05/05/2011 09:35 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2011

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

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.

The Burial

Rabbi: How are Muslims responding to the news about the burial?

Imam: There's a mixed reaction, as one would expect. On the one hand, it seems the U.S. has taken proper measures to bury bin Laden in accordance to Islamic tradition with the white burial shroud, within 24 hours, etc. On the other hand bin Laden was buried in the sea, which is interesting. Traditionally Muslims bury their dead into the ground, into mother earth.

Rabbi: So from what you've heard so far, you would agree that the U.S. authorities have gotten the 'basics' right -- except for the location?

Imam: Yes, it seems like the basics were correct, but the location is important. Some are saying that bin Laden should have been buried into the earth. Others say that in this case there is an exception because we don't want to see bin Laden's grave site become another hot spot of conflict.

Minister: Say more about the importance of an earth burial.

Rabbi: In Jewish tradition, there is such a strong preference to bury in the ground (as opposed to cremation) that I've never thought about burial at sea.

Imam: In Islam it is about tradition: burial in the earth is the way the Prophet Muhammad and his companions buried the dead, so the tradition continues. There is also a spiritual notion of walking gently and humbly on the earth because it is where our ancestors are buried and the earth contains our collective histories.

Minister: Burial at sea is acceptable for Christians. My denominational service book (Presbyterian) even includes special prayers for burial at sea. But culturally, it's quite different; some Christians would react emotionally to the "loss" of the body and lack of clear memorial location, while communities with a strong seagoing tradition would be more accepting and might have emotional resonance with it. Traditionally, Christians bury their dead for the same reasons that Imam Sultan identifies: Jesus was buried and Christians overwhelmingly practiced burial until recent years. Protestants now accept cremation, though that wouldn't have been the case a generation ago.

Rabbi: According to at least one legal source I found, burial of Jews at sea is generally prohibited. If someone died at sea, there would be an obligation to try to find the corpse and bury it, if at all possible. (See Beit Yosef, Yoreh Deah 375:7). Imam Sultan, from your reaction, it seems like burial at sea is perhaps a bit odd, but not necessarily problematic from the view of Islamic tradition.

Imam: Well, I think it is problematic from the view of tradition, but the issue is not how Muslims should be buried, the issue is how should bin Laden -- a very unique individual -- be buried. Islamic law takes into account what is beneficial for society as a whole.

Rabbi: This is a helpful distinction -- and one that may prove interesting for our conversation. Are you saying that maybe we shouldn't treat bin Laden 'as a Muslim' in some respects?

Minister: That's an interesting accommodation on the benefit of society, which seems to resonate with what the U.S. government was arguing, too.

Imam: You know, the question of treating bin Laden as a Muslim is interesting. I feel unqualified to put people outside of Islam, but if there was ever an individual who would fall outside of the faith it would be someone like bin Laden who killed scores of Muslims throughout the world.

Rabbi: Perhaps a way to frame it is that there are competing interests in this case: There is a responsibility both to the dead, and to society, and in bin Laden's case, those interests may not be aligned.

Imam: There are instances in Islamic law in which a "Muslim" is not given the right to be buried in a Muslim graveyard, and this might be one of those instances.

Rabbi: Can you share some of those instances that would cause someone to not be buried in a Muslim cemetery?

Imam: If a person is considered a fasiq (a person who lived a life of complete sinfulness and corruption), there would be a question about their burial in a Muslim graveyard. But, it is tricky as to who makes that decision, so for the most part the question has been put aside.

Rabbi: So it seems like the authorities found a solution that would address both the desire to honor Islamic burial practices, and the desire to avoid creating physical site that people would visit.

Imam: Yes, personally, I think it was the right call.

The Celebrations

Minister: The celebrations have been the focus of the Christian response to bin Laden's death, both critiquing and defending the celebrations. It boils down to Christ's command that we should love our enemies; if you take that seriously, how can you "celebrate" your enemy's death? Those who have defended the celebrations theologically have argued that they are celebrating justice, not vengeance/death.

Rabbi: In the rabbinic world I've been following, there is a sense that it is normal human behavior to want to celebrate at such a moment -- primarily because justice has been done. And that such celebrations should be muted, at least, because God does not celebrate when any aspect of Creation dies. The rabbinic tradition contains many teachings about not overly celebrating the demise of an enemy, including a well-known midrash in the Talmud about God instructing the angels to mute their singing when Pharaoh's army drowns into the sea after the Israelites escape from Egypt.

Minister: Christians would agree it's normal human behavior. But our doctrine of sin makes us very suspicious of "normal" human behavior; Paul says that "in Christ we are a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has begun."

Imam: In the Islamic tradition, celebrating death is considered improper whether that of friend or enemy. There's a tradition in which the Prophet Muhammad stood up for the funeral procession of an enemy. When his companions told the Prophet whose funeral it was, the Prophet replied by saying, "Is he not a human being?" But one could say that the celebration is justified in the saving of human life, that many might live with the death of a murderer.

Rabbi: So in that story, Muhammad is standing up for treating enemies like humans. Would bin Laden fall into the same category of enemy as the person in that text? Or might there be some kind of hierarchy of enemies, or of evil?

Imam: Well, considering that bin Laden killed so many people including Muslims, I think he would be like the enemy in the story. I was disturbed by the nature of the celebration in some quarters. It was more like we won a Super Bowl than the idea of lives being saved.

Minister: Exactly. What I've seen reminds me much more of pep rallies or frat parties or post-Super Bowl celebrations than theological/spiritual affirmations of the triumph of justice. I think the emotion we're feeling is catharsis; bin Laden had gotten away with evil and he finally had to pay for that. After so few visible victories in the War on Terror, people needed to believe that evil doesn't win. But I don't think you throw a street party over a moral reckoning.

Rabbi: There is also a sense of closure for many people. The open wound of 9/11 -- which is surprisingly wide open and at the surface -- feels like it is able to heal a little bit in this moment.

Imam: For many Muslims there was just a sense of relief, if not celebration. For Muslims, Bin Laden has been a very heavy name to carry around for us.

Rabbi and Minister: That's interesting -- how might a world without Bin Laden feel differently to Muslims?

Imam: Well, let me give you an example. On Sunday morning I was leading a children's study group, and I asked them 'What's the most difficult thing about growing up Muslim in America today?' Several of them talked about living with discrimination, and then a boy told me a really sad story. He and his friends were searching their names on the internet to see what would come up. This boy's name yielded no results, so one of his friends said, "I am sure your dad's name would give us results," and then he typed into the search "Osama bin Laden." This name has just been such a heavy weight for Muslims, there seemed to be a sense of relief and hope that perhaps with the man, the burden will also die.

Rabbi: I don't think many non-Muslims have a sense of this relief that is being felt by many Muslims.

Minister: I've heard many people express relief, but it's a very different quality; contemporary American Christians have no analogy to this kind of personified burden. Even the burdens our tradition does have are often dismissed, ignored, minimized, etc.

Rabbi: For Jews, I think there has been a mix of excitement about justice being done, and FEAR about whether this event will trigger new terror events.

Imam: Yes, that sense of fear is certainly there too ... the future is uncertain

Rabbi: Many have said that when they saw the American celebrations at the White House and Ground Zero it reminded them of the celebrations after 9/11 in some Muslim communities. I wonder if this will help Americans be less judgmental about what happens in the street -- to see that just because groups spontaneously gather, it doesn't mean that the celebrations represent the voice of a community.

Imam: Hmmm ... yes and no. I think the difference is too big to ignore. There's just such a difference between murder of innocents and the killing of a murderer.

Rabbi: But I can't imagine that those who celebrated after 9/11 thought that those who died were 'innocent.' In other words -- I am hypothesizing that we celebrate when we think justice is being done or when our 'side' is winning -- and that it's a very rare phenomenon for a normal person to be excited when innocents die -- in my mind, that would be some form of psychosis.

Imam: So how do we react to such an event as a community? There has to be some way for people to come together during a time like this.

Rabbi: What might we as religious leaders say about 'appropriate' communal celebrations? I can't shake the feeling that 'tone' is everything here -- whether the gathering is public or private, religious or secular, there is something that just feels wrong about cheering this event with chants of USA, USA!

Imam: Yes, I agree, the chanting of USA! USA! is problematic because it reinforces the type of tribal mentalities that led to 9/11 in the first place.