Sunday, May 8, 2011

Celebrating Death

My wife and I were getting ready for bed, when I noticed that the Twitter feed for BBC Breaking News had announced the death of Osama bin Laden. I flipped to the news on TV and sure, enough, everyone was talking about it. They showed crowds of people in the streets, cheering, chanting "USA! USA!" Like 56 million others, I waited till President Obama came on and made it official. And I didn't know how to feel.

I know how I actually felt. "Good riddance!" "At last!" and "Take that!" are some of my more civil responses. Bin Laden was ultimately responsible for the death of 200 people at nightclubs in Bali, 191 people in Madrid, 56 in London, 60 in Amman, and 3000 on 9/11, not to mention thousands more injured in these suicide attacks. Throw in the military and civilian casualties of the war in Afghanistan, and, to be generous, just those in Iraq caused by the branch of Al Qaeda there, like the 170 Shi'ites killed at Kerbala, and he is one of the most lethal terrorist leaders in history. He never denied what he did and he never showed any remorse. And unlike Hitler, he was killed by soldiers of one of the nations he attacked. He wasn't armed but, as Roger Ebert pointed out, neither were his victims on 9/11.

At the same time I didn't know if I ought to celebrate the death of anyone, even a mastermind of mass murder. There were pragmatic reasons not to. My nephew, a former Airborne Ranger, posted this on Facebook: "Beware of exuberance in the face of a movement that now has a martyred king." Certainly the public displays of Americans cheering bin Laden's death are going to be received by some overseas in the same way we reacted to video of his supporters celebrating the deaths on 9/11. They may come back to haunt us. My nephew added "There was a Jewish rebel that was executed by an empire. His followers are still around 2000 years later." I had to smile at that.

We'll get back to whether there is an equivalence between the death of bin Laden and Jesus. But are there moral reasons not to celebrate the death of an enemy?

There is what I call the forgotten commandment: "Love your enemies." Jesus was hardly naïve. He'd lived his whole life under Roman occupation. His home of Nazareth was just 4 miles from the capital of Galilee, Sepphoris. When Herod the Great died, some people of the city revolted. The Roman Governor Varus had the city destroyed. Its women and children were sold into slavery and all the men were crucified along the roads to the city. Jesus would have heard stories of it from childhood. When Jesus was a young teen, Herod's son, Herod Antipas, had Sepphoris rebuilt. Joseph may well have worked there. So when Jesus talked of enemies, he wasn't just talking about the jerk at work who takes your lunch from the fridge. He meant people who could kill you. And he commanded us to love them.

Why should we do that? I mean besides the fact that God commands us to. God created all of humanity in his image. As God tells Noah in Genesis 9, that's the reason why murder is wrong. We are made in the image of the God who is love. That is why, as it says in Ezekiel 18, the Lord doesn't take pleasure in the death of anyone, not even the wicked. He would rather that they turn from their evil ways and live. Contrary to what some people think, God isn't really about death but life. He isn't about killing; he's about resurrection. He isn't about the end of the world; he's about new creation.

How do we love our enemies? It depends on what's needed. We can help, serve, encourage, teach, heal, listen, protect, befriend, give, guide, trust, strengthen, repent, forgive, comfort, pray, thank, support, liberate, reconcile, and sacrifice. With a tool kit that extensive, we shouldn't have to resort to harming others.

Sometimes people who do wrong will not stop, will not change their ways. What happens then? Usually they run afoul of the law. Governments, Paul says, are given the power to punish wrongdoers. And, as Jesus says, those who live by the sword will perish by it. That is, objectively speaking, what happened to bin Laden. That doesn't mean we should rejoice over it.

But isn't that in the Bible, too? In Exodus 15, Moses and the Israelites sing to God after they crossed the sea and the waters closed over their pursuers, Pharaoh's army. Linguists say it may be the oldest portion of the Bible. Isn't that gloating over the death of enemies? First of all, they're not patting themselves on the back. They did nothing. They are thanking God for saving them from the people who enslaved them and didn't want them to leave.

But, yes, they are certainly happy about it. It is interesting that, according to Rabbi Justus Baird in a recent article on the Huffington Post, there is a rabbinic tradition that as the children of Israel sang at the waters covering the Egyptians, God told his angels not to sing. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach says the Talmud even has God saying to the Israelites, "My creatures are drowning in the sea, yet you have now decided to sing about it?" The commentators in the Talmud were obviously thinking of other passages in the Bible which emphasize the universality of God's concern. They are recognizing that, however human the reaction of the just rescued Israelites, the Biblical account here is descriptive of them and not prescriptive for us.

Islam also has a tradition that the death of an enemy should not be celebrated, according to Imam Sohaib Sultan in the aforementioned article. There is a story that Muhammad stood for the funeral procession of an enemy. When asked why, he said, "Is he not a human being?"

But don't we Christians celebrate death, specifically Jesus' death, even calling the day he died Good Friday? Don't we say in Eucharistic Prayer C "We celebrate his death and resurrection as we await the day of his coming?" We do. But we are not gloating over the death of a foe but thanking God for the great sacrifice of our Savior, as well as his raising from the dead. And that is part of what distinguishes his death from bin Laden's.

Both are religious figures. Both are seen as saviors. Bin Laden saved Afghanistan from the Soviets by spilling their blood. Jesus saves anyone in the whole world from sin through the spilling of his own blood. Bin Laden ran from those who would kill him, letting followers die instead. Jesus let himself be captured in return for his disciples' freedom. Bin Laden was killed for his real crimes. Jesus was executed unjustly.

Jesus' death would have been a massive tragedy, if it weren't for the resurrection. Bin Laden's death must be considered a tragedy from God's point of view. He was an inspirational leader of men. He could have used his wealth and influence to help the poor and disenfranchised. But he led his followers to kill others. His definition of what is good was very narrow, confined to what was good for him and his co-religionists. And that didn't even include all Muslims but only those who held to his quite strict interpretation of Islam. So he could kill other Muslims without a qualm, not to mention non-Muslims, and call that bloodshed good.

Evil can be seen as too narrow a definition of good. When "good" is defined as simply "what is good for me, period," it's pretty obvious that this is just selfishness. What makes it evil is the implied "and to hell with the rest of the world." People often tolerate other definitions of good when it is widened just a bit to "what is good for me and my…family." Or "class." Or "religion." Or "race." Or "country." The wider circles do get closer to an adequate definition of good but the only truly moral definition of good is "what is good for all." That may be tough to achieve in a practical sense but that is what we should aim for. To deliberately aim for less than that, to say "who cares about what happens to the rest of the world," is evil.

God cares. The Jews were looking for a Messiah for them alone. He should save them from Gentile occupation, period. God sent a Messiah to save the whole world, not from just one manifestation of evil, but from all evil. And because Jesus didn't fit the narrow religious definition of a Messiah, or even a good Jew, the leaders of his people turned him over to one of the most brutal powers ever known, the Roman Empire. And they crucified him.

We call it Good Friday because God took the consequences of our evil on himself. We call it Good Friday because God took the worst thing imaginable, the killing not just of a human created in the image of God but of God himself, and turned it into the greatest boon imaginable. All sins, past, present and future, of all people have been crucified and buried with him. All we need to do is stop fighting God, lay down our weapons, and trust him. We need to start looking for the Christ, the image of God, in others, however marred by sin and neglect. We need to help them see Christ in themselves so that they can let him work in them.

For most Muslims, the word "jihad" means the struggle not with others but with themselves to be true to the God they call the Merciful. Like Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and all other human beings, they don't always live up to their ideals. We Christians believe that God has anticipated that, that he is always ready to forgive the truly repentant, and to help us become new people through the power of his indwelling Spirit. But nothing works if you don't really put it to work. And nobody will believe our God is loving and merciful if we don't act loving and merciful to others.

What a witness it would have been if Americans didn't dance in the streets when another human being died! What a testament to our faith if we, like God, grieved that a person created in his image failed to live up to that heritage! What if we didn't clamor to see the grisly pictures of a man who similarly killed thousands of others in grisly ways!

Osama bin Laden lived in an honor-shame culture. He would want his name to live on as that of a great hero. But he has even alienated most Muslims. So, except for a narrow group of his followers, his name will go down with the mass murderers of history, such as Hitler, Pol Pot, and Saddam Hussein, a man who fell well outside bin Laden's definition of a good Muslim. He will never be grouped with people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Jesus, as someone who made the ultimate sacrifice for others, and whose legacy is peace. He could have but he chose to embrace evil, to agree with the proposition that the end justifies any means, to hitch his star to a very narrow definition of good, one that has seriously dishonored his religion. And that is tragic.

If he has done any good, it is in showing what nonsense the idea of all religions being the same is. How you see God does indeed make a difference. A god who desires the death of the wicked is quite different from one who gives his life to save the wicked. Yes, I know that there have been so-called Christians who have killed in the name of God but it goes against the grain of what Jesus taught. People who have tried to justify a Christianity that condones killing have had to ignore so many sayings of Jesus about turning the other cheek, about not resisting evil, about putting up the sword, about loving one's enemies. Whenever the culture tried to pervert the faith in that way, people arose like St. Francis, the Cathars, the Quakers, the Amish and the Mennonites who have sought to restore the idea of peacemaking to a more central place in Christian ethics.

Violence does not end violence; it only encourages retaliation. If bin Laden thought that what he did on 9/11 would stop the US, he was obviously mistaken. And few think that killing bin Laden will discourage Al Qaeda from retaliating. Yet for all of human history we have tried to stop violence with violence. We have invented more and more destructive weapons, hoping that one will be so horrific that people will opt for peace rather than deploy it.

We mean peace on our terms, of course. Peace that is good for us, not necessarily for the other side. Peace that saves our face, not necessarily that of the other side. Peace that entails sacrifice for the other side but not for us. Sound familiar? It's that inadequate definition of good that amounts to evil. As long as we stick to that definition and use violent means to achieve it, we will get the same results as before. They say doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results is one definition of madness. In the light of the overwhelming evidence that what we're doing doesn't work, the sane thing might be to repay evil with good. It's like turning in the direction of the skid when your car is skidding. It may be counter-intuitive but it is also right. And it may just save lives.

Today is Mother's Day. It is a day when we celebrate not death but those who give life and who nurture life. We celebrate those who are our first teachers, who teach us to love and speak and eat and clean ourselves and dress ourselves and behave ourselves. The fact is that most of us are not terrorists, are not criminals, are not terrible people. A lot of that is due to how we were raised and much of that was done by our loving mothers. The news and our entertainment focus on violence and death because they are more exciting. We need to redress that. We need to focus more on virtues that prevent violence and that heal pain and redirect feelings of anger. Virtues like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, humility and self-control. Recognize them? They are the fruit of the Spirit. They are qualities that should naturally arise from the Christian living according to the Spirit of God. They don't make a lot of movies or TV shows or video games that highlight them. The world often sees them as weaknesses. But if we look at the world, they are precisely the qualities we need. They are what keep things from falling apart and that make life worth living. So let us resolve to start manifesting them in our daily lives and to realize that when they are hardest to practice, they are needed the most. We need to stop celebrating death and start celebrating life. God is about life… new life, new birth, new creation.

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