Retaining Sins: Responding with Christ to the Killing of Osama Bin Laden

Let’s start with John 20:19-23, it’s the passage that precedes Thomas the Doubter’s encounter with our Risen Lord. In my beat up RSV version it reads like this: “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to the them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’.”

Now let’s jump to Mr. Bin Laden.  No doubt this was an interiorly scarred man.  Again last night I listened to the tape recording where he celebrates the deaths his plan to attack the Twin Towers caused.  Ten years later I still find it haunting.  Now the newsmen and women are reporting that this man was shot in the head two days ago, April 30, 2011.  That puts his death exactly sixty six years to the day after Mr. Hitler took his own life in a Berlin bunker.  No doubt similar moral tales will be told in the coming days.

But what should our response to all this be?

As far as I can say (and in truth who am I to prescribe a response?), it seems to me that we are in an odd middle ground, pulled between two poles.  On one side I feel myself celebrating death, an odd feeling to be sure.  But isn’t it understandable, I ask myself?  Isn’t it?!  I’d lived the summer of 2001 on 16th street in Manhattan considering entering the Society of Jesus.  When I saw the news that September morning I spent hours attempting to call friends I had lived with less than a month before.  Family and friends were sent to Iraq.  The terribly regular tale of suffering and meaning-making ensued in my life as it did in so many others.  Much because of this man.  I respond with anger; with pain I’d thought put away over the past ten years.  I hurt because of this man, and I’m angry at him still.  And I certainly hope the world will be a safer place with Mr. Bin Laden no longer a part of it.  But there is another pole of this story, and it’s why I wanted to start with (to center myself in) Jesus’ Easter message to us – to His disciples fearfully huddled in the upper room.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to characterize our beloved (I mean that word) U.S.A. as huddling behind locked doors after the events of September the 11th.  I’m just not as sure that we can safely say that we received our Lord’s twice repeated counsel: “Peace be with you.”  It’s the injunction to receive peace, the positive fullness of shalom He so desired as He wept over Jerusalem, that we are given.  That’s the other pole.

I know it’s not so simple some times, perhaps in these very minutes, to live in this other pole.  But calling ourselves Christians means being fully united with one another and with our Father’s will for us and our world.  It’s our God, in his glorified body, who breathed the Holy Spirit upon our angry, frightened, hurt ancestors who had locked themselves in that upper room.  And that Holy Spirit, in John’s words, will “teach [us] all things, and bring to our minds all that [Jesus] has said to [us].  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (14:26-27).

I hope I’m not being trite.  To be straight with everyone, I cannot find it in myself to fully receive that message of peace from my Lord this morning.  But to be straight with everyone, I really think it’s the Word of Life.  And I’m really trying not to retain anybody’s sins.  Even this man’s.

Prayers all.  For the souls of Mr. Bin Laden and all those who have been killed and wounded in his wake.  For real.


PS.  Here are links to two strong articles on this same subject, one by Fr. Jim Martin, S.J. in America, and one by a blogger named Joe Carter at First Things.  Prayers again.

PPS.  Here’s the Vatican’s response to Mr. Bin Laden’s death.  I am consoled by it: “Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions for this purpose. In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”


10 Responses to Retaining Sins: Responding with Christ to the Killing of Osama Bin Laden

  1. Will Akinson says:

    In these Arabic worlds, A Man, Hero to many downtroden peoples, oppressed by mighty foreign invaders and powers, some of his kind having been persecuted, his close friend and relatives killed, upset and filled with intense hurt at his fathers loss went about his Arab world upseting financial and political organizations and getting hugh numbers of followers to listen and act in his new organised manner against all kinds of the power and might in his world. He was persued, by even groups of his own races, religion, and powerful enities, who eventually worked to have him turned over to a mighty foreign alien power who took him by force and killed him.
    He will remain in the minds and hearts of his peoples and all of the world for centuries.

    I guess History repeats itself time and time again, From Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Mohammed, Osama: life in the cradel of civilization seems to go from oppressed to forces of might, from a small countryside to the ends of the whole world. I wonder what the future will reap for “the lands of the promised”. Kings and kingdoms will come and go, fall to the tides of the times and change. Isn’t Gods creations amazing?. Whats nexts, I wonder and who will be the oppressed and the oppressors, and who will come forth as the Hero’s in the worlds to come?.

  2. Innocent says:

    Thanks Paddy for presenting this moral dilemma. Its really hard to balance between justice and mercy. In God we Trust and May God Bless our world with Peace.

  3. Qualis Rex says:

    Hello Paddy, interesting thoughts. I have one question; why would you pray for the soul of Bin Laden? In the gospels, of course Our Lord commands us to “pray for those who persecute you”…present tense. Meaning, I would think, that we pray for their conversion in this life; we pray for them to turn away from sin. And of course we pray for those departed who we believe can use our suplications for thier journey to heaven. But Bin Ladin? God is of course most merciful, but Bin Ladin is a mass murderer and an infidel. If hell is not full, one would think he of all candidates would have a place waiting. And if it is the case that he is in hell, all the prayers of the most righteous and faithful saints here on earth and in heaven will not do him one ounce of good. So, I guess I don’t see your point here.

    One final note; you say Bin Ladin was an “interiorly scarred man”. I don’t really see how you can make this assessment. He was a man who lived his religion to the fullest; to emulate the life of his “prophet”, Muhammad. Muhammad had many wives, carried out wars & assassinations, raped, robbed, owned slaves and called on his followers to do the exact same things in the name of his religion. In fact, if it’s one thing I can admire about Bin Ladin, it is that he did “live his faith” as it were (something Catholics could learn from). So, I don’t see him as “internally scarred” so much as following what his religion commands of him.

    • Jeff Johnson SJ says:

      First, Bin Laden was not faithfully living out his religion. Even the scantest understanding of Islam would be sufficient to see that he was not a faithful Muslim. Qualis Rex (n.b. pseudonyms are strongly discouraged on this website) confuses perverted fanaticism with faithfulness, something that a few Catholics could learn from.

      Moreover, we are in no position to determine who is or is not in hell. Therefore, prayers for the dead, no matter who they are, would be appropriate–just in case the person in question made some sort of reconciliation with God. Let God be the judge, and let us grow more charitable and generous in our prayer.

      Additionally, we pray for those who persecute us, not for their conversion, but that we may somehow grow closer to how God sees them. See the entire Sermon on the Mount and Hans Dieter Betz’s magnificent commentary published by Fortress Press.

      Lastly, there should be no question about the real evil perpetrated by Bin Laden and his followers. However, until we can see clearly the distinction between the evildoer and the evil done, we will not see human beings as God sees them–his children.

    • Qualis, thanks for your post.

      I think your question is a fair one, although I have to admit to being a little disheartened when I read it. I write that not out of some desire to throw stones, but b/c the heart of what I’m seeing as our disagreement lies in the conjunction used to link your ideas of our “all merciful” God and Bin Ladin’s being a “mass murderer.” Namely in the idea that there would be some disjunction between the two. Surely Bin Ladin is a mass murderer, no question here. What I’m saying is that in the events of his death I have to be very attentive to staying close to the heart of my “all merciful” God – namely, that I become as merciful as I can be myself.

      Now, of course mercy does not preclude justice. But I have to admit that I would argue that killing Bin Ladin in the way our country did was not justice (at least to the extent that it lies much more strictly within the “eye for an eye” understanding that Jesus tried to correct).

      As for hell, I think it’s important to remember that, while our Church has been very willing to certify that some people have reached heaven, we’ve been very careful not to do the same regarding hell. You do use the word “candidate”, so we could well be agreeing more than I am characterizing, however. But if we’re not sure that he’s in hell, and we believe that praying for the souls of the dead is still efficacious regardless of our lack of discussion of purgatory, I feel like it’s appropriate to pray that our all merciful God will find a way to redeem him. It’s a hope for me at least.

      The last thing I think is important to bring up is the characterization of Islam that you present in your response, Qualis. You’re right that not having known the man I cannot be sure that he was interiorly scarred. But, to be honest, I very much disagree with characterizing all of Islam through a vision of a Muhammad who “raped, robbed, owned slaves” and called on his followers to do the same. Certainly Muhammad did lead his followers to war (we can’t argue with the historical record), but I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that all Muslims are doing the same. I guess in the responses to a blog post probably isn’t the best place to discuss whether that really is the only way to understand Islam. Mostly I just felt the need to voice my disagreement with that kind of universalist characterization of all of Islam.

      Thanks for your reply. Prayers.

      PG, SJ

  4. Qualis Rex says:

    Jeff – I have never been “discouraged” from posting under this pseudonym as I have always used it here (and nota benissimo: all my friends here know my real name as well). Your weak attempt to discredit my opinion through ad hominem by insinuating I have less than the “scantest understanding” required falls flat, as I have lived in a majority Mohammedan country, read al-Qur’an (in Arabic, and more times then you will ever do in this lifetime),the Sunnah, ahadeet and shari’a. Mohammedans see their “prophet” as perfection; They want to use the tools he has left behind to drive Mohammedanism into greater territories, just as the Qur’an commands. You might be familiar with a more “palatable” subjective form of Mohammedanism, like Sufism, no doubt because it maps more easily to your tenuous and wayward understanding of Catholicism. But had you the scantest understanding of Mohammedanism, you’d know that the vast majority of the Sunni world believes as Ossama does; they simply do not act on it as they are commanded to as much this century (thank God for small favors).

    It is difficult to believe an infidel who spent so much of his life making war against God and His people would have the spiritual armaments to “make some sort of reconciliation with God”. In the Mohammedan mindset, he did nothing wrong. He acted in accord with his religion and his view of God/Allah. He was an outrwardly pious mohammedan and cleary died Extra Ecclesiam (oh….those are Latin words, FYI). I did not say I was sure he was in hell, (you should read more clearly). Very clearly, I said “if”. Ergo (latin again, sorry…well…actually I’m not) if you feel you wish to pray for Ossama’s soul, so be it. However, you might also include a prayer to St Jude, the patron of lost causes. And I’ll say one for you as well.

  5. Qualis Rex says:

    Paddy, thank you so much for your very kind and insightful response. First, you DID catch that I indeed did not condemn Bin Ladin to hell– only God can do that. I chose my words very carefully, given NO ONE on earth knows who is in hell. To your point on prayinf for Bin Ladin, I would say there are a great many Catholics/former Catholics (or Christians of any stripe) in history who have racked up a far greater body count than Bin Ladin. We cannot say with any certitude that Hitler is in hell. Do you pray for his soul as well? If not, why not?

    Regarding Mohammedanism, I never said that all Mohammedans are waging war. I did say that their “prophet” is considered the ideal man, the model for all Mohammedans (very much as we consider the homoousious of Christ). As such, the Qur’an and Shari’a say what is acceptable and not acceptable for Mohammedans; and everything Mohanmmed did (save having more than 4 wives, since apparently only he was “special” enough for this honor) is not only acceptable, but aspired.

    Does this mean al Mohammedans are zealous and austere enough to emulate Ossama or Mohammed? Not by a long shot (just as most Catholics are not strong enough to emulate Our Lord or the saints in most things…yours truly absolutely the chief sinner and hypocrite among them). But it DOES mean that Mohammedanism has a much different set of morals and ethics on what is acceptable, namely rape, murder, thievery, slave owning and making war with khafiroun (unbelievers). If you doubt what I say, I would kindly direct you to pick up a Qur’an at any library. And once again, thank you for your kind and thoughtful response.

    St John Damascene pray for us.

  6. Qualis Rex says:

    One final comment/agreement – I don’t think Osamma’s execution was justice necessarily either. I do believe it may have had some legitimate strategic and tactical rationale (i.e. he still had the potential to plan futher attacks and put more people in harm’s way). The sad fact is in war justice is a very precious commodity.

  7. thereserita says:

    “ doubt because it maps more easily to your tenuous and wayward understanding of Catholicism. ”

    Qualis, I have no idea whether you’re right or wrong in your interpretation of the beliefs of muslims. I’ve heard it argued both ways. But I did have to laughoutloud, when, in one breath you accuse Jeff of ad hominem attacks & then, in the next, you proceed with same against him..

  8. […] of our finite world.  I followed with interest the discussion of Osama bin Laden’s death in Paddy’s post a few weeks ago and the debate about whether or not killing bin Laden could be considered an act of […]

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