‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also….
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour 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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’
— Matthew 5:38-39, 44-45
As I watched the news last night following President Obama’s announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, and saw people gathering outside the White House and in other places to celebrate the news, I must admit that I did not feel joy. Nor did I feel sadness. The truth is, I wasn’t sure what to feel.
Certainly, I am not sorry that Osama bin Laden is no longer in the world. I remember 9/11 very well, sitting in the office of the church I was serving at the time and watching the horror of that day unfold, seeing the many people who came to the church that day to pray, and gathering for a special service that evening. He was someone whose twisted mind, and twisting of Islam, gave birth to incredible violence and death that destroyed thousands of lives, and who got others to carry out his plans for him. He was unquestionably a man who did evil.
However, I also don’t think it’s appropriate for Christian people to rejoice in and celebrate the death of any human being, no matter how many terrible things that person did. As I write these words, I realize that such a position is not likely to be a popular one. And it would be easier just to give in to feelings of nationalism and the feeling of satisfaction that comes when we feel we have avenged ourselves and join the crowds around the country who have welcomed bin Laden’s demise with such joy. Yet, as a follower of Jesus, I am always having to contend with his teaching, and that includes the teaching quoted above from Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus viewed the idea of an “enemy” very differently than most people of his time or, indeed, of our time. To Jesus, to define another as one’s enemy created a spiritual problem for the one who created the definition. In the particular passage from Matthew with which I began, Jesus is seeking to subvert the traditional tribal code, so much a part of his world, that mandated that if someone did something to you then you should respond in kind: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” That tribal mentality was responsible for a great deal of violence in the ancient world, and Jesus teaches that this is not the way things are to be among his followers. He proposes the revolutionary idea that we end the cycle of violence by refusing to follow the tribal code and, instead, greet our enemies and their actions with love and compassion. The reality is that by doing so, the enemy will eventually cease to be the enemy and become the neighbor, and then the possibility of transformation presents itself.
Some people have suggested that Jesus’ teaching is really about interpersonal relationships, and shouldn’t be applied to the kinds of extreme violence committed by the particularly ruthless. What would have happened, for example, if we had applied Jesus’ teaching rigorously during World War II? Should we really have responded to Hitler in love? It may well be that Jesus meant this teaching to be about the day to day challenges of our personal lives. Yet, Jesus was acquainted with state-sponsored violence, a common feature of life in the Roman Empire. He knew what it was to come face to face with powerful forces.
And Jesus was doing more than teaching a theory. He lived what he taught, all the way to the cross.
So, where does all of this leave me? It leaves me unsettled and uncomfortable – Jesus is good at unsettling and discomfiting. As imperfect as I am in my efforts to follow Jesus, I cannot simply cast aside his commitment in word and action to non-violence. Nor can I cast aside the suffering and death which Osama bin Laden inflicted on so many. As these two realities live side by side in my mind and my heart, I guess I am struck by the brokenness of our world: the brokenness which led bin Laden and his followers down his terrible path and, in turn, leads our nation down a path of counter-violence. All of it must surely break the heart of God.
In the end, I am left with more questions than answers. The one thing I am sure of is that the demise of bin Laden is not a cause of joy or celebration. It is a moment to remember the suffering and death of which he was the agent, to pray for those who have suffered and died on his account, and to work toward a world that is less broken. It is a moment for rededicating ourselves to the cause of peace and to the courageous hope of a world that is free of the hatred that so infected bin Laden and, as a result, has infected the hearts of so many others.
When Jesus reminds us that the sun and rain enable the lives of both the righteous and the unrighteous, he is reminding us that God’s community is not a particular people or nation. Rather, God’s community is the entire human family. And to realize this deeply is to realize that we are called to something higher than tribal or national sentiment. We are called to realize that whatever our nation, we are all a part of God’s human family, and that in the end our highest, noblest calling is to serve all of humanity.
Has bin Laden’s death served the human family? I don’t know. But I think no act of violence, however rooted in justice it may be, brings joy to the heart of God. I think God dreams for us to find a better way. That’s a tremendous challenge sometimes. But it’s a dream that I don’t think we who seek to be faithful can dare to surrender.