The Death of Osama bin Laden: How should we respond?

Like many of you, Sunday evening found me watching the President’s announcement on TV. Osama bin Laden was dead. After so many years of seemingly fruitless effort, this tireless promoter of terror—a mass murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands—had been located and killed. The news was stunning. And it brought very different emotions: relief that they had finally tracked him down; satisfaction that justice had been served; pride in our nation’s intelligence community and military; hope that this loss would be a debilitating blow to Al Qaeda. But the more I watched the jubilant reactions from people in front of the White House and in Times Square, the more I became disturbed. Should we, as Christians, share in joyfully cheering and celebrating the death of our enemy?

While there are differing views among followers of Christ, most Christians, drawing from passages such as Romans 13, believe that God intends for the state to “bear the sword.” This means that it is both necessary and appropriate for governments to defend their citizens through law enforcement and military action. There may be questions concerning whether our government should have intentionally killed bin Laden rather than seeking to capture him alive. I’m sure that we’ll hear this question debated over the coming days and weeks. But, for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that the government’s actions were completely justified. How do we now respond? Should we be cheering along with the rest?

Some might remind us what a monster this man was, of the blood on his hands. They might replay the horror of 9/11, and describe the incredible effort it’s taken to hunt down this terrorist. This is war, after all; it brings out our passionate feelings. And this is the way people react to the death of their sworn enemies. We can find many examples of people winning a hard-fought victory and celebrating by symbolically dancing on the grave of their tormentor.

Still, are we supposed to be just like everyone else? Shouldn’t there be a difference? From what, or whom, do we draw our cues? Can we imagine Peter or Paul (let alone Jesus) joining in the chant: “O.B.L., burn in hell!”? Is our first thought to respond as Americans . . . or as citizens of the Kingdom of God?

We don’t have to look very far before we find Scriptures that caution us and restrain us in our reaction to the suffering and death of an enemy. Ezekiel 18:23 tells us that God does not delight in the death of the wicked. This should give us pause. If even God doesn’t delight in the death of the wicked, but desires that they turn from their wicked ways and live, what business do we have jubilantly exulting in the death of an enemy? Proverbs 24:17-18 instructs us: “Don’t rejoice when your enemies fall; don’t be happy when they stumble. For the Lord will be displeased with you and will turn his anger away from them.” And notice that these two examples come from the Old Testament, before we even get to the New Covenant teachings of Christ.

Jesus, of course, taught us to not hate our enemies, but to love them (Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-36). In fact, this extreme, unnatural love is to be the sine qua non of the follower of Christ, the characteristic that distinguishes us from all others and shows that we are truly his. Jesus demonstrated this love when he prayed for the forgiveness of the very people who were nailing him to the cross. We are to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who seek to hurt us. Let’s see . . . someone who is our enemy, who hates us, who curses us, who seeks to hurt us—this sounds like a fairly good description of Osama bin Laden. So, how should we love this enemy? Even in the midst of necessary and appropriate justice, how do we demonstrate a loving, Christlike attitude? By rejoicing in the streets that he’s dead?

We’re also warned to not seek revenge (Romans 12:19), that vengeance belongs to God alone. How much of the celebration over the death of bin Laden is motivated by feelings of vengeance accomplished? This is inappropriate for us as believers.

Most of us have heard the familiar expression, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.” What few know is that John Bradford originally spoke these words while watching a man walk toward his execution. When we exult over the death of an enemy, we forget that—on our own—we are no more righteous in God’s sight than Osama bin Laden. We forget that no one deserves God’s grace; that’s why it’s grace. And since God loves us even though we don’t deserve it, we also are called to love those who are seemingly unlovable. We forget that even Osama bin Laden was created in the image of God. We forget that this is one for whom Christ willingly laid down his life, that this is a lost sheep for whom he would leave the ninety-nine and earnestly seek. If Osama bin Laden is eternally lost (and I don’t presume to know the state of his heart when he died), then does Christ laugh and cheer at the fate of this man? Or does he weep as for a lost child?

I’m encouraged to see that more than a few Christian leaders and thinkers share my concerns. We realize that the United States is not the church, and we aren’t surprised when the actions of Americans are incongruous with the principles of the Kingdom of God. When it’s all said and done, the US is, after all, part of a fallen world. And most Christian voices are not denying the need to strongly oppose bin Laden and bring him to justice. We share in the satisfaction of justice enforced, and we are proud of our nation. But we aren’t Americans first, and then Christians. We are first—and eternally—followers of Christ, children of God, and citizens of his lasting Kingdom. The principles of the Kingdom are what define us, not the temporal victories of a nation we love, but which will have its place in history and then be no more.

If we intend to follow Christ as his disciples, then we are called to be distinct from our fellow Americans. We have a higher standard. How do we respond to the death of Osama bin Laden with the love of Christ? the love of Christ for our enemy, Osama bin Laden? And if we don’t respond in love—but giddily rejoice at his death—how are we Christians any different from everyone else?

In spirit and truth

The tagline for our church is: Worshiping in spirit and truth (taken from John 4:23-24). Most people like the idea of worshiping in spirit. A surprising number of people today consider themselves spiritual. This is often contrasted with being religious, as in: “I’m not at all religious, but I am very spiritual.” Spiritual, in this context, generally means something like being aware of reality beyond the mere physical, being open to new experiences and insights, being alive in one’s spiritual life rather than part of some cold formalism. It’s being deep rather than shallow. Of course, this is all very appealing. Many of us would like to see ourselves as spiritual.

But when we speak of worshiping in truth, some people get a little uneasy. Ah . . . the “T” word. This is not nearly as appealing for some. Why do we have to talk so much about truth? For that matter, why did Jesus have to talk so much about truth? (That is, after all, who we got it from.) Jesus often seemed very focused on the issue of truth. He even described himself as truth:

I am the way, the truth, and the life.
No one can come to the Father except through me.
John 14:6

This is an exclusive statement. Jesus says that he is the way, and that there isn’t any other way. For many people, this is precisely the sticking point. They could be comfortable with evangelical Christianity if we could only say: “This is our way, but we accept that there are other ways too. Just choose whichever way works best for you.” But Jesus had to repeatedly make these kinds of comments and throw a wrench in the works for those who would love to have an I’m-okay-you’re-okay kind of spirituality. And, obviously, this kind of truth claim is diametrically opposed to today’s postmodern mindset.

The catch words now are relativism and pluralism. The new unpardonable sin is to have the audacity to suggest that, just maybe, somebody’s truth may not actually be true. Why, that’s simply intolerant! And we have to understand what is currently meant by tolerance. Not that long ago, to be tolerant was to be respectful toward someone even though you were absolutely sure they were wrong. Now it means never, ever judging the validity of another’s beliefs. What’s true for me is true for me; what’s true for you is true for you—and no one ‘truth’ is more valid than another.

The problem is it doesn’t work. And, deep down, we all know it. No one really lives their life by this philosophy.

“No one’s viewpoint is any more valid than another’s.”
Let me give you an example to show you the problem with this idea. Let’s say that you have a very young daughter. She wakes up in the middle of the night with extreme abdominal pains. At first, maybe you think it’s just a stomach virus. But, soon, you realize that the problem is more serious. So you rush her to the emergency room. The doctor examines her and then comes out to talk with you.

“So, Doctor, what’s the matter with her?”

“Well, from my perspective, she has appendicitis. We need to remove her appendix. If we don’t operate immediately, she could die. But, far be it from me to impose my point of view on you! No, I believe that everyone should seek the operation of their choice. So, if you’d rather, I can take out her spleen. Or a kidney.”

How would you respond? You would probably express yourself somewhat vigorously and let the doctor know as clearly as possible, “Look, I want you to fix whatever is actually wrong with her!

“But all religions are really saying the same thing.”
How many times have you heard that?  First, if someone is saying this, they probably don’t know much about what the various religions actually believe. While there are similarities here and there, the core teachings of the world’s religions are extremely different and, in many ways, incompatible. Even if we’re only looking at the basic questions (who we are, the existence and nature of a divine being, the nature of reality, what we’re supposed to do spiritually and how we’re to do it, etc.), the different faiths are mutually exclusive. These belief systems aren’t just saying the same things differently; they are, in fact, saying definitively different things.

Here’s a story to illustrate what I’m talking about: I’m a pilot. (I’m not really, but just imagine for the sake of the illustration.) I’m going to take you on a flight in a single-engine Cessna from Puerto Rico to Tortola. It’s a beautiful day. We take off, and soon we’re over the ocean with no land in sight. Then I turn to you and say, “So, which way do you want to go?”

You answer, “Huh?”

“Pick a direction; any direction.”

“Whichever one gets us to Tortola!”

“Well, sure, but don’t all directions lead to the same destination? We can go any direction you want!”

No, we can’t! If we go the wrong way, we won’t get anywhere but out in the middle of the ocean with no fuel! Find an airport and get me on the ground. Now!

I think you get the idea.

“But, we all perceive reality differently.”
When discussing these things, some have patiently responded, “Yes, Curt, but Christianity is true for you because it’s in your frame of reference. We all have different perceptions of reality and if Christ is not in my frame of reference then, for me, he does not exist.” But again, the problem is real life. We all know from sometimes painful experience that to be ignorant of something doesn’t make it less true.

Here’s one last example: You wake up in the middle of the night and have to go to the bathroom. So you head down a darkened hallway, completely ignorant of the fact that your trusty, canine companion has beat you to it—right in the middle of the darkened hallway! Are you aware of the surprise that’s waiting for you? No. Is it in your frame of reference? Nope. Does that mean, for you, it doesn’t exist? I’m afraid not. What is actually real is about to invade your perception of reality, and in a most unpleasant way! Reality has nothing to do with our perception of it, or our lack of perception.

Truth = reality
You see, truth is simply what corresponds to reality. Truth is true whether we know about it or not. Truth is true whether we believe it or not. Truth is true whether we like it or not. Truth is simply true.

We all really know this already. We can talk all we want about postmodernism, deconstruction or poststructuralism, but the reality is that postmodern architecture must follow the laws of physics just the same as any traditional, modernistic architecture. If a poststructuralist scholar is hired at a certain salary, they’re not going to accept a smaller check and a “Well, that’s just your perception of reality.” Regardless of our philosophies, we all live our lives according to what is logical, real and true.

But, for some reason, this all changes when we begin to talk about spiritual reality. Apparently, when we’re discussing ideas and beliefs, all logic and reason are out the window and we can use any fuzzy, irrational way of thinking we like. But why? What gives us the right to jettison a rational view of reality simply because something’s not immediately verifiable? It’s not because it’s less tangible. We work very hard at dealing with our emotions in a rational way, and they’re not tangible. To be completely irrational about one’s emotional life can be very romantic in the movies, but very destructive in real life. We all recognize this. Maybe we should take another look at this truth that Jesus was describing.

Another look at the truth of Jesus
The Christian faith  teaches that there is only one God, that he is eternal, and that he created everything but is distinct from his creation.  Though we were created by him, humanity is separated from God because of our rebellion against him. And that’s a problem, because sin always results in death—not because of some arbitrary ruling by God, but because that is the nature of sin. God is the source of life. Sin separates us from God, therefore sin results in death. This sin has poisoned and polluted all of us. Our race is in a state of decay and death because of our sin.

And sin is pervasive, affecting every aspect of our existence. So God, because he loves us, won’t simply say, “I forgive you,” and leave us to continue in sin, and thus to continue to decay and die (physically and spiritually). God can no more forgive and ignore our sin than we could forgive and ignore a deadly toxin in our children’s drinking water. This sin must be cleansed; it must be eradicated. But the consequences of the sin don’t just magically disappear. For the sin to be eradicated, the poison must be dealt with. Someone must take on the consequence of our sin, which means someone must take on death itself—either us or someone else.

So what if the eternal, infinite, Creator God somehow, amazingly, mindblowingly entered space and time, entered humanity and actually became one of us? What if he himself took on the consequences of our sin? What if the source of life somehow experienced death, absorbing the poison that was destroying our race and our very souls? What if he taught us about himself, and showed us how to escape this bondage to sin, decay and death, and experience the life that he has provided for us?

If this is all true, is it not the height of arrogance to insist, “I’m going to choose another way”?

If God himself has provided the way for us, how can there be any other way?

And if this is true, then we must accept God as he has revealed himself to us through his Word, the Bible. We must enter into life and live it in the only way that he has provided. We must believe in him as he actually is.

We must worship him in spirit and in truth.