individuals so wounded they cannot admit the healing possibility of grace and peace, and insist on revenge and retaliation, seeking to wound, harm and satisfy the urge to punish. We become soldiers aware we may kill people just like us.
Clearly, when we do take a life, the tradition says we do not behave like God; but we may also never know what acting like God would look like, except as Christ, who remained vulnerable, without judgement, and offering his own life so that others would live. We say violence can not permanently end violence; it merely relocates it, while it waits to reappear another time.
The cross exposes the mechanics of violence and its secret pleasures, revealing its limits, disenchanting our urge to destroy, placing the responsibility on our own heads. The blessing of empire, as Paul and early Christians knew, was to be able to conduct violence with relative impunity and attribute it to God. The blessing of God is that forgiveness may allow us to see a glimmer of a world that works differently, that understands violence is about our own envy and fear about God, and not from God herself.
We should always tell the truth of the kingdom: the world need not be this way. It does not, however, excuse us from having dirty hands. May we not be so righteous that we cannot do the work in this world, believing only in the virtues of the next. But also may the love we show one another, through God’s grace, be the ablutions that wash the stain of blood and victory from our own fingers, even in our own righteousness.
But my confession: if this killing means our troops come home a little earlier; that our country focuses on the economy; if we can breath a little more easily, I’ll take it. But I also pray that the Lord’s mercy will be infinitely more generous than my own.