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Rabbi Justus N. Baird

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The Bin Laden Dialogue: An Imam, Rabbi and Minister Struggle Over What to Preach this Weekend

Posted: 05/05/11 10:07 PM ET

Two days after the news of Bin Laden's demise, an Imam, Rabbi and Minister reflect on what it means for people of faith: the 'celebrations,' the burial, and what to preach about this weekend. Sohaib Sultan is the Muslim Chaplain at Princeton University. J.C. Austin is the Director of the Center for Christian Leadership at Auburn Seminary in New York and Justus Baird is the Rabbi at Auburn Seminary.

Preaching Topics

What should clergy preach about this weekend?

For Muslim Communities

Imam: I think I would reflect on the following passage in the Quran: "Among mankind is he whose speech impresses you in worldly life, and he calls God to witness as to what is in his heart, yet he is the fiercest of opponents. And, when he goes away, he strives throughout the land to cause corruption therein, and to destroy people's earnings and lives. And God does not love corruption." Qur'an 2:204-5

Rabbi: I like this framing of bin Laden as silver-tongued yet destructive.

Imam: In his death, it is important to reflect on this type of personality in the human condition, but also to ward off lesser forms of this hypocrisy within our own hearts and lives.

Rabbi: Could you say more about 'recognizing hypocrisy' in ourselves -- and how a Muslim preacher might find the balance between talking about bin Laden and turning it into an opportunity for personal growth?

Imam: I think that whenever we see greater manifestations of evil in the world, we have to recognize that they are born out of corrupt hearts, and it is a warning to human beings as to how much destruction one can cause with such a corrupt heart. So, it is an opportunity to refine our inner selves, to cleanse our hearts from hatred, anger, jealousy -- all those things that lead to evil in the world. And these things are especially dangerous when we try to shroud them with religious cloth and ask God to bear witness to our hatred and anger.

Rabbi: That would be powerful, to find a way for us to see how bin Laden's wayward life can help us reflect on our own limitations and negative behaviors. This would be quite different than labeling bin Laden as 'evil' and 'other' and beyond the pale in some categorically different way.

For Christian Communities

Minister: Many Protestant churches follow the Revised Common Lectionary as their source for preaching, which is a series of readings that cover most of the Christian Bible over a three-year period. The Gospel reading this coming Sunday is the Road to Emmaus story, where some of Jesus' disciples are leaving Jerusalem dejectedly, not knowing he has been raised from the dead. He joins them on their walk, though they don't recognize him, and they tell him how they had hoped he would be the one to bring salvation, but he was killed. He chastises them for not having understood what Jesus was really up to and how Scripture laid it out. They are quite taken by his teaching, but don't truly recognize him until they persuade him to join them for dinner and he breaks the bread for them. Once they recognize him, he disappears, and they run back to Jerusalem to tell everyone. I actually preached on this a couple of weeks after 9/11, and used it as a way to say that we need to recognize Christ's unexpected presence among us and get back to the city to embody his radical love and grace.

Rabbi: How might Christians connect that text to these events?

Minister: I might focus on the idea of Christ being recognizable in celebration. I'm interested in the kinds of gatherings in which Jesus shows up and makes himself recognizable. It happens after walking with him, trying to understand Scripture, and attending to basic human needs of sustenance and community.

Imam: I see where you're going: it connects to our conversation about communal gatherings on such occasions.

Minister: This connection literally only occurred to me a few minutes ago, and I'm not absolutely certain it works. Loving your enemy is a long and difficult road, and we Christians often don't start down that road because it takes us where we don't necessarily want to go. Perhaps the first step we can take is not "delighting" in the death of our enemy, which is what I hear when I hear "celebration" and which seems to characterize some of the more visible demonstrations.

Rabbi: It sounds like you are drawn to this idea of loving enemies, and using bin Laden as a quintessential enemy to sharpen the Christian teaching on the topic of how we behave toward enemies.

Minister: In the Matthew version of the "love your enemies" commandment, that teaching includes Jesus saying "You have heard that it was said, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer." It goes on to the "turn the other cheek" teaching, and then into "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you ... " I often stay with the version in the gospel of Luke because it doesn't include the line "do not resist an evildoer." Just praying for your enemy in this case seems challenging enough for us all.

For Jewish Communities

Rabbi: Here's a fascinating textual juxtaposition. Jews around the world will be reading exactly that passage about an eye for an eye this Shabbat (Parashat Emor). Leviticus 24:17 is also going to be tempting to rabbis who are looking for a text to preach on: "If anyone kills any human being, he should be put to death." Putting that verse into a traditional context will be important. The Torah suggests that taking life can mean you are liable to be judged with your own, but the rabbinic tradition goes out of its way to set up court systems, rules of evidence and witnesses to regulate -- if not prevent -- the kind of vigilante communal justice that one might try to justify using these passages in Leviticus 24.

Imam: One person I was talking to was arguing that they would want even bin Laden to have his day in court rather than assassination without trial.

Rabbi: I think you could make a strong Jewish case that even bin Laden should have gotten his day in court. From what I've read, Obama authorized the capture or killing of bin Laden -- and supposedly, had bin Laden not resisted during the raid he would not have been killed.

Imam: There is a similar law in the Quran [about killing those who murder others], but the very next passage says 'If you forgive that is better for you.' In this piece of Torah, is there ever a concept that sometimes forgiveness is better or higher than take the life of a murderer?

Rabbi: In this passage [Lev. 24], the Torah doesn't mention forgiveness. In the rabbinic tradition, however, they interpreted the teaching 'eye for an eye' to mean if someone harms you, they would owe you the monetary value of that which they took from you. In other words, if you break my arm, you pay me restitution.

Minister: In one of the prominent Christian scriptures when Jesus teaches us to "love your enemies," there's nothing in there about forgiveness, though such a teaching appears in many other places.

Imam: I'm wondering about the question of healing now that bin Laden is dead. Can there be healing without forgiveness?

Rabbi: My first thought is that the person who's loved one was killed in the attacks has one type of healing to go through in this moment, and the average American who has been watching the wars on TV has a very different healing process to walk.

Minister: Agreed, Justus.

Imam: Yes, that's very true.