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Greg Garrett

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Jesus, Christian Theology and the Death of Bin Laden

Posted: 05/10/11 11:38 AM ET

I've been reflecting over the past week -- and writing over at Patheos -- about possible Christian responses to the execution of Osama bin Laden. As I watched the TV news, read Twitter feeds, read newspapers and magazines, checked my Facebook feed, I observed jubilation, righteous assurance, ambivalence, and sadness, every conceivable reaction --

And all from individuals I know to be people of faith.

So for my friends at Huffington Post, I want to provide a quick intro to what I've observed, outline the theological positions informing these reactions, and present a challenge for us to try to live and believe in a different way.

The most troubling of the reactions I've observed grows out of Holy War. Some respondents said that Osama received what he had coming, that he had stood in opposition to the Christian God, that evil must be struck down, and that we had an obligation to do it. Holy War grows out of a black and white moral assurance that right is right, that evil is evil, and that God most certainly is on our side. I find this mindset particularly troubling given the Christian use of Holy War in the Crusades, when Pope Urban, for example, preached the Crusades in dualistic terms: the European Christians were Children of God, the Muslim hordes were Children of the Devil, and it was the responsibility of every able-bodied Christian to wipe the Children of the Devil from the face of the planet.

President Obama spoke to the nation from the standpoint of the theology of Christian Realism. As in his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech, he might have been speaking the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, who, writing during the Cold War, said that we must acknowledge the evils in the world, and that we must sometimes do the morally questionable in order to safeguard our nation and the people we love.

The strength of Christian Realism is that it acknowledges the tensions inherent in calling for Just War and the death of evil men. It doesn't suggest that there are easy answers -- in fact, it suggests the precise opposite. And sometimes, as Obama has observed, perhaps the head of state must make decisions that seem to run counter to her or his beliefs to preserve the greater good and defend the helpless.

But although I know that I reacted to Osama bin Laden's death with a certain amount of relief before I got to grief, I believe we are called to Christian Pacifism, a belief in which violence cannot be justified by reference to the Christian tradition because Jesus's life and teaching point us precisely in the opposite direction. Jesus rejected violence as a solution for his nation, and he rejected it personally, even when given that most powerful of temptations, to save one's own life through the use of violence.

Jesus's example is nonnegotiable; we are called to emulate him. Kathryn Tanner notes in her Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity that the call to Christians is unequivocal: "Our assumption in Christ is to become visible as our lives show forth in action and in deeds, the form of Christ's own life." (71) We are to do what Jesus did, to the extent we are capable, as hard as it might be, as foolish as it might appear to be.

Even crusty old John Calvin encourages us to be Christ-like, to be counter-cultural, and to embrace a better way:

As we think of [Jesus] we can achieve the difficult and unnatural: we can love those that hate us, give good for evil, and blessing for cursing (Matt. 5:44), remembering that we are not to dwell on the evil in men, but look to the image of God in them. This image covers and obliterates their faults, and by its beauty and dignity draws us to love and embrace them. John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion 3.7.6.

Evil as bin Laden may have been, he was nonetheless beloved by God, made in the image of God, and Jesus called us to love rather than hate.

My friend Peter Francis, Warden of the marvelous Gladstone's Library, reminded me this week to consult John Donne, and as usual, he (and Donne) provide good advice:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

We should not celebrate the death of anyone, including Osama bin Laden, because God loves all humankind, and all men and women, however far they stray, remain our brothers and sisters.

Hard wisdom. But straight from the mouth of Jesus.