Monday, May 2, 2011

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

A question:
America! F*** yeah!!!
"What is justice?" I asked my friend Jennifer in a purposefully ambiguous question last night. I wanted to stir discussion. I'll get to her answer later.

Another question:
In an earlier post, I mentioned Pilate's questioning of Jesus: "What is truth?" he asked. Indeed, how are my perceptions of what is true different from the truths of others? When I find myself "debating" with other--usually more conservative--Christians, a common response I get is "Well, that's your truth. I have my own truth" (Incidentally, I find this ironic, since most of these are the types of people who would be the first to make claims about the Bible holding absolute truth, but that's another post for another time). This stretches beyond petty disagreements between friends on facebook, and has implications on an international, interfaith scale. For instance, take a look at this quote by Osama bin Laden, spoken in 2004:
"Allah knows it did not cross our minds to attack the towers but after the situation became unbearable and we witnessed the injustice and tyranny of the American-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, I thought about it. And the events that affected me directly were that of 1982 and the events that followed – when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon, helped by the U.S. Sixth Fleet. As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me punish the unjust the same way (and) to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children and women."
An ad I saw on facebook shortly following Pres. Obama's
announcement. Not even joking.
This is bin Laden justifying his actions because he perceives America as being the perpetrators of evil. And in a few of his points, he's not far from wrong. All this goes to simply say that everything we believe--right wrong, evil, good, whatever--is all relative, and dependent upon the perceiver. Think about it long enough, and this is kind of troubling.

When I first heard President Obama reveal to the nation that bin Laden had been killed and his body retrieved, my first feeling was relief. Alright, I thought. Now the families of those thousands of people finally have closure. Amid the enthusiastic thunder of expressions of patriotic American "Christian" approval of the covert CIA operation that "took out" this terrorist, I came to a sort of peaceful rest with the whole situation.

But upon further reflection, I've found that Osama bin Laden's death has lead to a bit of a deeper theological conundrum for me, namely, How are Christians supposed to react to this?

I know the American way. As an American, I want to say, Hell yeah! Get 'im, Uncle Sam! But there is something that deeply disturbs my soul about this approach. The more I study, the more I pray, the closer I grow to my God and my Jesus, the more I realize that the American Way and the Jesus Way are nearly incompatible. How can we possibly rejoice in the fall of our enemy?

I know what the scriptures say:
As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)
Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble... (Proverbs 24:17)
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-30)
But I also recognize there are just as many verses in which God's people are begging Yahweh for the destruction of their enemies--and God follows through. (For more information on imprecatory passages of the Old Testament, check out this fantastic blog post by Two Friars and a Fool)

Back to my friend Jennifer. That answer she gave about justice? This is why I love my seminary friends so much:

"For me, justice is the oppressor fully understanding the pain s/he caused. It leads to healing, to restoration," she said. I asked her if she felt justice had been carried out with Osama bin Laden. "Not in any manner that we have seen," she answered. If the killing of one man is considered justice for the killing and oppression of many, while pain lingers and loss endures... that is pitiful justice."

As a Christian--one who believes in the power of scripture and the teachings of Jesus--and as a person that admires the practices of Buddhism and the traditions that brought forth divine rebels like Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I can't for the life of me bring myself to that place of moral abandon that allows me to rejoice in my enemy's defeat--or even to the desire of my enemy's destruction. We are all God's children. When one suffers, we should all suffer. The world is such a disgusting, broken place. How can we expect to change the world that produces men like Osama bin Laden without first leaving behind us our hatred and our will to violence?

Please leave your comments below. I'm interested in your thoughts, largely because this issue has me so troubled. Speak a word.


  1. well done sir...right on the money

  2. It troubles me as well, deeply. I no longer believe in "monsters" as people would make people like Bin Laden out to be. As you so deftly pointed out, in his own mind, he was no murder, but a reluctant revolutionary, fighting back against an oppressor in the only way that made sense to him.

    I think your last paragraph hits the nail on the head--the first place to start is within us. The elimination of hatred and violence is, at it's core, a one-at-a-time conversion. Maybe we can't fix the world, but do you think it's possible to fix our little corner of it?

  3. "All this goes to simply say that everything we believe--right wrong, evil, good, whatever--is all relative, and dependent upon the perceiver. Think about it long enough, and this is kind of troubling."

    Yes, that is troubling, because it also implies that the truth of a good God in heaven might also be relative to the believer - or what "good" is and therefore WHO that God is.

    If you say everything is relative, you deny that there is a God who has a specific identity. Is not the pursuit of truth the pursuit to know God honestly? Know his identity?

    Also, by saying everything is relative, you put Osama bin Laden in a position of justification. There is no justification for such acts.

  4. Perhaps to you, Sandra. But Osama bin Laden seemed to have sufficient justification for what he did. Bin Laden believed he was doing the right and good thing, the only thing he could do to prevent further violence visited upon him, his country, and his faith. Am I trying to justify what he did? Of course not. But it's helpful to realize that everyone truly does have their own understand of what is good and just.

    To us, America is the bastion of freedom, the pinnacle of democracy. To folks like bin Laden, or even to places like Vietnam in the 60s, America is just as easily seen as an empire of occupiers, colonizers, and "strange liberators," to use a phrase coined by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    And the question about relativity is what has me so troubled in the first place. I know what the scriptures say, and I know that Yahweh is a God of love and redemption. But even this is an assumption based on interpretation of scripture. Someone else might read the same scriptures and from them get two completely different ideas about who God is. That's relativity. And it bothers me.

  5. Don't be presumptuous. I figured out, when I was a kid watching the Die Hard movies, that the bad guy never thinks he's bad. That is a realization I assume everyone makes at one point. Just because they think they are doing what is right does not, by any stretch of the imagination, make it so. They are still wrong. Just as much as a child is wrong when they say, "Joey stole my juice box so I pushed him." It's still justification.

    Perception is all fine and dandy. Perspective makes it better. Now the relativity thing is a sticking point in my book. Surely, if God is real, then He must be something less ephemeral and more substantial. Forget about "other's interpretations" and think about truly knowing God. If someone says "God is this" and someone else says "God is that," both cannot be true. Just as if someone said "Josh is blonde" and someone else "Josh is dark-haired."

    So forget about what other people say God is. Pursue God with honesty of intent. He will make Himself known to those who honestly pursue Him. There is a One True God. Relativism is bunk.

    That is all I have.

  6. Sorry if I sounded presumptuous, Sandra. Trust me, it was not my intent. I'm actually getting tired of so much debate. It seems like no one can agree on anything (although, I must say, I agree with much of what you stated in your second post). And to me, that's discouraging. I'm just really tired, I guess.

    Thank you so much for your thoughts.

  7. Joshua, thanks for your perceptive pondering on the killing of Osama bin Laden. There are several things I would like to comment on, but because of lack of time let me just share this quote from Thomas Merton, which you probably know about but which is worth all of us considering at this time:

    "Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed - but hate these things in yourself, not in another."

  8. On the relativity point I can appreciate the desire for sensitivity, especially in the example of Bin Laden. Justifications are not always black and white, and I like a more centrist, even devil’s advocate approach at times. Bin Laden didn’t start out as a terrorist and then try to tack on religious justification. This is just a fancy way of saying that I’ve seen Syriana a couple times, but I digress. Eventually though, we have to take the perspective beyond Bin Laden v. America. There’s a reason that Bin Laden lived a life on the run in caves, that America wasn’t the only country to come after him, etc. That’s a simplistic example, but it illustrates an answer to your illustration.

    On the point of how do we react to that news, I think you have to keep the endgame in mind. Is there any chance that Bin Laden will meet the definition of justice your classmate details? Very doubtful, and the story of the raid of his compound doesn’t paint the picture of someone who would be taken alive either. So with no chance of rehabilitation, is what happened not the most possible result(especially in the light of HOW that result happened)? The line between being excited out of vengeance and excited that there won’t be any more suffering at his hands is a fine one(and not necessarily mutually exclusive), and one I’m not especially compelled to judge upon.

    Long story short, my grammar is obnoxiously bad.