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You've Killed Your Enemy. Now What?
By Jeanine Caunt
May 2, 2011
Auburn is pleased to present a three-part blog from Valarie Kaur (Director of Groundswell at Auburn ), Rabbi Justus Baird (Director of The Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn), and the Rev. J.C. Austin (Director of The Center for Christian Leadership at Auburn). Read their thoughts; an opportunity to comment follows below.
Osama bin Laden’s face is all over the television. People are flooding the streets waving American flags. The President speaks of our unity and resolve as a nation. And 9/11 is on everyone’s mind. This has all happened before.
Except this time, ten years after 9/11, we are not grieving death; we are celebrating death. We have slain Osama bin Laden – the one who first slayed us. And we are singing and laughing and high-fiving. As if this is the end. As if violence can end a cycle of retaliation. As if retribution can bring the dead back. As if the troops are coming home tomorrow.
Even if I wanted to celebrate, I’m too busy worrying. Today, many Sikh, Muslim, and Arab American families, brace for violence, concerned that Americans will target those who “look like” the Osama bin Laden we just destroyed. We didn’t bring Osama bin Laden to trial, after all. We killed him before we captured his body. So why would vigilante Americans wait for the law to take care of the “terrorists” in their midst?
The last time a sudden burst of nationalism rallied us against America’s turbaned and bearded enemy, an epidemic of hate crimes swept the country. In the yearlong aftermath of 9/11, the FBI reported a 1700 percent increase in anti-Muslim violence. At least 19 people were killed in hate murders. In the last decade, we have seen resurgences of hate violence whenever anti-Muslim rhetoric reaches a fever pitch, as it has since the firestorm around the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” last election season confirmed to politicians that they can use anti-Muslim sentiment to win political points.
Now, the climate of anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise. In the last few months alone, Congressman Peter King held controversial congressional hearings investigating “radicalization” in the Muslim community, Tea Party protesters yelled “Terrorist!” and “Remember 9/11″ at Muslim families at a fundraiser, legislators proposed a flurry of bills banning sharia in more than a dozen states, and Arizona tried to pass a bill that would remove names of victims killed in post-9/11 hate crimes from its 9/11 memorial. It was only a matter of time before we heard news of violence. Just a few days before the congressional hearings, two turbaned Sikhs were gunned down in likely hate crimes in Elk Grove, CA. Another was murdered in Las Vegas.
Today, the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing does not bring an end to the hate; it refuels it. In a decade-long “war” against terror, each time our government decides that some people are so bad that they must be placed outside the reach of law, our national imagination shrinks. Human beings, in their fullness and complexity, become one-dimensional enemies. It’s hard to kill people; it’s easy to kill enemies. Frightened by Islamic fanaticism, we turned Osama bin Laden from a frail sick human being into a mythic super-criminal who embodied pure evil. So, no wonder people are celebrating his destruction.
We would never celebrate the murder of a person. But thousands are pouring into the streets to rejoice in the death of evil incarnate. And those who “look like” him — especially Sikh men and boys with turbans and beards who have endured a decade of “hey bin Laden!” on our city streets — are waiting and hoping that Americans might change how they see.
Update: Breaking News – 5/2/11 at 1PM PST
It’s already begun. A Portland mosque was vandalized just hours after President Obama announced that the U.S. had killed bin Laden. The graffiti reads: OSAMA TODAY, ISLAM TOMORROW.
Rabbi Justus Baird
Rabbinic listservs and social networking sites lit up in the 24 hours after the announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden. A flurry of texts were cited in an effort to determine an appropriate Jewish response (see a selection below).
The rabbinic tradition almost always strongly preferred preserving minority opinions over generalizations. But for the busy reader, here is a ‘standing on one leg’ version of the wisdom emerging from the Great Beit Midrash of the Internet:
Verdict: We can understand the parties at Ground Zero and the White House because we all have that deep yearning for justice. But the divine spark in us is what makes us feel a bit uncomfortable when we see such celebrations.
And here are the more interesting details:
How to reconcile these verses? Maybe these are different kinds of enemies. Some say the “enemy” in Proverbs 24 is a garden variety enemy, like the guy who tries to get you fired, or the woman who speaks behind your back and tries to sully your reputation, or the person who steals from you. This is not the enemy who plots genocide or incites wars, like Pharaoh, Amalek, and Haman. The elation of Proverbs 11 is reserved for the really bad guys.
Others say Proverbs 11:10 should be DEscriptive, and only Proverbs 24:17 should be seen as PREscriptive. The full verse of Proverbs 11:10 reads: "When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; and when the wicked perishes, there is celebration." Proverbs 11 tells us that indeed it is perfectly natural to celebrate victory over evildoers. Justice has been served. The verse describes the natural human reaction to the death of an enemy. But Proverbs 24 commands us to calm down, to transcend the celebration.
In a commentary to Mishna Avot 4:19 referring to Proverbs 24:17, Rabbi Yonah Gerondi (Rabenu Yonah, 13th century, Spain) writes: “it is a weighty matter upon which many people fall into error. One should not rejoice in one’s enemy’s misfortune, even if that enemy is an evil person (rasha).”
Concerns About Praying for the Death of Your Enemy
Echos of Modern History
The Rev. J.C. Austin
Christians, too, have been very busy in cyberspace today, and Proverbs 24 (which Justus discusses above) has been a popular text for us. But for Christians, there are two major texts that come to mind about how Christians should treat their enemies: Luke 6:27-36 and Romans 12:17-21. Both speak of loving one’s enemy by not behaving as the enemy does, but rather embodying love in concrete action, including forbearance from retaliation and vengeance. As a Christian (and a New Yorker) who was a pastor at a Manhattan church on 9/11 and who is not a pacifist, I have struggled mightily with how these teachings relate to our treatment of al-Qaeda and its allies for the last ten years, and I cannot claim to have finalized my interpretation of them. But I’m pretty sure they rule out responding to your enemy’s death by ripping your shirt off, wrapping yourself in the American flag, putting a foam “#1” finger on your hand, and belting out Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” all of which I saw happening outside the White House last night.
Let me be clear: I think the President’s decision was right, and that if anything fits the criteria of Christian just war theory, the operation yesterday does. But “right” is not the same thing as “good.” For the last 1700 years, Christians have debated whether war or killing can ever be considered “right” (before that, we basically all agreed it couldn’t), but there’s no theological disagreement on whether it can ever be considered “good,” and thus worthy of celebration. Even a just war is something to be lamented, because even a just war traffics in the tragic brokenness of this world. At best, its benefits are limited to constraining and correcting injustice; by definition, war can never generate life, justice, reconciliation, or peace.
As I have struggled with these weighty issues today, several other voices were helpful to me. Articles by Paul Raushenbush and David Gushee on Huffington Post are both challenging and insightful. A blog posting from John Vest, a fellow Presbyterian minister from Chicago, helped me articulate my own questions more clearly. I was moved spiritually by a Facebook posting from Remington Sloane, a Christian alumnus of Auburn’s own Seminarian Program on the Holy Land, which made a profound connection to the recent Christian observance of “Good” Friday and our current celebration of Easter, proclaiming, “Only one death warrants celebration, and that only in the light of the resurrection.”
But, late in the day, another Christian voice emerged and circulated rapidly on Facebook. It said the following:
“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
It is, of course, the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. Or at least mostly; it turns out that the first line is not from King's seminal 1968 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? like the rest of the quote, but was added by some anonymous scribe for circulation online today. Which is kind of a big deal, under the circumstances.
Yet, in an odd sort of way, I find that a hopeful sign. Christians have rather studiously avoided talking about Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies since 9/11, aside from occasionally confessing that we aren’t good enough Christians to do it. Indeed, the danger in citing Dr. King is the widespread sense that he was a kind of “super Christian” that the rest of us can never live up to and thus don’t need to bother trying.
But in this case, Christians all over the Internet were copying, pasting and posting this affirmation ascribed to Dr. King because they felt the need to confess it themselves. While King would certainly have agreed with it, he didn't say it; "ordinary" Christians did. To be sure, it is hardly an exclusively Christian thing to say: people of other faiths, uncertain faith, or no faith were doing the same thing. It is an especially Christian thing to say, though, and one of the hardest words we have, too. And for the first time in a long time, many American Christians have shown some willingness, even eagerness, to say it, even if falsely placing it in the mouth of a modern saint for moral cover first.
Christians call themselves "disciples" of Jesus, which literally means “followers.” In other words, being a Christian involves movement from wherever we start to somewhere else, wherever Jesus leads us. Refusing to rejoice in the death of our enemy is not too big of a first step, but it's not a small one, either. So perhaps today is the day we Christians can begin moving toward one of Jesus' most important and challenging teachings, to love our enemies. And as we walk together, let us try to find our own voices along the way.
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