Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Osama bin Laden: "an unhappy business"

Shortly after 9/11 I started jotting down some notes about how to react if Osama bin Laden was killed. I never posted them but I have never stopped thinking about it.

How should Christians receive such an announcement? I wondered. I pondered William Stringfellow's often-repeated pronouncements about the rule of Death over us all, and in particular about our worship of Death as the only power approaching that of God in its irrestible universality. I have often remembered Flannery O'Connor's striking observation about John F. Kennedy's funeral: "Mrs. Kennedy has a sense of...what is owing to death."

Since Death is the "last enemy" not only of humanity but also of God (I Cor 13), surely it is fitting to acknowledge it as such, with solemnity and sobriety. Glorying in death, no matter who has died, seems unChristian and anti-human. Many people interviewed on NPR today commented that it was wrong to celebrate death in the streets. A Jewish rabbi spoke quite eloquently about Jewish values: death, he said, should prompt reflection, resolve, and recommittment to basic morality, not cheering and jingoism. Indeed, he used an arresting word to describe the demonstrations: "vulgar." Elaborating, he spoke of giving in to our worst instincts instead of reflecting upon them.

A family member of a 9/11 victim actually spoke on NPR against "rejoicing" in the killing of bin Laden. She said it was right to feel relief, but not to rejoice. She was glad he was gone, and even said "good riddance," but she objected to the chanting and dancing in the streets. This was contrasted with the husband of another victim who, when interviewed, said he was very glad that "Obama is burning in hell and my wife is smiling in heaven." Still others remarked that the much-invoked "closure" would never come for them.

These are some of the thoughts I wrote down ten years ago:

If Osama bin Laden is killed, instead of celebrating in the streets, we should greet the news with:

--Solemn thanksgiving to God alone
--Awe that such a monstrously wicked mind was among us and is now gone
--Repentance for the state of the world that such a killing should be necessary
--Sober awareness of the power of Death over us all
--Certainty that each one of us, no less than bin Laden, will come before the throne of judgment of our righteous God
--Recognition that although this appeared to be necessary, it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with (Ecclesiastes)
--and finally, a sober understanding that Sauron will rise again.

For those who are not Lord of the Rings fans, this last reference to Sauron is taken from that work. I was writing my book about LOTR during the Iraq war. I was, and remain, deeply impressed by J. R. R. Tolkien's unblinking view of evil. He was a veteran of trench warfare in World War I, and knew whereof he spoke. He understood the implacable character of Death, and its determination to rule absolutely and to demand absolute fealty. Tolkien made a point of having his supposedly victorious characters acknowledge that evil would appear again, and he illustrated the flawed nature of humanity by showing how each character, even the most "heroic" ones, had potentially fatal weaknesses--a conclusion now little understood, alas, because it was specifically excluded from the movie version of the book's astonishing denouement.

This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine cover story was called "The Beast Within Every Fighting Man." This is a quotation from something that General George C. Marshall, that great soldier and human being, said concerning his fellow officers--that there was a beast within every fighting man and the responsibility of a good officer is to help his men control that beast within them, and also to control it within themselves. That is true Christian anthropology. There is too much indiscriminate, uncritical glorification of military exploits. The story of the 79 Navy Seals will make a terrific book and movie, and my adrenaline rises just like everyone else's when I think of it, and I am so very thankful that all of them returned unscathed, but there are quieter sorts of heroism for which there are no medals.