In our small group meeting last night we talked about the place of questions and doubts in the Christian life. It was timely, because I went to sleep last night with many questions (and some doubt, too) in my mind.
Osama Bin Laden is dead and America rejoices. Therein lies my discomfort. From all that I know, Bin Laden was a truly evil man. I don’t dispute that in any way. I’m also glad that he, at least, won’t be able to do any more harm. But I don’t think that tossing beach balls and singing songs is the appropriate Christian response to the death of another human being – any human being.
Or is it? When I was in high school our church youth group used to sing a song lifted directly from the Hebrew scriptures: I will sing unto the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously. The horse and the rider thrown into the sea. It’s taken from Exodus 15:21, the song Miriam sang after the children of Israel not only crossed the Red Sea on dry land, but saw the Egyptian army swallowed up behind them. It’s a song celebrating the victory of the people of God, but it also celebrates the death of an untold number of Egyptians (and their horses). Singing that peppy little number never bothered me, perhaps because the Exodus was long ago and far away and clearly God’s doing, besides.
Last night, however, scrolling through the jubilant status updates on Facebook, watching the joyous crowds on television, I found myself feeling a bit queasy. We Christians follow a Savior who rejected the way of violence and instructed us to love our enemies. I lean toward pacifism but I don’t know if my pacifism is deeply rooted enough to stay with me under any and all conditions. I understand those who feel that killing Bin Laden was a necessary step for the U.S. government to take. But even if this was necessary – and I’m stressing if – Christians, at least, should respond to the death of an enemy with some sobriety.
What about the singing and dancing in Exodus? What about the death toll that the Israelites racked up, with God on their side, in various other places in scripture? I don’t know. This is where the questions and doubts hit me hardest. How do I reconcile the bloodshed of the Old Testament with the pattern of Jesus, who laid down his life for his enemies. The truth is that I often feel a conflict between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. This is something “mature” Christians are supposed to be past, I guess. Maybe I’m just a little slow. It sometimes seems to me that we choose the God we want to suit the circumstances. When we want vengeance (or justice, though I’m not sure we can always tell the difference), we recall the smiting, wrathful God. When we want mercy – often for ourselves or our loved ones – we turn to the gracious God revealed in Christ.
This is the only resolution I can bring to this tension: if we are required to kill in service of some higher purpose (a point I’m neither prepared to concede or argue against right now), we Christians should still not rejoice in it. If this is all the ground that we can give to our suffering Savior, let’s at least give him that. Let’s not call for making May 1 a holiday. Let’s not sing, “Hey Hey Hey Goodbye” or “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” or shoot off fireworks or say we hope he “rots in hell”. Let’s soberly recognize our own complicity in shedding blood. How many have died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including civilians? Let’s ask ourselves why is it that we rejoice in the death of our enemies, but so few of us mourn the death of civilians? Acknowledge with sorrow that sin twisted Osama Bin Laden into someone he was not created to be. Beware of the potential for sin to distort your own soul, as well. If you believe, fellow Christian, that it was necessary for the U.S. military to kill Bin Laden, then by all means, be thankful. But also pray for the day when wars will cease and the Kingdom of God will come in fullness. And pray for the enemies that remain, as Jesus commanded us. Here is an Orthodox prayer for enemies that may help turn our thoughts in the right direction:
Thou Who didst pray for them that crucified Thee, O Lord, Lover of the souls of men, and Who didst command Thy servants to pray for their enemies, forgive those who hate and maltreat us, and turn our lives from all harm and evil to brotherly love and good works. For this we humbly bring our prayer, that with one accord and one heart we may glorify Thee Who alone lovest man.