Bin Laden’s Death in Translation

May 2nd, 2011
Students celebrate outside the White House. Image via Flickr, © 2011 theqspeaks. Used under Creative Commons license.

About the time sailors on the USS Carl Vinson were lowering Osama bin Laden’s body into the Arabian Sea, I was breaking up a fight between my two young children.

“We never solve our problems by hitting,” I said. “Never.”

I’ve preached this sermon before, both to my children and to the students at our campus ministry. It’s one of the most easily justifiable proposals any preacher could make, backed up by any number of Jesus’ sayings on forgiveness and peace-full living.

Less than 24 hours later, however, I join with countless other pastors and parents as we struggle to hold onto our ideals of peace while affirming that the world is a safer place without the figurehead of global terrorism.

For those of us who routinely help other Christians interpret events based on biblical and theological frames, the killing of bin Laden is a far more complicated issue even than the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks. That response, although difficult, was fairly straightforward: speak comfort and compassion, and help people hold fast to hope despite the pain and loss.

Bin Laden’s death, on the other hand, comes with an entirely different set of thorny issues. Was his killing a military action in an ongoing war, or an act of government sanctioned retribution? Are we right to rejoice at the death of another human, regardless of how evil his deeds? How do we talk about these questions in a climate of political acrimony that divides even our congregations?

In my ministry context, I wonder how to translate bin Laden’s death to this generation of college students. Campuses nationwide lit up at the President’s announcement. Young adults literally ran to the White House gates to chant “USA!” and sing the national anthem. This may be one of the most important moments in national consciousness to occur in their lifetimes. Many of them do not want to be left out.

But they are recent additions to the ranks of adulthood, just now grappling with a world with far more gray area than they could have imagined ten years ago, when they watched the Twin Towers crumble from televisions in their junior high classrooms. They know that they are caught up in a moment, but are still working to understand what the moment means.

So am I. So are a lot of pastors.

Maybe our own internal struggle is a sign that we should be slow to speak.

Too often, we clergy move too quickly to pronounce moral judgment on tragedy or triumph. We worry so much about the souls of our sheep that we play the role of sheepdog, barking at their heels to keep them from straying too far away from the fold. We forget that we are not herders, but shepherds—pastors—and that in our work patience is a far greater virtue than certainty.

How, then, do we translate bin Laden’s death to Christians in hyper-political American culture? How do we translate it for young adults who are celebrating history even as many of them process the meaning of that history? How do we translate it for our children, in whom we try to instill values of peace and love and grace?

Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in our verbal responses. Words are words are words, and however helpful they may be, they are inherently limited. Our opinions, however eloquent, will likely only corroborate or counter what our hearers already think.

Acts of love, however, take longer to understand, but have a much deeper impact. Perhaps our best work is not to interpret bin Laden’s death for others, but to model respectful listening and dialogue as people work through their own emotional and intellectual responses, collectively and individually. Maybe the greatest service we can provide is to lovingly refuse to strike back at those who attack our politics, and to encourage our congregations not to turn on one another.

Especially not now, not in this moment.

Now, with decade-old wounds split open again and people of faith struggling to find a God-breathed response to a terrorist’s death, we need to patiently and lovingly give each other the space we need to make sense of the world.

After all, we never solve our problems by hitting.

comments powered by Disqus