This morning, when I saw “BIN LADEN IS DEAD” plastered across the New York Times web page, I found myself surprised. Not that he’d been assassinated, but that the event was making headline news. Osama bin Laden has been in hiding for years and hasn’t seemed to have much real power for quite a while now. Every once in a while a scratchy video or tape of him would pop up, but that’s it.
He’s a powerful symbol, of course: terrorism, 9/11, and all-around Evil. He’s also a very convenient symbol: it’s hard to point to an identifiable Enemy in the complex, disparate movement that international terrorism has become or in the wars that the U.S. military is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He provides a useful, unequivocal face of the Enemy for us in the United States.
And so, some Americans were celebrating Sunday night in the streets of Washington, D.C., and New York City. Facebook status updates were peppered with “God bless America!” and “Justice is done.” and probably other, more ugly, statements than my predominantly liberal friends and family would post. However, one friend of mine suggested that now Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Jerry Falwell (!) can play bridge in hell since they have gotten a fourth partner. Well. (And I thought Rob Bell had cleared all that up?)
The death of any person isn’t something Christians should celebrate. And while I would never otherwise compare bin Laden to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior was also a victim of political execution – “it is better … to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed" (John 11:50). And so, I feel some humility in the face of the death of this man, even though he passionately engineered the deaths of so many people and so deeply poisoned the message of Islam. I feel called, still, to “honor the dignity of every human being,” as the Baptismal Covenant of The Episcopal Church asks me. I feel called to love my enemies.
But when I posted the Book of Common Prayer’s prayer “For our Enemies” on my Facebook page, I wondered if I could be sliding into some ugly self-righteousness. It’s easy just to “post” something about love, mercy, and humility. It’s not hard to stand above the online fray and proclaim oneself a Christian, above all that jingoistic claptrap. Harder to put on a uniform and serve as a military chaplain in Afghanistan. Harder to re-configure your life without the presence of someone you loved after their death in a terrorist attack. Harder to be a patient, prayerful family member while a brother or wife or father serves with the military in Iraq. Harder to stand up to tyranny and put your family in danger on the highways of Libya. Harder to stand your ground and remain in your monastery in Algeria in the midst of rising violence.
So, here I am, astride a tricky bridge between Christian humility and my deliriously wonderful and undeserved safety here in the suburbs of Chicago. Between self-righteousness and an abiding hope that love and forgiveness can transform the world, because Jesus said they could.
Thankfully, the prayer “For our Enemies” hit this right on the head, because it’s a prayer for our enemies and for us, too: O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.