DAVENPORT – When the news broke that U.S. armed forces had killed the world’s most wanted terrorist, Obama bin Laden, Americans all across the nation cheered in the streets, celebrating the fact that the mastermind who directed the savage attacks on 9-11 had finally been brought to justice.
As Scott Smith watched the coverage of bin Laden’s death, he felt more passionately struck by a status update his son wrote on his Facebook page, which asked Americans to view the death from a very different perspective.
“I think for me, reading what my eighth grade son posted on Facebook, I was super-impressed,” Smith said. “He wrote, ‘Why are we celebrating in the streets the death of a man?’ “
It’s a question that Smith, the pastor of the Community of Faith United Methodist Church in Davenport, felt never got posed in the rush to celebrate bin Laden’s killing. And a bigger question, he said, is what should the Christian response be to this successful assassination attempt?
“Certainly from a United States perspective, he was an enemy of the United States, and justice, as President Obama said, was done,” Smith said. “But from a Christian perspective, how can we celebrate the death of anyone? Everyone needs forgiveness, no matter how heinous you are. The Christian perspective is ‘Do unto others what you would have others do to you,’ the golden rule.”
The news coverage of bin Laden’s death brought out plenty of debate. Some of it was political – what impact would this have on President Obama’s re-election chances in 2012? Some of it was international – how would this impact U.S./Pakistani relations? And some of the dialogue focused on whether bin Laden’s death would help or hurt the U.S. war on terrorism. A religious perspective, though, seldom got explored.
The New York Daily News raised some eyebrows with a headline, “Rot in Hell,” on the day after President Obama announced that the mission to find bin Laden had been a success. That headline promted CNN to take a poll, asking viewers if they thought the founder and leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network was now in hell? According to the poll, released on May 3, 61 percent of the public said yes, while one in ten said no.
David Raith, a contributor to Freeline Media Orlando, sided with the majority opinion in that poll.
“First and foremost, yes, he’ll go to Hell,” Raith said. “He killed thousands of innocent Americans. I’m a Christian, and I believe he’s in Hell, if in fact he’s dead.”
Smith, though, countered that this was the wrong question – and the wrong attitude – to be taking about bin Laden’s killing.
“We would argue that’s not my call to make,” Smith said. “That’s God’s call on who goes to Heaven and Hell. I struggle with some people’s response that ‘I’m so glad Osama bin Laden is in Hell.’ We love God’s grace and we don’t want anybody to go to Hell, so we should never celebrate that. Jesus Christ never said anybody would go to Hell. That is not a Christian response. A Christian response is grief and love. We have to think about how we forgive. The fact that we celebrate bin Laden’s death is not a good Christian response. We should give thanks for the men and women who protect us and stand in harm’s way, but we should mourn the loss of a human life, even for a man who through his actions created great suffering for people. We should grieve that humanity can be so corrupt and depraved to do this.”
Smith said he’d like to see a stronger and healthier dialogue about bin Laden’s death, but not about the political implications, but about the nature of forgiveness.
“Our nation is indeed safer now that he’s gone,” Smith said. “But our faith teaches us that God’s fondest desire isn’t that bin Laden be executed. We wanted to bring him to the grace of God.”
Too often, Smith said, people equate forgiveness with weakness, even surrender.
“I think one of the problems we have is we think if we forgive, they’re getting away with it. That is not forgiveness,” he said. “What do you do with the woman being beaten by her hsuband? Forgiveness doesn’t mean she continues to allow him to hurt her. Forgiveness means I’m letting go of the pain and the hurt that you have caused me. Forgiveness doesn’t help that other person — forgiveness helps you. It’s me letting go of the pain you have caused me. I’m not going to let that continue to impact my life.”
Similarly, he said, people are to quick to ignore the question of whether the final result of the search for bin Laden – his death at the hands of a Navy SEALS unit – was fully justified.
“My thing is we get exicted about this man’s death,” Smith said. “Why can’t we get excited about changing the world from a different perspective, like going into Africa and putting wells in Africa? That’s something I’m big on.
“With bin Laden, we took him down, straight two shots, and then we celebrated it,” he said. “And what would happen if a terrorist took down one of our leaders and they celebrated in the streets? What would we think? That means we’re no better.”
Celebrating a death, even of someone who has caused so much harm in the United States, is not the way a Christian should respond, Smith said.
“ I don’t think it’s forgiveness,” he said. “We’re willing to let bygones be bygones now that you’re dead. That’s not forgiveness.”
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