Friday, May 6, 2011

the god of latitude

I listened to an interview with a NYC firefighter minutes before president Obama’s speech to the nation.  One of the man’s comments struck me.  He said, “I speak for all the firefighters and police officers in New York City when I say I hope bin Laden rots in hell.” 

The reaction to bin Laden’s death has sparked a grassfire of online commentary by clergy and Christian ethicists this past week (see links to some of my favorites below).  Bloggers and Tweeters are pondering how Christians should feel about the death of this, or any, enemy.  They are debating the appropriateness of celebrating the end of human life.  While others, perhaps understandably, are promoting the sentiment expressed by that firefighter.  And each of them quote the bible to make their case.

Christians should of course allow Scripture to inform how we walk through these sorts of events.  But in doing so we must also remember that Scripture is not a static plain.  It is not just a book of ethics or just a moral compass.  The bible is that to be sure, but not only that.  Scripture, after all, is mostly poetry, narrative, and other people’s mail.  So every now and again some pieces of the narrative and poetic imagination will jump off the plain.

Take all the Scripture being used to address our response to bin Laden’s death for example.  If you were to make a list of all the bible verses used by all the bloggers and tweeters and facebookers you would find that within the bible there exists a wide range of reactions to the downfall of an enemy.  For every “love thy enemy” verse there is a counterpart.  God’s people, for example, celebrate in the streets whenever one of their warriors, David, returns from battle carrying the body parts of their enemies as booty (e.g., 1 Sam 17:51-18:27).  The bible also contains holy songs that express a hope for the babies of the enemy to be turned into corpses (Ps 137:9, see also Ps 69 and Ps 109).  These are just a couple of examples. 

One response to diversity like this within the bible is to flatten one side of the conversation in favor of the other.  This approach gives the appearance of a strict ethic on everything in the bible.  But this approach also marginalizes certain texts in favor of others.  And when this happens we often lose our ability to hear Scripture speaking to all sides of life.  Another response is to identify the bible as a book filled with contradictions.  To which one is tempted to respond, “Life seems this way too, but we still live it.”  

What this variety within Scripture suggests to me, however, is that the bible does not ignore the complexity of the human heart.  It takes seriously our experiences of pain, loss, hatred, and anger - even our deep pining for vengeance.  The bible is not silent on issues of painful collective memory or deep national loss.  So in some places it jumps off the plain a bit.

Certainly some responses to bin Laden’s death have been more appropriate than others, but the latitude within Scripture on this issue suggests to me that whatever some one's reaction to bin Laden’s death might be, God understands.  He does.  God gets people.

And this is the most important thing to remember about the bible.  Scripture is most interested in drawing the human experience into the arms of God.  The bible points us to the God who can restore our loss, all of it.  It points us to the God who sees beyond our vengeance and reaches into the pain of our memory.  And this God allows the latitude for people to express the pain of their memory.  This includes NYC firefighters.


Here are some great theological insights on our response to bin Laden's death (Thanks Silas and Forrest for sending them my way):

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