Can we forgive Bin Laden? — UPDATED

In a homily last winter, I looked at the challenge of loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors — and asked “When was the last time any of us here prayed for Osama Bin Laden?” This morning, My friend Mike Hayes poses another provocative question: can we forgive Bin Laden?

For Millennials, September 11th was a seminal moment. Coupled with the madness of Columbine, the world suddenly became a very precarious place. Last night, many young people filled the streets and while all seems right with the world right now, we all fail to see that things are not any different. War still rages on many fronts and terrorists still plan attempts to bomb subways and buildings and not merely disturb our peace, but eradicate it.

This does not look one bit like the peaceful kingdom of God.

Americans, in general, like retribution. They often favor capital punishment and continue to welcome it in the joyful streets of our country this day.

But why would we not welcome peace and forgiveness? Wouldn’t that be a larger dagger thrust into the madness of terrorism? Ending the hate of sinful men can only begin when we kill hatred ourselves and not when hatred stops another human heartbeat, even in the name of justice.

Has terrorism won a further victory with our sure-to-be fleeting joy?

One person who lost their father in the 9-11 disaster summed it up pretty well. “It’s hard for me to rejoice when a human being is dead, I know it’s wrong to be excited and happy. But that’s how I feel.”

Indeed and who would blame him? Nobody will judge anyone for rejoicing over the next few days, but perhaps it’s time to judge ourselves?

Can we forgive Bin Laden? Can we pray for God to have mercy on his soul? Can we weep for the senseless death we find in any war? Include his name in the prayer of the faithful?

Answering no, only means that the enemy continues to win–even when it feels right to celebrate.

Perhaps God can forgive Bin Laden and in God’s perfect reconciliation we find our human imperfection reaching its limits? After all, we are not Jesus, who called from his cross for mercy, not for himself, but for those who nailed him to the wood.

But that merciful call goes out to us as well. It haunts us to pray for peace and not pain, reconciliation, but not revenge.

Can we forgive Osama Bin Laden?

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UPDATE: National Catholic Register’s Jennifer Fulwiler offers the provocative notion that God loves Osama Bin Laden, just as He does the rest of us:

It wasn’t until I came to believe in God and started learning about Catholic teaching that I would look back on that awful day and have my mind reel as I tried to absorb one of the most difficult moral truths I’d ever heard: That God not only could, but wants to forgive Osama bin Laden. That even someone who was responsible for a terror attack that slaughtered thousands could ask for God’s forgiveness, and receive it…

…It was one of those things that I’d read about but had never internalized: God loves murderers as much as he loves the rest of us, even as much as he loves the people whom they hurt. What does that say about our God? What does it mean for us, given that we are called to love as God loves?!

This most difficult of truths has come to mind again as I see Osama bin Laden’s image splashed all over the media, and hear the reports that he is now dead. God loves that man as much as he loved Mother Teresa? God loves that man as much as he loves the people on Flight 93? As much as he loves each of the other victims of 9/11? As much as he loves me? It’s true. It’s completely counter-intuitive to our fallen human nature, which sees love as something that is earned, something finite and fluctuating, something that can be permanently lost with enough bad behavior. But it’s true.

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18 responses to “Can we forgive Bin Laden? — UPDATED”

  1. “I have never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” – Mark Twain

  2. Thanks, Greg, for saying it so well. Every true Christian should be struggling with mixed feelings today, as we try to reconcile what has happened with Jesus’ command to love our enemies. The flag-waving and patriotic songs of joy should be jarring and feel inappropriate.

    Yes, Osama was a dangerous criminal. Yes, there is a measure of justice in his death – clearly this is a case where capital punishment is justified in a non-civilized area of the world. However, he was a sick old man, who no longer had primary leadership of his own organization – and no doubt his work will continue through others. This does not eradicate terrorism, but is purely and simply retribution for past acts.

    To feel saddened and reflective at the death of any human being, no matter how misguided and “evil” is not being unpatriotic. In spite of Osama’s heinous acts, though, even he was a child of God. His judgment is up to God, not us. Pray for peace.

  3. This morning at mass, we prayed for the repose of his soul during the prayer of the faithful.

  4. I’m thinking today about a friend of mine who used to work at the Pentagon. He was only a few months from retirement and was going home to Mississippi. After 9/11 I never saw him again.

    I hope that bin Laden’s 72 virgins are as ugly as he was.

  5. It seems to me that there is more than retribution here — although governments have a right to take retribution which individuals don’t, IMO. But apart from that, there is an element of defense as well. Bin Laden was still plotting terrorism as the head of a loose but real organization.

    Joyce Donahue is right: we should have mixed feelings, as we should at the death of any evildoer.

  6. The priest who celebrated our a local noontime Mass today said a few words at the end of his homily about OBL and our challenge to be merciful; his tone was almost apologetic, evidencing the true struggle that this directive from Jesus can cause. Our Prayers of the Faithful included everyone affected by the tumult in the Middle East, specifically including OBL.

    I don’t think that our Lord insists that we necessarily FEEL merciful, but He does expect that we WILL it, and He will surely honor that act of trust and obedience.

  7. It’s not just defense in the sense of killing someone who might have been actively involved in plotting terror attacks upon us. It’s understanding that terrorism is intended as a form of persuasion. Those who plan and carry out attacks are motivated by a lot more than just the attacks themselves — they believe that the attacks are causes, and that they will have effects. They may even have some measure of regret for the attacks, but they want their results so badly that they think that the ends justify the means.

    The best defense against this reasoning is to prove, through our actions, that the terror will NOT have the effects that the terrorists want and WILL have effects that they don’t want.

    All Christian discussion of forgiveness, God’s love, etc. must be filtered through the lens of the terrorists’ belief systems. If they will interpret your words to mean that more attacks and more brutal attacks will cause the world to submit to their will and do what they want, then making those arguments has the effect of encouraging terrorists to attack people, and makes you culpable for the victims’ deaths and sufferings.

  8. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist the priest gathers us in prayer with these or equivalent words: “Let us pray as Jesus taught us.” In the prayer we then pray together we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

    Osama bin Laden not only can be forgiven but must be forgiven. Again and again in Scripture we are reminded that if we will not forgive, we will not be forgiven. It’s not an option – it’s a fact of our faith.

    There’s nothing that says we have to like a person, but our Lord commands us to love them. Christian love is not primarily about liking, although we hope and pray for that, but it’s more about acting in a way that will benefit the recipient of that love.

    But we can never forget the pain that evil actions caused, and I think we should be expected to be thankful that some of the hearts that bore the heaviest weight of that pain will hurt a little less today.

    And when we say “May God have mercy on his soul,” what many of us are not adding is “because I don’t know how to.”

    May God bless us all.

  9. Hello,

    I have been reading your blog for a while now, and I think your post on Osama bin Laden’s death is very smart and heartfelt. I, too, think it is important to forgive him.

    In reaction to this news, I have written an essay on the possibility of a “temporary hell” in the Christian religion. I tie my research to where bin Laden is now. Please let me know if you are interested.

    I am an English major with cerebral palsy, hoping to also major in religion.

    Thank you,
    Ashley Stopa

  10. Osama’s status in the next life is between he and God.
    He did not ask for forgiveness, but reveled in the slaughters he masterminded. On that count we have no business doing some holier-than-thou forgiving of this butcher.
    We are not the primary victims of his evil–those in the Twin Towers were the primary victims. On that count, it is their families who earned the right to extend words of forgiveness, if they feel it is warranted.
    Osama finally received the justice in this life he so richly earned. We have every right to pray that he will now experience God’s justice–whatever that might encompass.
    To read what some say, the Nuremberg Trials should never have been held and there should never have been effort put into hunting down the architects, masterminds, and perpetrators of the Holocaust.
    Sometimes, a passion for justice is warranted.

  11. If there is truly a hell, OBL is surely there. How can he not be? Forgive him? I don’ think so!

  12. Ashley–I don’t know what your research has resulted in, but your phrase “temporary Hell” sounds a lot like the Catholic teaching on purgatory. Did you look into that??
    Unfortunately, today’s emphasis among many Catholics is that there is no such thing as consequences. Thus, modern Catholic spiritual writers write of purgatory as if it were almost heaven.
    Maybe if there were more a passion for seeing justice done, we wouldn’t have had the pedophile crisis in the Church.
    When I was growing up the line “Fear God’s justice; hope for God’s mercy” was very common.
    But why fear God’s justice today??? Slaughter thousands–No Hell. Incinerate Jews–forgive Nazis hardened in their sins. Diddle a child–don’t hand a cleric a rope and millstone and show him a deep lake–transfer him and show him there is no such thing as defrocking.

  13. I think it was father groeschel who once wrote that, when we can’t forgive, we can ask God to forgive our inability to forgive.

  14. Deacon john #13: Some remarks:

    –Even if no one else out in “blog-land” realized you are from suburban Boston, your bitter comments about the pedophile crisis rather gave you away.

    –I would be very careful about being so definitive about Catholic teaching on Purgatory. A great deal of what the pre-Vatican II church taught about it has been debunked or maybe even retracted by authoritative teaching. That includes your “temporary hell” remark. Bottom line, those in Purgatory will make it to heaven — it’s just a matter of time. Some post-Vatican II folks choose the image promoted by a famous Theology professor at Notre Dame who called it a “mandatory continuing education summer school.” Having some military in my background, I am more apt to choose something like Pilot training in the Air Force or Ranger School/Jump School in the Army — an advanced skill and attitude and knowledge education you have to complete before you can even dream about making the top ranks.

  15. Osama bin Laden received human justice for his horrific acts of violence perpetrated on this world. God’s way are not our ways, they are far above our ways. I believe He will deal with Osama with justice tempered with mercy. We have no idea what the outcome of his judgement will be. However, in the aftermath of his death we need to realize that if we want peace, we must work for justice for all. There is too little justice in this world. ergo, too little peace.

  16. Deacon Norb. I don’t think only Catholics in the Boston area are chagrined at the scandals in the Church. In fact, what upsets so many Catholics is the way deacons and priests rarely mention the horrendous evil done to children and the Church by immoral clergy. But will expound and bloviate about all sorts of other evils and problems in society.
    According to a number of early Church histories I have read, bad clergy were swiftly defrocked and gotten rid of. What happened to that sound policy???
    The biggest problem our Church faces, in my opinion, is its gradual toleration of and compromises with evil to the point there is no longer justice, no longer consequences, no longer responsibility. Purgatory becomes a wonderful summer school (how that balances the scales of justice and purifies the soul for heaven I can’t figure out).
    And, as one person asked me–when are we ever going to hear a sermon on Hell, even though everyone agrees there is tremendous evil in the world.
    How far more comfortable to tickle people’s ears and collect the accolades of those who want nothing more than to believe they are saints no matter what they do or no matter how they live their lives.

  17. Of course God loves Osama bin Laden; He hates the sin but loves the sinner. Rejoicing at his death is not what Jesus wants, but it is certainly appropriate to rejoice at the fact that the very real threat Osama bin Laden was is now eliminated.

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