Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Hopes for a Post-Osama bin Laden World

It has taken me a week to process emotions enough to write anything about the killing of arch-terrorist and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. 

First, I did not rejoice in his death and found the spontaneous celebrations unseemly–and the chants of “U-S-A,” “U-S-A” as if the country had just won a sporting event to be completely inappropriate.  As a Christian pacifist (“Christian” should automatically MEAN “pacifist,” but it hasn’t since Constantine’s shotgun marriage of church and empire, alas) I can rejoice in no one’s death.  I think it is very clear from Scripture that celebrating the death of one’s enemies is nothing short of sinful.  “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” Proverbs 24:17.  “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declare the LORD God, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” Ezekiel 33:11.  “You have heard it said to those of old, ‘Love your neighbor 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.” Matt. 5:43.  It hasn’t been easy for me to pray for Osama bin Laden these last 10 years, but Jesus gave me no alternative. I could pray for bin Laden or be disobedient to my Lord–there were no third options. 

Nor am I sure that the killing of bin Laden was strictly legal. It involved violating Pakistan’s sovereign territory without their knowledge or permission (which is usually considered an act of war!) and it appears that bin Laden was shot while unarmed and without a chance to surrender.  We are told that he “resisted capture,” but what can that mean for an unarmed man against heavily armed special ops crew?  I would much rather that he have been captured and put on trial–with the evidence of his many crimes (not just 9/11) displayed before the whole world.  New Testament scholar (and former Anglican bishop of Durham) N. T. Wright has callled this killing an example of America’s “Lone Ranger justice,” reminiscent of the old West rather than of respect for the rule of law among nations.  Too often American “exceptionalism” has us holding other nations to standards of international law that we think ourselves above.  It is a major reason why many even of our allies distrust us so.  Rowan Williams, theologian and Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, has similar misgivings.  (See both reflections here.)

Yet, I must be honest and say clearly that I do not mourn Osama bin Laden’s passing, either. That may be sinful on my part. Perhaps I should mourn the death of any person, no matter how evil their actions. I do not rejoice–but I honestly do feel a sense of relief that he is gone.  Not relief in the sense of “now all threats are gone.” That is foolish. Al Qaeda could launch revenge plots–and one may have been thwarted already.  Violence tends to beget violence in a vicious cycle of death that can be stopped only by nonviolent love–as I realized so long ago when I became a conscientious objector and left the U.S. Army. (To paraphrase Clarence Jordan, Baptist “saint,” “Jesus was heading in one direction and I in the opposite. Yet I claimed to be his follower.”)  Nor do I feel relief in the sense of “closure” that pro-death penalty folks are always saying that murder victims’ loved ones will get by the execution of their killers. (The evidence that the death penalty gives such “closure” is fairly poor.  It seldom, if ever, works that way.)

But the image of Osama bin Laden–as a complex symbol used by many for many different ends–has been hanging over my nation (and others’) for more than a decade and its removal prompts my sense of relief.

Though I disagree with those who claim bin Laden’s killing is a positive good, I hope, with the logic of Romans 8:28 and Gen. 50:20, that God may bring good out of this event. Osama bin Laden’s death may be a “window of opportunity” for the West, and the U.S., and the global Christian Church, all to take new paths. (I would include Muslims, but the “Arab Spring” seems to suggest that many Muslims have already chosen new paths–paths that bin Laden, who so distorted Islam, hated.) Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, we have responded in ways that Osama bin Laden WANTED–we have responded on his terms.  His own videotaped messages outlined his strategy:  Not to defeat the U.S. or the rest of the West militarily, but ECONOMICALLY. He wanted us to spend so much money in useless wars that we would bankrupt ourselves–and he nearly succeeded.  Our national debt (which, at the end of the Clinton era, with the Clinton tax rates, was projected to be eliminated by 2012!) is now somewhere between $10.5 trillion and $14 trillion. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars account for between $4 trillion and $6 trillion of that debt. On top of that is the doubling of the (already huge) military budget these last 10 years, the creation of the huge Department of Homeland Security and the multiplication of spy agencies.  The price of oil was $23 a barrel before  9/11 and people worried that it would become $30 per barrel. Since 9/11 it has averaged $100 per barrel–generating enormous profits for the oil companies, but undermining everyone else’s budgets.

I don’t mean to count the changes in our society for the worse only in economic terms–but that is how bin Laden himself largely thought and expressed himself.  The violence of terrorist attacks was only calculated to do economic harm–and especially to get us to harm ourselves. 

B ut there has been other harm:  We have shifted away from the rule of law–with unlimited detentions of “unlawful combatants,” with torture, with warrantless wiretapping–including of our own citizens.  We have committed 2 wars –one on false pretenses. We have demonized Muslims, including Muslim Americans.  We have encouraged citizens to spy on one another and treat each other with suspicion.  We have militarized our very thought.

With bin Laden’s death can we try to recover and find a new path?  Al Qaeda is gone from Afghanistan (though the Taliban which gave them refuge–and took bin Laden’s money–is still there), but we have over 150,000 troops there. Can we declare victory and come home now? Pres. Obama’s own timeline for the Afghanistan surge was to begin withdrawal in July.  Dare we hope (and can we INSIST) that after 10 years, it is time to withdraw a MINIMUM of 1/3 of the troops home in July and try to have them all home by the end of 2012? We have withdrawn the “combat troops” from Iraq, but can we now remove the 50,000 troops which remain?

Can we cut the military budget in order to reinvest in education, infrastructure, and civilian jobs?

Can we try to end the demonization of Islam and Muslims?  Can we stop connecting immigration policy to terror now and remember that immigrants built this country and that we have no good future if we stop being a place that welcomes immigrants?

Can Christians remember that we are to be a people of love and peacemaking and forgiveness?

I pray that it will be so.

May 8, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Amen.

    Comment by Josh Rowley | May 8, 2011 | Reply

  2. Amen, brother. Amen. We need to keep speaking up and speaking out, even amid a hoard of “Christians” ridiculing us for promoting and supporting love, peacemaking, the Way of Jesus. Like you, I find we would be closer to “justice” had bin Laden been captured and placed on trial. Assassinations are akin to torture, but the US has celebrated that for years as well. I’m saddened that so many Christians in this country more and more are going the way of Nationalism. Thanks for your words.

    Comment by Eddie Gonzalez | May 9, 2011 | Reply

  3. Amen. I would only add that Obama has now proved by this assassination that he is war criminal equal to that of Bush and Cheney. I am so sorry I supported him.

    Comment by Patty | May 11, 2011 | Reply

  4. Very good post.

    I have a Just War Theory question. Clearly the rules of engagement were designed to make the apprehending of bin Laden all but impossible, and as you’ve alluded to, some people have criticized this as an extra-judicial killing, an assassination. But what if they had bombed the compound instead, which they were considering? What if bin Laden had been sitting on the toilet when he was blown up? Or asleep? Is that any different? I have a feeling that if they went that route, there wouldn’t be these questions being raised. Or the questions that would be raised would be more general–about the need to break the cycle of violence.

    I’m not trying to start an argument; I’m just asking. It’s related to the way that, for me, there’s something creepy about being a sniper that’s more creepy than manning a howitzer, even though the latter can kill a lot more people.

    Comment by Marvin | May 16, 2011 | Reply

    • Some versions of JWT allow for assassinations of combatants, while others do not. If they had bombed the compound and killed civilians or bystanders, including bin Laden’s wives, that would have violated JWT, too. The Just War principle of “discrimination” says that one can target enemy combatants, but not non-combatants. Now, unlike pacifism, Just War Theory allows for UNINTENTIONAL killing of civilians and non-combatants (the law of double effect), but one still has to MAKE EVERY EFFORT to avoid them. Obama could plausibly argue that this attack better adhered to this than a bombing would’ve.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 22, 2011 | Reply

  5. Can we cut the military budget in order to reinvest in education, infrastructure, and civilian jobs?

    Oh, pretty please? Good thoughts here. Thanks for sharing them.

    Comment by Chris Donato | May 18, 2011 | Reply

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