Holy War and Christian Pacifism: Christian Responses to the Death of Bin Laden, Part Two

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Mt. 5:43-45, NRSV).

Christian Pacifism
My friend Chris Seay reported last week that he had lost Twitter followers and Facebook friends just for quoting these hard teachings of Jesus. I believe it. But I also, like Chris, believe this is where I want to land theologically and spiritually on violence in my name: Jesus called us to rise above our worst impulses, above our fear and anger.

Jesus reframed the traditional teachings of Hebrew justice, an eye for an eye. He argued against the natural human response to hate those who were outside the tribe, to hate the enemies of the tribe. In his teachings, he preached love, he preached mercy, he preached compassion, and he reached out to include those who were reviled and hated by other Jews—Roman collaborators like tax collectors, prostitutes, notorious offenders against the Jewish piety codes—"sinners" of all sorts.

All men and women, he taught, were Children of God, and God loved all of them. If God noted the fall of a single tiny sparrow, Jesus said, how much more attention does God pay to human lives?

More importantly, Jesus lived a life of peace, even when faced with the ultimate challenge to act in self-defense to save his own life. He instructed his disciple to put away his sword when the authorities came to arrest him, saying that violence was not the answer. In the account of the arrest in Matthew 26, Jesus spoke of the legions of angels he could call from Heaven if he chose—a number so substantial that it would have overwhelmed the legions of Rome, and not only saved Jesus, but rescued the Jewish people from outside domination, as many of his followers hoped the Messiah would do.

I don't know that I read this passage as literally true (Are there really angels? If so, could Jesus call upon twelve legions of them, in full angel battle armor?), but it most certainly is spiritually true.

Jesus was saying that he did not have to subject himself to indignity, violence, and death.

And yet he was choosing to.

The example of Jesus' life is that we should trust God and not fear violence, as counter-cultural as that example remains, as counter-intuitive as it is. I said last week that while I am trying to live as Jesus did, I don't believe I am capable of standing by while those I love are threatened, or while the powerless suffer.

But I do believe that violence is a dead end, and that it should not be celebrated, even when it makes me less afraid, even when some part of me believes it is deserved.

Another friend, Brian McLaren, woke to the news of bin Laden's death and blogged that

joyfully celebrating the killing of a killer who joyfully celebrated killing carries an irony that I hope will not be lost on us. Are we learning anything, or simply spinning harder in the cycle of violence?

A faux-quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. surfed Facebook last week in response to the bin Laden killing. Part of it was authentic, though, and I want to remind us of King's legacy since he is our great American prophet of nonviolence. In President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, the president acknowledged the importance of the nonviolent legacies of King and Gandhi before going on to say why, as a head of state, he could not conform to those hard teachings when his nation was at war.

Well, I'm not a head of state and never will be. I'm just a single human trying hard to be a follower of Christ. So I'll close this reflection on Christian responses to bin Laden with the beautiful words—and monumental challenge—of Dr. King for us to be people of peace and compassion in a world filled with violence, hate, and fear:

I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. . . .

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid."

I still believe that we shall overcome!

And so do I, as difficult as that belief may be some days.

As the great William Sloane Coffin used to say, may we have the courage to risk something big for something good. May the Lord bless and keep you until we meet again.

5/11/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Faithful Citizenship
  • Violence
  • History
  • Holy War
  • Mainline Protestantism
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Pacifism
  • Sacred Texts
  • Christianity
  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.
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