These last few days have been a study in contrasts. Many are overjoyed (emphasis on the ‘over’) at the announcement that Bin Laden was recently killed in a firefight with US forces. Others have been horrified at such reactions. I sat with a group of pastor friends this morning and we wrestled with it together. Scriptures such as Ezekiel 33:11 were invoked: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” says the Lord. We wondered at the intersections of state and church, of faith and citizenship. This is one of those issues where there may well be a collision between the two.
Yes, Paul is clear is Romans 13 that the ‘sword’ of government is God’s instrument to punish the wicked. But Jesus is also clear that we are to pray for enemies and bless our persecutors. There is a clear role for the government – I am not one of those neo-Anabaptists that thinks Christians should have nothing to do with the government – but the necessary confrontation with evil ought not make us triumphalistic or compromise Christian charity. I’m not a pacifist, nor am I against the death penalty; I do, however, believe that deaths resulting from just wars or proper executions ought to be mourned. Each person – even a Hitler, Pol Pot, or Bin Laden – is a person made in the image of God (however corrupted), a person that Jesus went to the cross for, and a life that ultimately was designed for fellowship with God. Even with a ‘good’ death, such as when a love one has been suffering greatly and death comes as a relief, remains something that ought to be saddening.
Sam Wells, a protege of Stanley Hauerwas, fellow faculty member at Duke Divinity and Dean of the Chapel at Duke released a statement (why?) about the reaction to Bin Laden’s death that reads in part:
This is not a day for celebration. A celebration would be due if the perpetrators of those crimes had expressed remorse, regret, and repentance. They have not. A celebration would be due if there had been a conversion of Bin Laden or his followers to a truer practice of Islam. There has been none. A celebration would be due if the overwhelming response from Christians in America had been one that embodied the commandments to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. There has been no such overwhelming response. A celebration would be due if there had been a proper process of justice, involving arrest, gathering of evidence, trial, defense, and prosecution. There has been no such process… [i]f we assume that killing a suspect without trial, without persuading him of the justice of our cause, and without bringing him to a true expression of his own tradition – let alone our own – is a victory, then it is a sign of how far we have allowed this war to distort the values of our civilization.
I think he’s right to to point out what would have been real reasons to celebrate. I think he’s naive to sugggest that a preferred outcome would have been some kind of criminal proceeding. Bin Laden was not a criminal. He was an enemy; not just an enemy soldier, but the equivalent of a general (a figurehead and a commander of forces hostile to the US, whose tactics were repugnant to the conventions of war). Arrest may have been preferable, for the potential intelligence that could have resulted, but odds are someone so radicalized did not wish to be taken alive by US forces. Furthermore, unlike his victims, Bin Laden knew he was a target. He had a better chance than the victims of 9/11 and other attacks ever had.
Then there is another reaction worth note, this time from pro MMA fighter and active Green Beret (Army Special Forces) Tim Kennedy. Having served in the War on Terror (I’m not going to put it in quotes, as I think it is disrespectful to the soldiers serving in this conflict) in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kennedy speaks to both his elation at hearing the news of Bin Laden’s death and his disappointment in not being a part of the action:
“So there was a little sense of disappointment that I wasn’t part of it… I’m just totally excited and thrilled to see a really dark, sad chapter of our country’s history — it’s not coming to a close, but that’s definitely a chapter that’s pending…[i]f I was going to design a version of hell for me, that would be it. Where I’m sitting there reading about special operations going in to do a hit on a HVT, on a high-value target, and just having to not be there. It’s absolutely excruciating.”
As Gene Hackman says in one of my favorite films, “A winner always wants the ball when the game is on the line.” We shouldn’t be horrified that Kennedy wanted to take part in this action. I’m sure many elite warfighters would want to as well. Not out of blood lust or uber-testosterone, but because that is what such people are trained for, and, however dangerous or unpleasant it may be, that’s their job.
I think both responses are reasonable given the various vocations of these two men. A professor of Christian ethics and preacher ought to be the conscience of a community, even when it is unpopular. And we ought to expect our cloistered academics to have a degree of unreality to their views. Nothing new there. The gospel calls us into conflict with the culture around us (and any culture), as well as with our own passions. He has done the church a service by reminding us of this.
But we need the Tim Kennedys of this world too. We need people who are willing to step up and face demented enemies in hostile territory, willing and able to undergo rigorous training, sacrificing personal needs for the needs of the larger community. In the face of such bravery we can only be in thankful awe.
I will continue to wrestle with these issues. I am not proud of my initial reaction. I wasn’t running into the streets waving the Stars and Bars, but neither was I reverently praying for an enemy whom I am called to bless. The work of sanctification goes on, and today I realize, once more, that I have a long way to go.
P.S. Who is the “our” when Wells writes of “our civilization”? I was under the impression that Wells had little interest in the project of the the modern West. Generally those who speak of a monolithic Western Civilization are something like crusty paleo-cons who are chafing at multiculturalism. As ecclesiologically focused as Wells’ theology is, I’m just surprised he would use that kind of language.