Monday, May 02, 2011

appropriate response

I was going to write a piece about my trip yesterday to Universal Studios with good friend Chris Berryman and my nephew Ben. We had a ball. For those of you who are Facebook friends with me, there are pictures; I may yet post some here.

But as I was fiddling with those photos, President Obama rather conclusively concluded his current feud with Donald Trump by taking the Celebrity Apprentice off US TV just before The Donald announced which of the losing girls' team he was going to fire - and instead we had the announcement from Mr Obama at the White House that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.

(NBC never did return us to Nene, Star & Hope; one of them has been fired, but it all seems a bit trivial now.)

I thought the President's speech thoughtful and respectful. It is a difficult moment to manage: an enemy has been killed, but it is not the moment for gloating or cheap histrionics. He was dutiful, careful, forceful and walked the tight-rope of diplomacy well. The home audience heard the news they longed for; the world heard a statesman.

The subsequent response from many has been varied, and there is a live question as to what exactly the Christian response ought to be to this news. I wouldn't claim to be able to answer that in full, but I would like to make a couple of observations if I may.

First: Jesus is clear - the Christian individual and community is called to love our enemies and to bless those who persecute us. We are instructed repeatedly to forgive those who wrong us, no matter what the wrong that has been done. People are people are people. God sent his Son to die because he loves all people, and to give all people the opportunity to be a part of those who live in that love.

Christians who crow too much about the death of anyone are forgetting important principles - not least that the God who loves them loves the person who has died too. Yes, even Osama Bin Laden. And parties and flag waving on such occasions look very like the parties and flag waving in other places on other occasions that made Western hearts so angry. Who are we to become those we despised?

Human beings, that's who. And being such, a little humility added to our memory and a little grace to the way we remember might go a long way.

But second: I am no lily-livered-liberal. This is not the calling of Christians. The Bible makes it clear that the State has a role to protect the weak and the disadvantaged and to look after its people. There are times when it will execute justice and that justice will be difficult and yet must be done. Revenge for the sake of revenge is unacceptable - Ghandi and his blind world comes to mind - but the performance of justice in order to preserve order and to protect the innocent and the vulnerable, that is the very nature of the state. Psalm 72 even celebrates it as the nature of God's King and God's kingdom.

However, I raise that last point as a warning, and again as a plea for carefulness. Everyone thinks they are either on God's side or that, God not mattering, they are simply in the right. Joshua, on the eve of destroying Jericho, is confronted by the Captain of the Lord's Army; Joshua asks is he for them or against them? The imposing warrior replies - Neither; the real question is the reverse: is Joshua on his side?

We make sides, take sides, create enemies and dig ourselves in. There will always be another Bin Laden. As long as people are people, it seems, it is how we work - are you for us or against us? "But we are in the right!" cry both sides, simultaneously, in virtually every dispute since the dawn of time. Don't get me wrong - the last thing I am being is an apologist for terrorists, I am simply pointing out the complicated nature of responding to victory.

Just after 9/11 I was in Italy on holiday. The only English language church service I could find in the small village where I was staying was (inevitably) a Catholic mass. I went (of course) and worshipped with everyone else - mostly Americans. I listened to them speak of the recent atrocity in New York, of how terrorism had suddenly begun and taken hold in the West, and I had the strongest and strangest reaction. I began to be very, very angry - with the Americans. And I knew I had to deal with it - the peace was coming up in the service, where I would have to shake hands with these people for whom I was genuinely feeling deep, deep loathing.

Why the reaction?

Because terrorism wasn't just beginning. It hadn't just taken hold in the West. Ask anyone in my country. These self-same American Catholics - and yes, for all I knew these very same people - had been funding terrorism in my country for years through their NorAid benefits. My home city of Manchester had had its heart ripped out not five years previously by an IRA bomb funded by American Catholic money. And now they were crying about terrorism arriving in the West? They were its sponsors!

And though it still sometimes takes me time to forgive these people, yet I know this is what we are called to do. Forgiveness is godly. Anger is not. We are followers of Jesus. To be a worshipper is to love what Jesus loves and to live it out. There in that Italian church I had to make that decision to be a worshipper - to love the people he loved and to live it out by exchanging the peace with them. It was damned hard. It almost broke me. It was gloriously life-giving. They had no idea what I was going through.

Osama Bin Laden had family and friends. Whatever he felt about them and did to them, whatever they feel about him, we as Christians are not to rejoice in his death or the manner of it, but to respect those who mourn on all sides. So much hurt. So much suffering. His death is a profound moment. A truly historical moment.

And I understand especially why members of our armed forces, serving and retired, and those who belong to the forces of our allies, have been so emotional about this moment: this man has been the focal point of their military combat for a decade.

But though as a Christian it is not my role to be a bleeding heart Liberal, it is my role to remind gently that we have a conscience, a better heart, a belief system that must not be overlooked at the moment when seminal battles are fought in the wars of this life. Our enemies are not flesh and blood but the ideologies of hate and disrespect and oppression that came from and within groups of people. We fight these. We oppose these. We fight to release those held captive by these and to ensure that we may live unencumbered by the miseries of slavery they bring, be they mental, physical, psychological or otherwise. In our victories we do not dance on graves, for other people yet mourn and we must remember what that feels like and feel for them - by doing this we proclaim who we are and why we do what we do: we are human beings, believing in the freedom and equality under God of all our fellow human beings.

To love our enemies means that Christians remember people are people. Today, this matters.

To love our neighbour means that we remember why we struggle on, and the love that carries us will not die.


Anonymous said...

I did find the scenes of jubilation very distasteful. I am hoping a chapter is now closed but fear Osama Bin Laden's legacy may continue, this now is the focus of my prayers. Thank you for confirming so well to us on this. joyce

Ian (Youthblog) said...

Thank you Marcus.
Much wisdom therein

Lorraine said...

Thanks Marcus, I enjoyed reading this and could not agree more. I remember last week when News was given of his death, showing the celebrations of those rejoicing and questioning my own feelings surrounding his death and why I did not feel the same. I concluded that I could not celebrate any murder regardless of who they are and what they have done. Well written.