The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Loving Enemies

I've hesitated -- perhaps delayed is a better word since it's been weeks -- to comment on the death of Osama bin Laden because it's taken me a while to sort out my thoughts. I believe I can honestly say I was not happy when I heard the news, but neither was I unhappy. Osama bin Laden was a man responsible for the violent deaths of thousands of innocent people here in the United States and around the world. Although he has no doubt already been replaced by another committed terrorist, his actions certainly demanded punishment.

And regardless of the orders the Navy Seals received -- the specifics of which we will likely never know -- I have no problem with the actions of the team members who shot bin Laden. This was not the civil arrest of a criminal carried out by a police swat team; it was a combat operation with the goal of eliminating a key enemy leader. In those circumstances unless an enemy immediately surrenders, he can expect to be killed. In combat one does not shoot to wound.

I suppose my real concern relates to the response of so many when news of bin Laden's death was announced by the president. Since I knew personally several people who died on September 11, 2001, I can understand the collective relief felt by many Americans who had been waiting almost ten years for this news. But the fact that so many people actually took to the streets and publicly rejoiced over one man's death I found a bit disturbing. Yes, I know there was similar rejoicing on VE-Day when the Germans surrendered in May of 1945, but those people weren't celebrating Hitler's death which took place over a week earlier. They were celebrating the end of a long and costly world war, one that had called for a nationwide commitment that affected virtually every aspect of life. But today, were it not for the irritating and often irrational policies of TSA, an American who didn't pay attention to the news would hardly know we've been waging a decade-long War on Terror. And I can't see how the death of bin Laden will have a long-term effect on the current struggle, an ideological war with deep religious roots that our enemies will continue to wage. Anyone who celebrated bin Laden's death believing it meant the end of this struggle is fooling himself.

And so it would seem the rejoicing was personal and reflected happiness over the death of another. It was reminiscent of that scene from the Wizard of Oz in which all celebrate by singing "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead." From a Christian perspective, I believe it's important for us to examine what both Scripture and the Church have to say about all this. One good source is certainly the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus preaches,

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." [Mt 5:43-48]
And in Luke's Gospel Jesus says pretty much the same using slightly different language:
"But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." [Lk 6:27-28]
Image courtesy of © Daniel W. Erlander, (With minor change in wording by yours truly.)
Following this command of Jesus is a tall order, especially if we've been directly and personally affected by the actions of our enemies. And it's important to understand that Christians traditionally have not interpreted Jesus' words as a prohibition of defensive actions by a state when threatened by others, especially those with evil intent. The Church still teaches that there is such a thing as a "just war." But, following Jesus' teaching, the Church also instructs us not to rejoice at the death of another, regardless of the evil he has committed. Perhaps the Book of Proverbs says this best:
Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and when he stumbles, let not your heart exult, Lest the LORD see it, be displeased with you, and withdraw his wrath from your enemy. Be not provoked with evildoers, nor envious of the wicked; for the evil man has no future, the lamp of the wicked will be put out. [Pro 24:17-20]
And I think the words of Pope Benedict XVI, from his statement issued after bin Laden's death, are particularly relevant:

"Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions for this purpose.

"In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred."

The pope, of course, is correct and we would be wise to remember his words. As Christians we pray for the conversion, not the death, of our enemies; and when an enemy does die, we do not rejoice but rather pray that God will bring good from his death. Neither should we wish eternal damnation on anyone, even an enemy like Osama bin Laden. To do so only calls on our Father to judge our own sinfulness with equal severity. After all, do we not pray daily, "...and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"?

Instead of rejoicing over another's death, or hoping that he be damned, pray for God's mercy. Pray that God will extend to your enemies the same mercy you hope for yourself. And remember, loving another is not an emotion; it's a decision. You and I can make that decision to love our enemy, even an enemy like Osama bin Laden, and do so without liking him.

Pax et bonum...

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