Text: Luke 24:13-35
Last Sunday evening, as most Americans were ending their day, we learned from President Obama that a Navy SEAL strike team in Pakistan had killed Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader who claimed responsibility for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Almost immediately, television and the internet began to feature images of spontaneous celebrations outside the White House and at ground zero in New York. Just as quickly, blogs and social media pages such as Facebook began to rage with debates: about the morality of bin Laden’s killing and how it was accomplished and about the appropriateness of the celebratory atmosphere. Others questioned the meaning of the “justice” described by President Obama in announcing bin Laden’s death. Over the past seven days, the debate has intensified, revealing the complexities of what it means to execute justice.
As the weekly lectionary group gathered this past Wednesday, the need to process the killing of bin Laden and the complexity of emotions surrounding his death took priority over Luke 24 and the Emmaus Road experience. As I opened my Bible, one participant looking somewhat perplexed asked, “You are going to say something about bin Laden’s death Sunday, aren’t you?” I didn’t answer. I, too, was still working through my thoughts and emotions. In the days since, I have had some moments of clarity. I will share them with you only because it seems right to acknowledge and name that the events of last Sunday have had a profound impact on our world; and they have raised serious theological questions for people of faith and serious moral questions for humankind.
Based on the teachings of Jesus, I find it impossible to make an argument that it is ever permissible to kill another human being, even if one can morally justify such a killing by arguing that in committing murder one is “defending the common good.” As hard as they are to hear, Jesus’ words are clear: “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, so that you may be children of God…’”. (Matthew 5) And just prior to these words in Matthew 5, in his most famous sermon, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Whatever else can be said in this debate, valid or not, one must respect that Jesus taught a way of non-violence.
With that said, it is not unreasonable for Christians to ask the question, “Are Jesus’ words and teachings the only teachings to consider in issues of ethics, morality, and spirituality?” Has the world changed so much from first century Palestine that a different response or ethic for the problem of evil warrants study? Is there a responsible argument to be made for the moral justification of killing in times of war? Maybe, but as I read the gospels one cannot make that argument based on the teachings of Jesus. That is my first point of clarity.
It is also clear to me that when dealing with evil, and specifically when such profound evil resides with a human being like Hitler or bin Laden, the answers to how one responds to such evil are complicated and complex. There are no clear, easy answers. There are only hard choices. It is a struggle that one of the greatest theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrestled with as he ultimately decided to participate in plotting to kill Hitler. An avowed pacifist, when faced with Hitler’s evil, he concluded that “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” He did not justify his action but accepted that he was taking guilt upon himself as he wrote “when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it…Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.”
As with most of you, the other clear moment I have had in these past days is that rejoicing and being gleeful over killing another human being is morally, ethically, and spiritually wrong. I understand relief. I understand human emotion. I don’t understand celebrating killing on any level. As I have thought about the first images I saw after the President’s announcement of bin Laden’s death there are two that have stuck with me. The first was the crowd that gathered out in front of the White House chanting “USA…USA.” The second was the still frame image of the Situation Room inside the White House. In the center of the image was a military officer. To his right was President Obama. To his left was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was obvious that they were watching as the raid inside the compound was taking place. I don’t think I will ever forget the look of horror that showed on their faces, especially on the face of Secretary of State Clinton. There was no look of satisfaction. No celebration. Not even relief. Just horror. It was a moment of recognition—recognizing that in the face of evil there are no clear, easy answers. There are only hard choices that may or may not be justified. Maybe the most we can say in moments such as last Sunday evening is to echo Bonhoeffer and confess, “before God one hopes only for grace.”
Since last Sunday, there has been new interest in Abbottabad, Pakistan where bin Laden was residing and where he was killed. I learned this week that the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America has been in contact with Rev. Riza Mubarak, pastor of St. Luke’s Church in Abbottabad, for several years. Recently, the Baptist Peace Fellowship (one of Pullen’s partnering organizations), helped to fund a Christian-Muslim dialogue for women that the church sponsored. This week we received an email from the Peace Fellowship with this report from the women of St. Luke’s Church in Abbottabad. They write and I read as the message was translated:
“The conference goes very well, and about 200 women gathered together. The speakers presented their presentation and afterwards the discussion goes very well. Most of the participants…realize that our country needs a peace, whereas they also realized that as there is a less tolerance and heartedness prevailed in the lives of most of our country men, so the women have to take part for promoting peace practically and they need to take initiatives from their very houses, and then from their professional talents. Similarly, 90% of women requested that there is need of a forum where both Muslim and Christian women raise their voices against extremism, sectarianism, terrorism and even against the misuse of any law.
The reason behind this seminar is to educate women for their families and for their society. However, that was one of the aims that the women themselves may realize the need to have peace in their lives, in the family and in the society. Thus we have two positive results. First, through the strong discussion the women themselves realized to have freedom from the present less tolerant and hatred phenomena and need to have a future remedy. Secondly, the women also discussed to have common forum for Christian and Muslim women where they may be able to express their views and also to raise their common voice against extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism and hatred in the name of religion.
During the presentation of one of the Christian speakers who mentioned that the peace can not be prevailed at all, until or unless we have to love our enemies. After her presentation some participants have asked questions of how they may love their enemies? At this our speaker answered that as in our schools, offices and in societies we have been taught to only love our loved ones and hate others. Due to which our society has become the victim of hatred rather than a tolerating society. Moreover, she said that this is Christ like attitude that we love our enemies and ask blessings for those who harm us, and through this we can love every one and especially we may love our enemies as well. At this the most of participants remarked by nodding their heads and expressed silently that this is a real peace.
At the end, Rev. Riaz concluded all the discussions of the conference and gave challenge to women that they have enormous capabilities to bring change. This change may occur first in their personal lives, and then prevail in their families, and then it may prevail in the life of our society.”
On this Mother’s Day, it is an important, even an inspiring word that in Abbottabad, Pakistan it is not just killing that is taking place. The women and mothers of Abbottabad are asking important questions and seeking answers on how to bring peace to their society. They set an example for us.
At the end of our lectionary discussion I wondered if there was any connection between our discussion on bin Laden’s killing and the Emmaus Road story. I think it would be a stretch to try and make too much of a connection. But one thing did strike me. The story tells us that Jesus walked beside the disciples, talking with them for about seven miles—from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus. All that way, the disciples didn’t recognize him. It was not until they sat at the table and Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it to them that their eyes were opened and they recognized him.
I think, much like these two disciples, we find it hard at times to recognize Jesus. It seems that our eyes are closed—closed by our pain and grief, our fear and anger. But there are those moments when our eyes are opened and we recognized truth and love and grace and forgiveness and hope. For me this past week, there was a moment of recognition—that moment when I realized that I had a choice of one of two images to carry with me throughout the week—the image outside the White House of people celebrating or the somber faces of our leaders sitting inside the Situation Room of the White House. There was a moment of recognition when I realized that I could focus on what happened inside the walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan; or I could focus on and pray for the women of Abbottabad, Pakistan who gathered in St. Luke’s Church to work for peace.
It is not always easy to recognize the Spirit of Christ walking beside us. But when our eyes are opened and we experience those moments of recognition, it is then that our pain and grief are comforted by a peace that does indeed pass all understanding; our anger and fear finds healing in forgiveness and grace; and our despair turns to hope.
In these confusing days, may we pray that our eyes be opened so that we recognize the one who walks beside us and who taught us that hate cannot drive out hate, that darkness cannot drive out darkness only light can do that, and that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And may we also remember that “before God one hopes only for grace.”