Churches respond to Osama’s death

It was just a week ago that we all got news about the killing of Osama bin Laden. On Sunday night, crowds of people came out to celebrate this victory in the war on terror. And while many people understood the impromptu reaction, others felt a bit uncomfortable by the celebration. I think we all probably had mixed emotions in our reaction to Osama’s death. Almost immediately, many of my (mostly) Lutheran friends and family discussed what our reaction should be and it was an interesting example of how theology influences our day-to-day behavior.

Usually these examples aren’t picked up on by the mainstream media. This case, however, was different. Early on, Religion News Service had a piece asking “Is it OK to cheer Osama bin Laden’s death?” that began:

Jesus said “love your enemies.” If only he had said how we should react when they die at our own hands.

The piece gives a nice survey of views from major religious groups, including Jews and Muslims. Other opportunities to discuss this issue — how the Christian (or other religious adherent) responds to the death of bin Laden — came with the news that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being condemned for saying the news of his death pleased her. A Hamburg judge has filed a criminal complaint against Merkel for “endorsing a crime” after she stated she was “glad” that Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces.

The New York Times, on the other hand, had a completely religion free piece titled “Celebrating a Death: Ugly, Maybe, but Only Human.” Instead, it looked at what social scientists have to say about revenge and forgiveness and what not.

My pastor’s sermon this morning — which was an amazing exploration of death versus the Christian faith — began by mentioning Osama’s death. Something tells me that we weren’t the only congregation in America that heard sermons reflecting on his death. So I was pleased to see this Associated Press story that ran in USA Today under the headline “USA’s pulpits address bin Laden death.” Here’s how it began:

The killing of Osama bin Laden, a man who was America’s face of evil for nearly a decade, left Christians, Jews and Muslims relieved, proud or even jubilant. For their religious leaders, it was sometimes hard to know just what to say about that.

There is at least some dissonance between the values they preach and the triumphant response on the streets of New York and Washington to the death of a human being — even one responsible for thousands of killings in those areas and around the world.

The stories are all pretty standard and helpful. I’m most interested that they ran. It seems obvious that they should and yet it’s not a given, is it. Because these types of “what’s being preached in America’s pulpit” stories aren’t done regularly, they lack some of the depth you might hope you for.

And there are two areas that weren’t really broached, that I think should have been. One is the “Two Kingdoms” or “Two Cities” understanding in Christianity. This idea comes from Jesus himself. It was a topic written about by Augustine and Luther and many other Christians. That is probably one of the main ways that Christians understand the paradoxical response a Christian might have about the act — gratitude that the government worked for justice but sadness over the death of an evil man. This understanding sort of creeps up in the media response pieces, but it’s not terribly well fleshed out.

The other issue that I saw covered less than it should have been, if at all, is how religious adherents are to react considering the role that enhanced interrogation techniques played a role in the death of Osama bin Laden. It’s not that Christians are of one mind as to whether what the government did with enhanced interrogation techniques is or is not torture. But leaving all the euphemisms aside, for those who believe that the government should not have inflicted any pain in order to extract information from enemy combatants, and learning that pain infliction did play a role in helping the government obtain information, there are profound ethical questions.

Still, I think we’ve been seeing some good religion coverage surrounding Osama’s death.

Two things: torture, two kingdoms.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I rarely agree with AG Holder, but his referring to the killing of Osama as an act of self defense on our part struck me as quite correct. He and al quaida officially declared war on us even before 9-11. Also, apparently he was working with other terrorists to bring about a Twin Towers style disaster on our rail network.
    I saw a lot of religious comments in the media and the internet about forgiveness and loving your enemy–however, Osama was a mass murderer. I would like to have seen more discussion of the virtue of justice from religious writers or commenters.
    When I was growing up, I frequently heard the phrase: “Fear God’s justice; hope for His mercy.”
    But why would anyone today fear God’s justice?? Elite Bible scholars have done away with Hell. And I saw a Catholic writer refer to purgatory as being the equivalent of a summer course on a college campus.
    Maybe we need a good dose of studying the most popular of Dante’s visions in the “Inferno.” There have been times that people have suggested Dante be canonized for his long poem “The Divine Comedy” which is one-third a trip through Hell showing how there the punishment fits the crime.
    The Christian attitude used to be that if a person didn’t settle accounts in this life–accounts would be settled in the next. I still think Hitler (and others determinedly unrepentant like him) probably got a “perp walk” to a particularly nasty part of Hell–not probably a welcome to heaven party–as some Christians would have it today.

  • James

    The other issue that I saw covered less than it should have been, if at all, is how Christians are to react considering the role that enhanced interrogation techniques played a role in the death of Osama bin Laden.

    As a journalism critic, you should know that words have meaning. Please use the accurate term, torture, to describe the actions taken under the Bush administration, instead of the euphemistic term “advanced interrogation techniques” which sidesteps the fact that the Bush administration approved and ordered actions that have been considered a violation of the most basic and universal of human rights ever since the concept of universal human rights was conceived.

    Further, why should Christians react to something that doesn’t exist? I’ve seen absolutely no evidence from an unbiased source (i.e., someone not involved in the right-wing, GOP, or Bush administration, each and every one of whom has a vested interest in pretending they’re somehow absolved for approving the most heinous of war crimes because they supposedly “work” to get us actionable intelligence) that torture played any role in the finding or killing of Usama bin Laden. If you have such evidence from an unbiased source, of course, you’re free to prove me wrong.

  • Mollie

    Simmer down, James. The reason why I’m interested in the topic is because I *oppose* enhanced interrogation techniques and was conflicted upon hearing from Leon Panetta, who is the current CIA director, that some information that led to bin Laden was gleaned from waterboarded detainees.

    I was aware that the New York Times had not mentioned Panetta’s discussion of this but many other media outlets did.

  • Jerry

    I’m glad to see there was at least some coverage about religious people are approaching bin Laden’s death and waterboarding from a moral standpoint. I’ve read totally amoral reactions that says anything we do to get information from terrorists is perfectly justified. Virtue from such people appears to be ‘whatever works’. Reading about some who raise issues of morality is at least a counterweight to such assumptions.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Interesting that the NY Times did not mention Panetta’s discussion. And the mainstream media wonders why they are not trusted. How can you trust a news outlet that tailors its news coverage to its ideology with doses of apparent censorship????

  • Jo Chopra

    I think there are fundamental questions that neither the churches nor the press have examined: an appropriate text is “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The Bush administration, and President Obama’s as well, are responsible for far, far more death and destruction than bin Laden is accused of. By what right did they conduct their attacks on unarmed civilian populations, often including women and children?

    Second, are democratic norms to be suspended just because we really really hate the person we are pursuing? Was bin Laden not entitled to a fair trial? Was a brutal attack – so brutal that his body needed to be dumped at sea to prevent upsetting his followers – really necessary? 80 commandos facing virtually no opposition?

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan speaks of the virtue of justice, but justice has norms and rules. It can’t be dispensed any old way we choose. I would like to see religious writers dealing with these issues more intelligently; unblinded by mass media hype about the man who has been tried and found guilty in the press without ever having been brought to court.

  • Dave G.


    I suppose it fits into journalism to ask the real questions. After all, to be real, the biggest killer of Muslims in the last 10 years has been, well, Muslims. Just because some attribute every Muslim death and atrocity across the Middle East to the fault of a US president doesn’t make it the obvious fact upon which all reporting should be done.

    As for justice, when Bin Laden organized a coordinated attack against American citizens and military establishments, he became a combatant. When the allies invaded Normandy, you’ll notice that they brought machine guns and howitzers, not arrest warrants. Now the details of the raid are still forthcoming, and it does our media well that they have more or less reserved final judgement on the actions until we know more. If Bin Laden was cowering in the corner in a puddle of his own urine begging for mercy and our soldiers sadistically shot him where he sat, then there would be issues. And there is nothing from the last 10 years of reporting to suggest our media would be soft on our miliitary if that’s how it played out.

    If, however, Bin Laden was in any way resisting, he did so as a combatant who admitted and rejoiced in his campaign against America, not as a civilian presumed innocent. Therefore, he would get what combatants get when they resist or in any way fight back. And that is how it should be covered.

    As for the norms and rules, I think the discussions and articles are more or less dealing with them intelligently. I haven’t really seen a case where the press has gone nuts over the issue one way or the other.

  • Dave

    Once again I see references to the contributions of the second President Bush to President Obama’s military success. How much scantier, at the time, were any references to the contributions of President Clinton to the military successes of the second President Bush. Without the spadework of Clinton’s CIA with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, Bush II would never have been able to hit the ground running in that country after 9/11.

  • Jo Chopra

    Dave, Muslims may have killed more of their own people than anyone else has; but that doesn’t explain the moral high ground which America claims as its own regarding bin Laden. Pointing to a worse sinner does not exonerate your own sins.

    And if bin Laden became a combatant by organizing a coordinated attack against American citizens, didn’t George W Bush do the same in his attack against the people of Iraq or Afghanistan? Yet imagine the stunned reaction of the world community if Iraqi or Afghani commandos were to launch an attack on American soil, shoot President Bush in front of his wife and then dump his body in the Atlantic. Would we still claim that justice had been done because the man was guilty of so many heinous crimes?

    Living in India, things look different. We are amused yet distressed by the one-sidedness of the media which reports almost monolithically about the demise of bin Laden, as if reporters have agreed not to analyse or observe objectively. There is no love lost for Pakistan here, as you may imagine. But no one is impressed or fooled by the self-serving American rhetoric either.

  • Dave G.


    First, to many Americans, other countries’ media looks awfully one sided and self-serving as well. Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective?

    Second, we are dealing right now with the issue of Bin Laden. By all – all – international laws, a country has a right to defend itself, and that includes putting a stop to anyone or anything that wants to harm its citizens, especially if he has already done so. Whether we should have gone into Iraq, or should be in Libya now, are interesting and probably needed debates. But they don’t pertain to this one story. What happened was, if anything in the last 10 years could be, the one thing America had the right to do – take on the person who admitted he was behind the slaughter of thousands and destruction of landmarks and military establishments. That is the question at hand.

    As for how Americans can use this to claim moral high ground, I doubt that’s the case. I don’t think anyone has said ‘Well, we got Bin Laden, I guess no sense talking about that slavery thing anymore!’ Any more than you are trying to take the moral high ground in order to sweep some of India’s dirty laundry under the carpet. You are simply voicing one view, Americans are, on the whole, voicing another one – that the man who gleefully admitted to 9/11, and promised more of the same, has been given the ending he ordained for himself by the life journey he chose. How that plays into other issues and topics is another issue and topic.

    By the way, how Americans would react to your scenario? Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that, quite frankly, I couldn’t tell you how all Americans would react if your example played out. Which might just set America apart if nothing else does.

  • Bram

    [Editor: Comment removed]

  • Jo Chopra

    Hi Bram.

    Are you being sarcastic or is your comment in the spirit of the great Donne poem: “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”?

    I believe one has the right to raise questions and point out inconsistencies without being accused of being a bin Laden supporter. I have spent my life working actively against violence of any kind, but I believe in the law and I believe the law only works if it is universally applied. We don’t get to pick and choose who benefits from it and who doesn’t. Today bin Laden is denied due process; tomorrow it could be you, Bram.

  • Mollie

    Please keep comments focused on journalism and not any other issues.


  • Jo Chopra

    Yep, sorry, Mollie. I got carried away here!

  • Ann

    A church opinion for criminal/police work rather than war to get bin Laden.

    “Bin Laden was an arch-terrorist responsible for the deaths of many innocent people. It was a tragic mistake to transform the hunt for bin Laden and his al-Qaeda associates from a criminal and intelligence operation into a military invasion of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of lives were sacrificed. Trillions of dollars were wasted, and years were lost in doing so. ”

    Mollie said:
    “for those who believe that the government should not have inflicted any pain in order to extract information from enemy combatants, and learning that pain infliction did play a role in helping the government obtain information, there are profound ethical questions.”

    Several reliable sources have come to the conclusion reached by Gloria Borger, CNN:

    “The question of whether torture led, in one way or another, to bin Laden, according to intelligence and administration sources, is not clearly provable.”

    She goes through the politics and the fact that the two most waterboarded individuals lied about knowing the courier. The CIA knew KSM was lying. One lesser known individual that identified the courier, but it is not known whether he was tortured.

    The Washington Post Fact Checker agreed that it has not been proven that torture resulted in the identity of the courier.

    Religious News Service, May 5, 2011

    Torture didn’t and doesn’t make us safer, by Linda J. Gustitus, president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture

    She points out that torture was “a major recruiting tool by al-Qaida.

  • Dave G.

    Today bin Laden is denied due process; tomorrow it could be you, Bram

    That is in no way a universally accepted interpretation of the events. Whether or not combatants have the right to due process is a hotly debated issue. Actually, it’s not really debated in all honesty. Combatants aren’t criminals, but combatants. The debate typically applies to those who have been captured and accused of terrorism. But in the field of conflict, most accept a different standard, the standards of Just War perhaps, but not the standards of the American legal system. Therefore the US media could be forgiven for not taking that angle when dealing with this story, at least until further information is released that might change the context of the actions.

  • Bram

    Jo: I was only kidding.