Spiritual Reflection on the Killing of Osama bin Laden

(Note: You can find an audio version of these thoughts, delivered as Sunday’s sermon, here, as a podcast available on iTunes….EF)

How do we put the killing of Osama bin Laden in some spiritual and moral perspective? More than a week later it continues to reverberate inside many of us, pushing deep, moral questions to the front of our psyche, forcing us to look at who we are as a nation, and what we believe and value as individuals.

Over and over, I have heard people say: “There’s no many conflicting emotions that get brought up with his death.”
Well, of course there are!

As a minister and theologian, it seems to me the deepest questions we must ask and answer don’t have to do with who Osama bin Laden was, but rather who we are, what we value, and what values to we stand for.

His death also forces us to reexamine an important question for us as people of faith: Are we, in all cases, “strict pacifists?” Or can we conceive of a situation where military force is an acceptable option? Do we believe there is such thing as a “just war,” or is war, always, by definition, unjust?

These are big issues, and our faith calls us to unpack them.

In the days immediately following bin Laden’s death I heard  the following juxtaposition of opposite thoughts:
People said “Justice has been done.”
People said “This was pure vengeance.”

While I can understand both positions —how somebody could claim this was pure justice, and others could say this is was only vengeance– I find myself strangely unable to affirm either in an unambiguous way.

Was this Justice?
I appreciated the President’s speech the night of the raid that killed bin Laden. But the one line that caused me to cringe was when the President confidently asserted “Justice has been done.”

What I thought was, “Well, closure, has been brought.”
But, to me, I cannot say it was the highest form of justice. As a Christian minister, I think we must speak to this. There is often a difference between what is politically and practically possible on the ground, in a combat situation, and what would be morally superior in a so-called “perfect world.” This situation is akin to a murder suspect being shot while being taken into custody. Yes, it’s closure. But, no, we can never say this is the highest form of justice.

To me, in a “perfect world,” Osama bin Laden would have been captured and put on trial for his alleged crimes against humanity. I have been told, repeatedly, that this naive. And I am willing to admit it may well be.

I am willing to note very clear that I wasn’t there on the ground, that this was a ten-year search, that the entire mission (as conceived) was exceedingly dangerous, and that there may have been many other good reason why he could not have been captured.
I am willing to cede all that.

But as a Christian minister, I am still obligated to point out that the highest “good” would have been a trial according to the rule of law.

What better message to send our world than the fact that we believe in a rule of law?
That we respect a rule of law?
That we admit that military might is not our highest value, but the constitution and rule of law is?

That, ultimately, we confess violence is only ever partially able to mete the justice the world most desperately needs?

I’ll note here that this week the news breaks of the conviction of an alleged Nazi war criminal in Germany. The man lived in the US for years after the war. It took years for him to be brought to justice, but he was. I don’t know any of the facts of his case. Just that he was tried and convicted. And I know that this shows that a rule of law….the judicial system….CAN mete out justice…and should. It was good enough for Timothy McVeigh, for this alleged Nazi, it would have been good enough for in Laden.

I can hear people say: “But he didn’t deserve a trial. He didn’t deserve that respect.”

And at this, I will point out what I think we often overlook, when we have this specific debate:
Ultimately, it’s not about what bin Laden does or doesn’t deserve. It’s about who we are, what we value, what values we want to lift up to the rest of the world.

We had that opportunity before us, at least theoretically, and for a myriad reasons we were not able to avail ourselves of it. As I’ve said, I can’t second-guess those who were on the ground and working out this situation. And I do not want to minimize one iota of the danger and risk that was present.

But the highest good would have been a trial, and it’s my job to point to that truth.

Was It Vengeance?
The other thing I have heard others says in recent days is that this act on our part was pure vengeance. And, again, while I can understand the emotion, I do not agree with this either.

To say this was pure vengeance assumes that there was no initial wrong to be made right. But there was. To say it is pure vengeance ignores the other options that were considered and rejected. I was pleased, for example, that the President over-ruled military leaders who simply wanted to “carpet bomb” the compound. We have seen, over and over these past ten years, that this strategy almost never works.
I was pleased to hear a team of personnel was ready to receive Osama in Laden, should he have been captured…interpreters….interviewers….other professionals, ready to process him on the ship. This also mitigates against the idea that this act was pure vengeance.

To my mind, where people began to associate this action with vengeance came when we saw the “celebrations” afterwards. Many people were horrified to see huge crowd outside the White House, Ground Zero, and elsewhere, seemingly reveling in bin Laden’s death.

Then, something really interesting happened. In the days that followed, a mysterious quote began flying around the internet. Many people, including me, posted this quote, attributed to Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. Here’s what it said:

“I will 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.”

That quote, as I said, was posted by millions of people in the days following the death of bin Laden.

The only problem was, Dr. King didn’t say all that. He said some of it, just not all of it. The first sentence, it turns out, was posted by a young Penn State graduate named Jessica Dovey, who currently lives in Japan. Her original first sentence reads:
“I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

Got somehow attached to the real words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, which are:
“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.”

But what’s interesting to me about this is not that it was “fake,” or “real,” or “half-fake, but that clearly spoke to a very real feeling millions of people had:
“I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

I think many, many people felt that way as they watched the celebrations….whether it was justice…whether it was closure…whether it was vengeance…celebration at the death of another struck many as a very disturbing development.

But even if Dr. King didn’t say all of it, long ago the scriptures did. Much thanks to theologian and historian Dr. Diana Butler Bass who reminded us of Proverbs 24:

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, And do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles, or the Lord will see it and be displeased.”

 Other translations say: “Do not GLOAT when your enemy falls, And do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles”

Even if that quote was not real, that emotional reaction against gloating was very real. Another verse from Ezekiel points to this too:

“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?

God does not revel in the deaths of anyone. God does not find joy in murder. Or suicide bombers. Or even armed conflict.
As the true part of the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. puts it:

“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 have said for years that violence begets violence. And I still believe that to be true. But one of the things that September 11th did for me was to help me understand that I am not a strict pacifist. It seems to me that World War II did this for many Christians in a previous generation.
I happen to believe that there can be such a thing as a so-called “just war,” and I realize that this view will put me at odds with some of you who are strict pacifists. It seems to me the experience of World War II showed us that sometimes nations can develop evil intentions, and sometimes only a collective response will do.

I’ve had a very interesting occasional conversation with a member here at Northaven over the past several years, who argues that the principles of non-violence only seem to work in a situation where there is a respect for the rule of law. Non-violence worked here in the US in the 60s, because the mass of the people, the laws of the state, and the leadership of the nation all collectively agreed to support a change to the rule of law, not throw out of the rule of law.

Perhaps we are seeing the same thing in Egypt right now? Leaders who, again, respect their people and respect their laws enough to not allow the situation to descend into violence, and to agree to social change through non-violent means. Unfortunately, it’s not happening now in Libya, where more dictatorial leader is fighting back..and the situation is descending into civil war.

In other words, the principles of non-violence do seem to require certain pre-existing assumptions: that leaders will cede power, willingly, and use power sparingly, and agree, even if begrudgingly, to the demands of the people.

How Justice and Vengeance Got Jumbled Up
So, it has always seemed to me you can make a very good case that the search for Osama bin Laden and the masterminds of September 11th, was a just cause.

The problem is, of course, all of this got wrapped up with the War in Iraq. And it’s now forever wrapped up in our various emotions and memories of the past ten years. We were told, for so long, that the two were connected that even those who never believed they were now have a hard time unwrapping everything. The past ten years all jumbles together in our memory, as we unpack these things.

Many of us believed, from the beginning, that War In Iraq had no moral underpinning. Saddam Hussein was a dictator, using fear and intimidation to control his people, and one of those methods was allowing the world to believe he might have weapons of mass destruction. He played poker (a game of chicken) with the world over this “might have.” (This has now been fairly well established; namely how he played this game of poker for his own internal political reasons. I blogged about it here back in 2008)

With only that weak “might have WMD” as moral justification, we entered into a full scale war that has led to the deaths of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. The Iraq War, it seems to me, was a text-book case of how NOT to engage a so-called “Just War.” It has been ten-years of a war that cause many of us nothing but deep and abiding tears.

As such, I have a final theory about the “celebrations” that horrified so many after bin Laden’s death. (This my theory. It is a theological and social theory of my own imagining, as I search my own feelings about this situation…)

I believe that:
a) If you can strip away the horror of the War in Iraq, many Americans, and many Christians, believe there was, theologically, a justification to seek justice against Osama bin Laden, but that
b) Many Americans, in the privacy of their own hearts, are profoundly disturbed by the War in Iraq. Whether many people even know how to express it fully, they sense that that war was unjust. They feel, frankly, morally “dirty” about it.

We hear this almost endlessly from soldiers coming back from Iraq…soldiers who are left to struggle about what they were called to do there, and what greater purpose it served. To this day, people weep bitter tears over the actions of our nation in Iraq.

Still others, I believe, would never weep tears, but are deeply conflicted about the War in Iraq, in ways that come out as anger. They are conflicted between what they believe is a duty to support the troops and what they feel, internally,  is an unjust cause. For some people, this dissonance cannot consciously overcome in their mind. (I happen to believe you can support the troops, while still naming the war in unjust. But I realize many people have hard time with that, and become angry even thinking about it)

So, after ten years…after the horrors of Abu Garib, carpet bombings, beheadings and mass executions…after ten years of no WMDs being found in Iraq…after all that….finally, “closure” in the situation that many people believed was a true cause of justice: the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

My theory is that some of the celebration was from young people who were overjoyed at finally not having to feel completely dirty about the actions of their government. For once, they believed we were following a “just case.”

Again, that’s my theory. Some of you who are more pacifist than me may feel “dirty” because of this action. I understand that. Other may not carry any sense of this at all, and find this analysis bizarre and off base. I get that too. It’s my theory.

I do believe that immediate moral question arise about the War in Afghanistan. Given that we didn’t find Osama bin Laden there, given that this was the primary reason for that war, it should most certainly come to quick end.

The Quick Bottom Line:
I find that I am not a pacifist in all cases. But I also find that I cannot support the use of force in as many cases as my nation and our leaders might wish. This was neither the purest form of justice nor pure vengeance either. Like many moral decisions, it’s more challenging and nuanced.

To me, the story of the Exodus in instructive. Pharoah, for whatever reason, is portrayed as a leader with a hard heart who will not give the people justice. After trying every other avenue available to them, the people finally flee across the Red Sea, Pharoah’s Army is completely engulfed. It’s a scene of horrible violence, for a supposedly just end.

But there is a story that comes to us from the Mishnah, the ancient teachings of the Rabbis. As Pharoah’s Army is covered up with the sea, the people start to rejoice and sing. Some traditions say, the angels even start to break out their heavenly instruments.
But God rebukes them all, saying “Do you not see that my children are perishing?”

It’s a cautionary moment for us all. It challenges us to remember that God will not glory or invite us to gloat over the deaths of anyone. Vengeance is not ours. Nor will God allow us to claim that we own justice, and that the “closure” of this situation means all is well. This hasn’t brought a total end to all terrorism, and perhaps there will even be more violence that to come from this violence. That is possible.

One of the scripture readings for the morning was Psalm 23, one of the most famous of all the Psalms:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

It’s a pastoral psalm we teach to children. We revel in its discussion of “still waters,” and “green grass.”

But the truth is, shepherding is dirty grungy work. It’s hard to keep the sheep going in one direction. And, the psalm itself hints at conflict: the fact that there are enemies to sit down with at table.

My seminary professor, Dick Murray, used to meditate with us on the meaning of a shepherd’s crook. He reminded us that it has two ends. One is crooked, and is used to gently lift the errant sheep and put it back on the path. The other, long straight end, is used to whack them on the butt, to help put get back into line.

Perhaps this is what God wants of all God’s children. For us to find a way to peace, where we are all on the same path of respecting each other in love.

To that end, we should continue to pray for our troops, pray for the ones lost on September 11th, pray for our enemies, pray for Osama bin Laden,  pray for all those on all sides of these conflict. For all of us are sheep that God would have following in the direction of peace, in this very imperfect world where we live.

Finally, no real justice, no real social change, ever happens quickly. Rienhold Niebuhr was a theologian of another generation whose brand of “Christian realism” deserves our attention in the midst of our challenging time. (He’s best known for penning the prayer known as “The Serenity Prayer” of Alcoholics Anonymous)

Niebuhr was neither a strict pacifist, nor a strict believe in “just war theory.” But he did believe that World War II clearly proved the case that standing against who with evil intentions was sometimes necessary.

One of the facets of his realism is that real change, real hope, real justice can take a long time. Dr. King, or course, agree with this too, when he reminded us that the “arc of history is long, but bends toward justice.”

In fact, Niebuhr said a very similar thing once, and it’s a powerful reminder as we meditate on the ongoing state of our world:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore we are saved by love.”

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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