Fear and relief

May 3, 2011

As I listened to President Obama's calmly triumphant announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed and "justice has been served"--and to the reports of celebrations in American streets--I tried to sort out my own responses to the surprising news. Throughout the morning, my inbox filled with e-mails from friends near and far. These reactions, unlike those of the U.S. government and most Americans, were more ambivalent.

A friend at Yale reminded me of Proverbs 24:17, Ezekiel 33:11 and Matthew 5:44, adding this:

After 9/11 I found it very hard to bring myself to pray for Usama bin Laden. But by God's grace I did because Jesus said I must. And though I am tempted to rejoice today, I will not because Jesus said I must not.

A young Christian leader from the Middle East offered a view forged in a majority-Muslim country:

A huge opportunity now--after the death of bin Laden--is for Americans to intentionally free themselves fully from the domain of fear and those who manipulate it for their own agendas. Politicians will be looking for the next "enemy" to continue to distract you from being truly the "land of the free." You are not free until you eliminate all your fear. Love drives out fear.

A church leader and scholar from the U.K. wrote this:

Multiple ironies. How is God's justice advanced by foreign troops acting as vigilantes in someone else's sovereign territory? Whose justice? Which rationality? All my instincts were, and are, to sigh with relief; even, in a measure, to celebrate. But my mind warns that this is a dangerous precedent in principle and an extremely dangerous action in terms of possible unintended consequences.

My friends' responses and my own memories of the horror of 9/11 and its aftermath nudged me to the following considerations:

  • Osama bin Laden was the most infamous voice of hatred and the most dangerous purveyor of terror in today's world. Clearly, a significant measure of good has been achieved in that an evildoer of such magnitude is no longer scheming about how to harm and kill innocent people--as well as seriously disrupt the lives of just about all of us (airport scanners!).
  • For the followers of Jesus Christ, no one's death is a cause for rejoicing. This applies to Osama bin Laden no less than to any other evildoer, large or small. Jesus Christ died for all; there are no irredeemable people. The path of repentance is open to anyone willing to walk on it, and no human being has the right to permanently close that path for anyone.
  • We are right to feel a sense of relief that a major source of evil has been removed. But we should reflect also on the flip side of that relief: the nature of our fears. As the King hearings and state-level anti-Sharia bills indicate, many people in our nation find themselves under a spell of a "green scare" analogous to the red scare of the 1950s. But fear is a foolish counselor, and our war in Iraq--unnecessary, unjust and counterproductive--is evidence of this.
  • Osama bin Laden was killed through an action that instantiates American exceptionalism. We will never consent to grant other nations (China, as an emerging superpower?) the right to intervene in other sovereign states the way we just intervened in Pakistan. As believers in the one God, Christians are universalists. We should not ourselves exercise rights we are unwilling to grant to others. This basic principle of morality should apply to international relations as well.

The death of Osama bin Laden has not left Muslim terrorists in utter defeat, but it has significantly weakened them. They are losing ground in other ways as well. As the Arab Spring from Tunisia to Yemen indicates, among Muslim communities--especially the urbane young--democratic revolution is more attractive than the terrorist solution. The doors are open to pursue anti-extremism strategies more in line with the Christian faith than the "war on terror" has been. By doing this we can build on fundamental values that unite Muslims with many Christian (as well as Jewish and humanist) citizens of Western nations.


Exception to exceptionalism

Yes, we do allow sovereign states the right to act as we did. If Israel had done the same, not only would it it be applauded, it likely would have been lionized.


The best example you could come up with is Israel?  Israel is basically a client nation of the U.S. 

I agree

I couldn't agree more we allow Israel to get away with terrorism on a weekly basis, I'll never understand why we support Israel like we do.

There is more tension here than meets the eye

As a neo-ana-baptist who is a communicant in a real ana-baptist church/denomination I have a deep ambivalence to the State in general.  One has to ask what is the State for if anything?  As a preliminary answer I would offer that across a large segment of Christendom across a long period of time the answer would be:  "to constrain evil and institute justice".  In that vein one might consider rejoicing that the State has has met the standard, with the eternally unfortunate waste of a life remembered as a unrepentent mass murderer and whatever his life choices imply for his eternal future.  While "precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints", has been comforting for many many generations of Christians as they imagine simple sainthood...are their truly spiritual codicals to this like, "precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of the enemy of his saints" or "precious to the eyes of the Lord's saints is the passing of their enemies"?  These are not the cases in my mind, made in Obadiah.  The canonical picture seems to be the mourning of the passing of those who are loved, and in what we have lost.  All in all, we hold all of this in great tension as in fact we were intended to.

As for American exceptionalism, that is another issue all together, the treaty of Westphalia is not the last word on soveriegnty in the earth, and one would note that in Libya, a multiplicity of states with approval by ?another sovereign? have transgressed Westphalia's "principles" as well.

Again as a neo-ana-baptist I want to keep my allegiance to Christ and my love/responsibility to my brothers and sisters in Christ, and even many times to those images of God who are not, above and beyond the fabric/commitments of the State.  You have mixed them together in this argument.  I would consider Milbank here "...the state makes a poor church...", whether Westphalia "stands or falls" or "stood or fell" was and is a transitory construct of men, in many ways an illusory symbol serving realpolitik.  It should mean very little to us it is a simulacrum of a convenant creating a simulacrum of a church. 

bin Laden's wrong does not guarantee Obama's right

I agree with you that the action of invading other country to root out the wrong doer is dangerous, especially when it is done by the world's super-power.

I wonder if the United Nations should voice their objection toward such act.

I fear that from now on, the USA can walk her way into whereever she likes to radar, invade, and kill whoever she likes in the name of justice, including even the innocent. If there is a law that restraint the use of police power, could the government of Pakistan, or any world citizen, sue the States for her lawlessness?

And could this be a Christian plea? 


Would this be the same UN that, until recently, had Libya on its Human Rights panel?  Perhaps the US could be sued for her lawlessness, but would Pakistan jeopardise the 18 Billion dollars the US has funnelled its way to prevent it from becoming a failed state?  The US has done some stupid, immoral things, but who is alone there? Now what would the world be like with Pakistan as the primary superpower I wonder?

Besides all this, we place too much emphasis on the state to behave in a godly and coherent fashion.  The church is the counter-state in the Scriptures, a demonstration to the onlooking world of what justice and love should look like. I can't remember any biblical precedence to hand that agenda over to a political power, so why are we so uptight when the state acts like the Bible says the state will act?

A confusing post

It is a confusing time, so I just it should come as no shock that this is a confusing post. Volf's last paragraph I agree with, but having a hard time reconciling it with the last bullet point he makes and with the U.K. scholar he quotes. I will expand on this on my own blog later.


Death of a Terrorist

As a Christian, mother of two and a US Army Veteran, I am disappointed that Usama bin Laden was assassinated.  Even more so as the news depicts this outcome as the intent of the mission from the start.  Assassination can never be rationalized or thought of as justified.  Yes, I too am relieved that his reign has ended, but am not proud of how he was dealt with.  Americans should not condone the method at which he was "dispatched" lest the military and Commander in Chief forget that they serve a democracy, government by the people through their elected officials, and not an autocracy.  Jesus died for all who sin, which is all of us.


Alleluia! Christ is risen!


I feel that Dr. Volf has given the church the most holistic & extensive theology of forgiveness and reconciliation of our time. When he speaks up in response to such a real case of evil/justice, I think it behooves us to listen well. 

Two statements from his brief post struck me most particularly:

"After 9/11 I found it very hard to bring myself to pray for Usama bin Laden. But by God's grace I did because Jesus said I must. And though I am tempted to rejoice today, I will not because Jesus said I must not."

I believe that this statement is powerful. In it is revealed the Christian politic. Our Lord is Lord in the sense the Caesar was called Lord and King (so PLEASE, let's stop over-spiritualizing Jesus as "Lord"). Christians do not think for themselves/in themselves...we do not act on every emotional whim...we are not our own. We who uphold the Christian polity do that which we do not always feel like doing. In doing these things, the new kingdom is revealed in and through us--the church, the incubator of the Kingdom, and in that apocalypse, forgiveness and reconciliation is not only possible but real. 

"For the followers of Jesus Christ, no one's death is a cause for rejoicing. This applies to Osama bin Laden no less than to any other evildoer, large or small. Jesus Christ died for all; there are no irredeemable people. The path of repentance is open to anyone willing to walk on it, and no human being has the right to permanently close that path for anyone."

There is something earth-rattling about our ancestors who could not help but to sing St. Augustine's "O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem" (O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer) as part of the Exsultet during the Great Vigil of Easter. The "happy fault" St. Augustine taught us to celebrate is all-inclusive. When we do as I love to do as much as anything else--bring together East and West for all its worth--I think the universality of sin and salvation becomes all the more clear. St. John Chrysostom's Paschal homily is ecstatic joy on paper...he is so caught up in the good news of resurrection that he cannot leave anyone out of the grand invitation to the feast. 

"Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away."

Because of Easter, as masterfulIy exemplified in St. Chrysostom and St. Augustine alike, the Father invites all to the table of redemption, including Osama bin Laden. Not because we are worthy of the table, but because the Lamb of God has taken away of the sin of the world. It is not easy to accept such mercy...some of us showed up at the first hour--we do not like to see those who showed up at the last hour receiving the same reward...the heedless being welcomed to the banquet...nevertheless, Christ welcomes us all. 

The great song of Easter exclaims, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life!" He has not trampled down just some portion of death and darkness, but all of it...and all of those held in its chains (thankfully me too) are the objects of the bestowal of life. I think we do best to celebrate this truth!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!!!!

God's uses people to enact His will

We read this in Psalm 55:23: "But you, God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of decay;
the bloodthirsty and deceitful will not live out half their days." The question of celebration aside, we should not be surprised when God chooses/uses men to work His will, as He has done since the beginning. And we should especially not be surprised when that will is worked by leaders elected/appointed not for their Christian heart or godly wisdom but for their pluralistic appeal and human intellect.