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U.S. Churches Respond to Killing of Osama Bin LadenMark TooleyMay 11, 2011
The following article appeared in Reforme’ (in French) and was reposted with permission.
Americans responded with overwhelming support for President Obama’s successful order to kill 9-11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden. But many U.S. church officials, especially from left-leaning denominations influenced by pacifism, carefully avoided either endorsement or direct criticism. One major exception was a spokesman for America’s largest Protestant body, the 16 million member Southern Baptist Convention, who vigorously defended the “execution” of Bin Laden.
About one third of Americans adhere to theologically conservative evangelical churches, many of which are growing, while about 20 percent of Americans profess affiliation to more liberal Mainline Protestant denominations, all of which are declining in membership.
"If anyone ever deserved the forfeiture of his life for crimes against humanity, it was Osama bin Laden," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which is that conservative church’s main political voice. "This was more of an execution than a killing.”
"It has taken too long," Land told his denominational news service. "But finally those thousands of Americans who lost loved ones on 9/11 can have some measure of closure now that justice has been visited upon the mastermind behind those terrorist attacks."
A prominent Southern Baptist theologian and seminary chief in Louisville, Kentucky called Bin Laden’s killing "fully justified as an act of war." But Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler warned "we should feel the loss of the greater satisfaction of human justice” because Bin Laden did not "have to answer the world about his murderous actions and plans” in an earthly court of law. "Christians know that Osama bin Laden escaped the reach of full human justice and a trial for his crimes," Mohler pronounced. “But he will not escape the judgment that is to come. Bin Laden will not escape his trial before the court of God."
The more left-leaning New York-based National Council of Churches (NCC), of which the Southern Baptist Convention is not a member, called for peace without specifically condemning the killing of Bin Laden. “Just as Christians must condemn the violence of terrorism, let us be clear that we do not celebrate loss of life under any circumstances,” since the “ultimate justice for this man’s soul — or any soul — is in the hands of God.” The NCC urged: “Let us turn to a future that embraces God’s call to be peacemakers, pursuers of justice and loving neighbors to all people.” NCC member communions include Mainline Protestants, historic Black denominations, pacifist churches like the Mennonites and Quakers, and Eastern Orthodox communions. The NCC professes to speak for over 40 million church members.
One of the NCC’s most left-leaning denominations is the one million member United Church of Christ (UCC), which comes from a Reformed, Congregationalist tradition. “There were those in this country who felt a need for revenge that could only be satisfied by bringing bin Laden to justice, which in the minds of many meant killing him,” noted United Church of Christ President Geoffery Black.” He complained that while “many celebrate this event and feel that it has provided the nation with a fitting response to the horrific and brutal attack on citizens of the United States, there are others who see no reason to rejoice and instead feel a deep sense of disquiet and unease.” He insisted, “there is no joy in this moment for us, because first and foremost we understand ourselves to be the disciples of Jesus,” who “calls us in his teachings to do the difficult thing of loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.”
Some left-leaning religious voices avoided directly criticizing the killing of Bin laden and instead lamented the spontaneous celebrations of mostly young people in Washington, D.C. and New York that followed his death. “Pumping our fists in victory or celebrating in the streets is probably not the best Christian response to anyone’s death, even the death of a dangerous and violent enemy,” wrote prominent Evangelical Left activist Jim Wallis, the head of “Sojourners” ministry and a strong supporter of President Obama. “The chants of ‘USA, USA, USA’ are also not the best mantra for believers who should know that they are meant to be Christians first and Americans second.” Wallis, who is a pacifist, also complained that U.S. Christians have valued innocent American lives “more than the innocents who were in the way of our wars in response to the attacks against us.”
In a similar vein, “emergent church” guru Brian McLaren, who speaks for many post-modern liberal evangelicals, complained of “American college students reveling outside the White House, shouting, chanting ‘USA’ and spilling beer.” He shared his embarrassment as an American then visiting Great Britain, since “this image does not reflect well on my country, especially in contrast to the images that have been so strong here in recent days … revelers celebrating a wedding.” And he further fretted: “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?” Later McLaren declared himself “shocked, disgusted, dismayed” that the U.S. military codename for the operation for killing Bin Laden was “Geronimo,” based on the famous 19th century Indian warrior. “Are we still cowboys hunting Indians?” McLaren wondered. “Has the US government made a ‘Freudian slip’ that reveals one of the dark and violent drives still at work in our national psyche?”
But Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, who is often supportive of President Obama, almost certainly spoke for more Americans when declaring: “There is a sense that justice has been done.” A prominent leader within the National Association of Evangelicals whose Orlando church has 12,000 members, Hunter cited Genesis 9:6, which says “He who sheds man’s blood, by man his blood be shed.” He added that Bin Laden was “symbolic of much that threatened our country and our way of life.” Noting Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek,” Hunter said: “That particular Scripture has to do with insult and not with self-defense.”
Officials of both the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches endorsed “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” a 2007 ecumenical outreach to global Islam that originated mainly with Yale University Divinity School. Southern Baptist officials and other conservative evangelicals did not sign it. But most responses by U.S. church officials to Bin Laden’s killing seemed to be based not on attitudes towards Islam but on attitudes towards pacifism and the Just War tradition.
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