Monday, May 2, 2011

Misplaced celebration

In November of 2001, one of Marcie's best friends got married. While Marcie, her friend, and the rest of the bridal party spent the day before the wedding doing, I don't know, wedding stuff, a couple of the other husbands (that I already knew) and I set out to find something to occupy our time. One of them suggested the shooting range: both of these guys had a couple of handguns with them, so we set out for a range that I knew of in that town. It had been a while, too, since my last time shooting, so I was glad for the practice in handling a firearm.

When we got to the range, my two companions (both of whom are, and were, Christians and leaders in their church) expressed great excitement, not just over the time at the range, but at another idea. They asked the range manager, "Do you have any silhouette targets in the shape of Osama bin Laden?" "Those are our best-sellers," replied the manager matter-of-factly.

I thought I was going to vomit.

In reflection, the thing that struck me about that event (apart from the fact that these guys brought multiple handguns to a wedding weekend) was the pairing of the casual indifference with which everyone around me of shooting people, and fantasizing about doing so, with a bloodthirsty hatred for bin Laden and his like.

A similar wave of nausea and disgusted shock hit me last night, when-- in the wake of the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed by a U.S. military operation-- the television news showed video of crowds celebrating in the streets, chanting, "U.S.A." as if one of our athletes had won a major Olympic event; friends and "friends" on Facebook and Twitter posted similarly, boasting and even gloating of how great this achievement is.

I understand the need and importance of the operation against Osama bin Laden, and recognize and even appreciate the significance of his removal from terrorist activity. Doubtless, bin Laden's death will mean the reduction of terrorism in general, if only eventually and perhaps only mildly (and what I mean by that is, 1) our leaders are already bracing for an increase in terrorism in the short term, in response to this killing; and 2) surely terrorist activity will not entirely cease or even be substantially reduced by the killing of the one man, regardless of how great a leader he was among terrorists). He was a military combatant, and lived by the sword; consequently, he died according to the same principles by which he lived. Surely everyone knew that this-- death by firearm, or bomb, or missile, in the face of military aggression-- was the reasonable and eventual end of this man, whose entire life seemed to be singularly-focused on wreaking fear, grief, and death upon as many of those with whom he disagreed as possible.

I also recognize the cultural implications within the U.S. of this accomplishment: a spirit of patriotism, national cohesiveness, and support for our military troops will certainly follow in the days and weeks to come. Civic commitment and national identity are both good and vital to the health of a nation in general, and I pray that both will abound for the sake of our nation's health. Likewise, our soldiers deserve our support and do not receive enough of it; an event like this can be, as so many of the commentators offered last night, a "shot in the arm" for both the troops and we who support them.

Nevertheless, a handful of things about how we, as a nation, have handled the last 12 hours or so make me cringe:
  • Celebrating death. I find it very hard to accept that anyone who celebrates death also has a clear sense of the fact that all of humankind is made in the image of God. The inherent dignity of every man or woman, regardless of how evil or sinful they may be or have been, demands that we grieve all death. To celebrate death is a terrorism of the soul, waged against the image of God Himself.
  • Mistaking prominence for justice. I've noticed how many have declared "justice has finally been served" regarding the killing of bin Laden. But this isn't justice. Instead, by asserting that the death of this one man is equivalent to the justice deserved for the death and pain of so many thousands, we give Osama bin Laden-- and his evil acts-- the power and authority that they sought in the first place, while simultaneously stripping his victims and their families of the right to hope for true justice. Mr. bin Laden was just a cog in the larger machine-- a large cog, but still only a cog. True justice requires more than just the death of a sinful, broken man.
  • Moral hypocrisy. There's something not a little ironic in military actions that, in response to the killing of 3000 people in a terrorist attack, results in the death of 40,000 of our own soldiers as well as tens of thousands of civilians in other nations. I'm somewhere in the middle on this one, because I fully acknowledge that the 9/11 attack could be, and was, construed as an act of war against the U.S., but I don't believe the resulting response has been balanced, nor has it been fully justified. At very least, I don't quite buy the "high ground" attitude that so many are taking with regard to killing Osama bin Laden. (David Sessions covered this well today at Patrol.)
  • Frightening Zionism. The United States is not the Promised Land. The Old Testament promises for the nation of God's people do not apply to America. The American military forces are not the army of the Lord. And Christians, our citizenship in the U.S., however important, is secondary to our citizenship in the true Kingdom of God (and no they are not the same!). Consequently, Christians ought not feel free to cry out that the killing of Osama bin Laden is a victory for Christ!
  • Your violent spirit is terrorizing me. People who speak in language and with ideas that can only be described with words like, "vengeance," "bloodthirsty," and "merciless" scare me as much as the threat of terrorism does. At least with Islamic extremist terrorists, most of them are overseas and far away; what's clear from the news, Facebook, and Twitter, is that there are plenty of terrorist-spirited people really close to me. How long will it be before the same hatred and venomous attack that they hold for Osama bin Laden is turned toward me? Here's what I see: that none of us is any different from Osama bin Laden in our sin or in our capacity for it. Ours may be different in kind, and it may be different in degree, but it is not different in capacity.
  • Whither redemption? One of the most compelling parallels that I have ever heard is that of Osama bin Laden to Saul of Tarsus: a middle-eastern religious fundamentalist extremist who persecuted and murdered Christians out of hate and spite. Yet Saul of Tarsus became Paul the apostle, through the power of Christ's redeeming work. And the message of redemption in Scripture points me to conclude that vengeance and even justice are not the primary concerns of the Christian; redemption is. How many of the Christians who are celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden ever prayed for his conversion and repentance? If we know ourselves and what we have been redeemed from, we long for the redemption of others. If all we feel for others is contempt and condemnation, perhaps we don't know and recognize the depth and degree of our own redemption.

Everyone has responded differently to the events of the last decade; one friend of mine now considers it part of his pastoral duty to be prepared to protect the innocent and defend the defenseless-- with force, if necessary-- so he bought a pistol, applied for a carry permit, and now is ready in mind, body, and conscience to shoot with lethal intent should an event occur that might call for it. While I respect my friend's thoughtful convictions, my response has taken me to the other end of the spectrum: while not a "pacifist" in the pure sense of the term, I find violence-- foreign and domestic, military and civilian-- to be more and more repulsive to me, and though I recognize the need for truly just war, I have a high standard of what I would consider just in the case of war.

At the bottom line, I won't claim that my convictions with regard to violence and war are the right ones, but I believe they are carefully thought-out and consistent with Scripture. The issues listed above, though, I am convinced are not consistent with Scripture, and therefore they are not right.

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