As I noted a little over a week ago, I decided not to rush any public meditations about my thoughts and reactions regarding the killing of Osama Bin Laden. And I still don't want to get too close that subject. What I'd like to talk about is the Christian response to the killing of Bin Laden and why it seemed so mixed.
I think it would be fair to say that the response of the Christian community to the news of Bin Laden's death was one of ambivalence. On the one hand there were feelings of relief, satisfaction, and even joy. On the other hand there was also a call for restraint, a plead for a more sober reaction in light of Jesus' command to love one's enemies. Add into that mix complex feelings about the relationship between the church and the State and, well, reactions were all over the map.
What I want to talk about were those feelings of moral satisfaction most of us felt when we heard the news. Upon hearing the news of Bin Laden's death most of us experienced a moral "click," a feeling that something out of joint suddenly snapped back into place. The moral balance sheets of the Cosmos, ten years in the red, had moved back into the black.
Where do these feelings come from? And how should Christians relate to those feelings?
Without going too much into the relevant literature, the short answer is that humans have an innate moral psychology. And a foundational part of that moral faculty is our thirst for moral symmetry, proportionality, and balance. This is the moral criterion--the quest for balance--that sits behind our notions of fairness, justice, equity, reciprocity, and the logic of lex talionis. And huge swaths of the human mind are devoted to monitoring this moral terrain and motivating the appropriate responses. In the face of these moral imbalances we feel pity, empathy, compassion and sympathy for those on the short end of the moral calculus. In the face of those who cause the imbalances we feel moral outrage, righteous indignation, or, in severe cases, a desire for vengeance and revenge. And when punishment is meted out in these cases we feel satisfaction and schadenfreude. The moral "click" we felt when we learned of the death of Osama Bin Laden.
In light of all this, why do Christians worry when they experience these feelings?
Well, given our faith commitments Christians suspect that our innate, instinctive, natural and biological moral faculties might not, in the final analysis, be holy. True, our innate moral faculty makes things feel good to us. But so do drugs and sex. The goal of morality isn't pleasure. Morality shouldn't be driven by those moral "clicks," the sense of relief, catharsis, and yes, even pleasure we feel when the moral balance sheets are righted. To be sure, this isn't to say that our innate moral sense isn't good and incredibly valuable. In fact, the quest for justice is a huge imperative in Scripture. But left on its own our innate moral sense can lead us astray, sometimes disastrously so. So there is this sense that our "flesh," and here I'm speaking about our innate moral wiring, has to be kept in check and transcended.
This is what I think Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.Jesus, here, is explicitly pushing back on our innate craving for moral balance, the "eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." Rather than retaliation, followers of Jesus are to love and forgive. We are to leave the moral debt outstanding. The debt isn't repaid. It is forgiven. Grace is a bomb that explodes our thirst for moral balance and proportionality. This is a running theme in many of Jesus' parables:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.Balance and proportionality are also at the heart of the dispute between the father and the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’"
The point is, there is a great deal within the biblical witness that gives Christians pause when they experience the moral "click" in their hearts. They recognize these feelings as natural, and even good. But there is also the sense that these feelings can be temptations. That these feelings need to be monitored, restrained, and, ultimately, transcended. We aren't, as Christians, to land on "an eye for an eye." Even if it feels good. Even if it feels right.
All this goes a fair distance in explaining the complex and ambivalent reactions of many Christians to the news of Osama Bin Laden's death. Upon hearing the news there was a natural and instinctive rush of satisfaction. This is only natural. Nor is it a bad feeling. Bin Laden was an evil person. But many Christians were uneasy with "an eye for an eye" governing how they felt about the situation.
And this produces a scandal of sorts. If you struggle publicly to keep those "eye for an eye" feelings in check it can appear to others that you've gone soft in the head. Are you suggesting that Bin Laden didn't deserve what he got? That killing him was wrong? This was one reason for my keeping my feelings to myself. My spiritual struggle was just that, my spiritual struggle. And I didn't want my personal spiritual struggle to be seen a holier-than-thou, preachy, or judgmental. So I kept it to myself.
But it's hard not to get into a fight about grace. Grace has always been scandalous. It makes no sense, morally speaking. In fact, it can seem downright immoral. Why? Because grace violates our innate, deeply rooted sense of morality. Grace isn't natural. Grace is about the hardest thing you can do. It's damn near heroic.
One of my favorite verses along these lines is 1 Peter 1.13, particularly as it is rendered in the King James Version:
Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ."Gird up the loins of your mind" is pretty archaic. In modern translations it is rendered as "with minds that are fully alert," "think clearly," "preparing your minds for action," or simply "be alert."
But really, the King James gets this right. A literal rendering of the Greek is "girding up the loins of your mind."
As you are likely aware, this was a reference to what people had to do in ancient times with their tunics. To prepare for hard work or for battle you had to gather up the material hanging down around your feet and tie it up, freeing the legs for work, running, or maneuverability in battle.
It's a striking image. Particularly when we note that "girding up the mind" is connected in 1 Peter 1.13 to the words "hope" and "grace."
We tend to think grace is soft, unrealistic, and naive. Grace, along with hope, is for empty-headed flower children. This is a world full of Osama Bin Ladens! Grace and hope just aren't going to get the job done.
But 1 Peter 1.13 suggests that grace is actually like going to battle. Again, grace isn't easy or natural. It goes against every fiber of our being. "Gird up the loins of your mind." That's what grace is like. Grace is strenuous, backbreaking labor. Grace is planting your feet, bracing for the onslaught of battle. We're not picking daisies here. We're talking about loving our enemies. And there ain't nothing easy about that.
Does any of this mean that we shouldn't have killed Osama Bin Laden? Or that the "moral click" we felt upon the news of his death wasn't pointing to a legitimate good?
No, it doesn't mean, necessarily, any of those things. It simply means that past the "moral click" the Christian will be reaching for something more, something beyond the moral norms of this world.
It simply means that Christians everywhere, upon the news of Bin Laden's death, began to "gird up the loins of their minds" to begin the backbreaking labor of grace.