Waiting for Justice

10 May

In the hours and days that have followed Bin Laden’s death, there has been no shortage of words or lack of conversation about the meaning of the event or exactly how it, if at all, it should be celebrated.  I must say the fact that we are even having a conversation about how to feel after the operation that killed Bin Laden is itself a sign of growing moral maturity.  It is a welcome sign of our willingness to sit with multiple even conflicting or contradictory emotions.

Events like these, which arouse feelings of trauma, relief, and vindication often require of us a broader range of emotional response than we are often capable of mustering in the heat of the moment.    Upon hearing the news, many of us helplessly vacillated between exhilaration in triumph and anger in wrongdoing.  These emotions are part of what makes us human.  They can serve as a very necessary first step in dealing with very real grief.  Truth is I too feel the relief that this man has been found and forced to account at some minimal level for the atrocities he authorized.  I felt gratitude bordering on vindication to know a perennial menace to women, men and children has been silenced.  I’m thankful for the courage and intelligence of the special forces team that did this operation with relatively little injury to themselves or other bystanders.  But I know that we cannot stop there.  These emotions no matter how justified will not uncover the full meaning of this event and what has happened to us over the past decade is beyond them.  Joy and Anger must yield to more profound emotions which can only be accessed by asking questions not answerable in soundbites.  How do we mourn our own losses and the wounds which continue fester?  How do we properly remember the end of a violent life? How do we appropriately express gratitude and relief?

We are not bereft of resources to answer such questions and broaden our sentiment.  I say this as a Christian to my countrymen and women of all backgrounds: as a society, we Americans desperately need the full range of emotional expression and historical perspective that I have found in Christian faith properly understood.  If Christian faith can serve a purpose here, it would be in helping us to appraise this event from every angle and express ourselves in a fully human way.   In light of our tendency to gloat in such accomplishments, I take the biblical references from the prophet Ezekiel and Proverbs to be humble in the face of an enemy’s defeat as wise council, not because I’m a curmudgeon who has a penchant for sobriety, but precisely because such council takes the long view of these things.  There is, as the author of Ecclesiastes said, “nothing new under the sun”.  This is not the war to end all wars and the price of liberty continues to be eternal vigilance.  To gloat is also to miss the depth of what has been loss even in this overcoming.  Yes, Americans as well as people across the world have lost an enemy to peace, a murderer of loved ones. In his wake, a whole region also lost its pride.  In his wake, an accomplished family lost a son, father and brother to the insidious powers of evil.   What’s more, the defeat of someone for their unjust actions always reminds the conscious observer that we all too must account for our wrongdoing.  As one friend put it, remember the words of Hemingway, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls”.   You do not have to be counted among the world’s mass murderers to take stock of your own wrongdoing.   When you see what happened to Bin Laden remember there are manifold ways in which life makes us account one way or another for the things we leave broken.  The wrongdoing to which we fail to attend comes back to bite us.  So let us see this event as a plea to make peace and make right while the hour is still here.  Especially for those of us of faith this should be an opportunity for great soul searching and prayer.

The second area of clarity for me is that true Justice involves more than the killing of one man.  I have seen much ink (digital and otherwise) spilled over the word justice since last night.  Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly an element of justice in a mass killer paying in kind for their actions.  There is an element of justice in moral cowards not being able to hide forever from the great pain they have caused countless others.  Yet, these can only be approximations of a deeper and more significant kind of Justice.  I believe in an ultimate Justice that not only calls killers to account, but redeems the very lives they so cruelly snuff out; for the lives of each precious victim are their worth so much more than one villain’s head.

Another kind of justice might also have been possible, one in which Bin Laden repents, surrenders his life and offers every penny of his resources and his influence to help repay and redeem the thousands of lives whose deaths he orchestrated.   The Christian, as Jonah did with Nineveh, must always pray even for the redemption of our enemies.

Beyond the realm of what ifs and possibilities, the reality is that before Bin Laden’s death, his own destructive ideology has been on life support.  The fatal blows have come courtesy of the masses who march peacefully for political liberty and economic opportunity on the streets of Iran with the Green Revolution, Yemen, Tunisia, Tahrir Square in Egypt, and now Syria.  And on these streets we have another measure of justice, an ideology sown in hatred has been supplanted by one sown in non-violence and self sacrifice.

I wish our leaders were more forthcoming that the Justice our hearts seek cannot be meted out in by people in the centers of power.  No government, no matter the size of its military or treasury, has yet produced the power to resuscitate the fallen nor can any adequately remunerate the pain of the bereaved.   A military success can if we are lucky give us breathing room to do the difficult, but more durable work of peace.  It is this limitation of government and war that one of the 20th century’s most celebrated military heroes understood well.  General Douglass MacArthur, speaking after the ceremony marking the surrender of Japan, closed his remarks with this warning: “The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character… It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.”  May we who are able to witness such an event as this, heed that call.

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