Talking to Kids about bin Laden

A friend gave thanks, on hearing of the death of Osama bin Laden, that our dear president released this news on a Sunday evening. Just 24 hours earlier, such an announcement would have sent overwhelmed preachers scrambling back to their sermon manuscripts, in an attempt to make hasty sense of this news in light of the Gospel. Now, we who preach were left with a week to puzzle out the meaning of this public event.

My husband, a 6th grade teacher in a suburban middle school, didn't have that long. First thing Monday morning, the kids in his homeroom were already on topic. These kids were alive in September 2001, and though they most likely don't remember seeing the towers fall, only the most sheltered among them hasn't heard of the 9/11 attacks or Osama bin Laden (especially if they get Scholastic News in the classroom or watched any of the 2008 presidential election coverage with their parents).

One Time magazine blogger noted that President Obama made his announcement while children were still awake on the west coast, leaving parents to cobble together platitudes and idiosyncratic ethical schemes in response to their kids' questions. We've taught our kids that killing is wrong. They can understand the Osama bin Laden was a bad guy who killed people. They are, up until early adolescence, good at moral absolutes and black and white categorizations of justice. But how do we explain to them that the United States military, under the authority of the president, was the one doing the hunting and the killing in this case? How do we explain our ambivalence, relief, sadness, gratitude, or remorse to those who are not that developmentally capable of handling a lot of ambiguity?

Part of the task for parents, Christian educators, and others who work with children, is to recall that the concerns of kids are often prioritized differently than our own. The other is to tell the truth. Children—especially in late elementary school through adolescence—want to know that adults in their lives are trustworthy. It signals to them that they are taken seriously, and that their trust is not misplaced.

In my husband Josh's class on Monday morning, the students wanted to know if there would be reprisals against the United States. As sixth graders, nearing the end of the year, they're beginning to evidence that cynical detachment of teenagers, but their questions were born out of childlike fear. Will we be safe? Does this mean the war is over? How could our soldiers (good guys) kill someone so violently?

The other tricky thing, it seems to me, in this Easter season, is that we in the church have spent these last weeks talking about how death is not the end of the story, how God's love gets the last word. So, if they've been listening during Eastertide, claims on the internet or around the dinner table or, God forbid, in church about how Mr. bin Laden deserved to die, or how he's now in hell, or how the United States was justified in this capital killing may seem particularly incongruous.

We have, hopefully, taught our children that killing is wrong. But God doesn't swoop down from heaven or send avenging angels in the Bible when someone commits this terrible sin. God does, however, work to set things right—and uses people to help with this work. Throughout the Scriptures, where there is death, or pain, or brokeness, or danger, God calls prophets, kings, disciples, and Jesus himself, to heal, to bring life and hope.

Killing a bad guy doesn't look much like a road to healing—and bin Laden's assassination is not offered in vengeance or as restitution for the deaths on 9/11. But kings in the Hebrew Scriptures and churches in the New Testament are charged with protecting and serving the innocent and the vulnerable. If we would have power, we must use it to keep others from harm. As our President reminded us, Osama bin Laden did not just kill Americans, but he dealt in countries and communities in many different nations, and of many different faiths.

Killing is wrong, and it was surely a hard thing, a heavy thing, for those who ordered the attack to claim responsibility for this sin. But this is what it means to be in charge: presidents and leaders make difficult decisions about what is best for their people, and for people around the world. And because it was such a hard thing, they decided together; our leaders helped and supported one another. They decided together that this was the only thing they could do to stop a man who did bad things over and over, without ever being sorry, from hurting more people. If there had been any other way, we would have wanted them to choose that.

In the world God wants us to have, no one would kill anyone. We would not be in any danger, not ever. There would be no war. In this world, all of our solutions to problems are imperfect, and we do the best we can. With God's help, things get better. But this killing -- or any death -- does not make everything all better, and so we can expect that the war will continue, though we may also hope and pray for peace.

The word for children with questions about this death ought finally to be one of reassurance and empowerment. There are people who love them, whose job it is to care for them and protect them. As they grow up, they may see people who need their help. Maybe a group of kids is picking on a stray cat. Maybe someone is saying mean things about somebody else's family or religion or skin color. Maybe a grown-up is not treating a kid with respect or care. And, as they get older and learn to be the people God wants them to be, they will have to figure out with others how to help and protect people who need them. Because God loves all people, and wants us all to live in love and freedom. Helping God to make the world into that sort of place requires that we learn to ask for help, that we listen always for God's voice, and that we ask God to make us brave and give us courage.

This word, as I said, is for children with questions. My nearly-four year old has avoided this news, and I for one will not be bringing it up with her. The zoo near our house strategically avoids talk of deforestation and species endangerment in the "play zoo", opting to engender in kids a love of nature and avoid inspiring fear. The same holds true in this situation. Children will learn of war soon enough; we simply need to be present to engage them when they come to us looking for a response. As we respond, let us try to offer reassurance and prophetic love, even if we are unable to provide the black and white answers they may request.

For more on speaking of difficult things with children, and responding to children on September 11, 2001, see this essay by children's author Katherine Paterson.

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