"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bin Laden, Justice, Witness, and a Thought Experiment

I’ve been thinking about the Bin Laden events of the last few days, trying to understand my feelings both about the events themselves and the way Christians are or should be responding to what happened. I’ve found myself asking a number of questions, questions not so much about policy and legal matters and safety and so on, but about the deeper values and beliefs expressed in the response to these events.


For example, I’ve been contemplating the meaning and efficacy of justice. There are plenty of theories of justice, some that look a bit like revenge, some that look like an essential component in keeping societal order, some that prize fairness, and some that seem more interested in the needs of the victims.

I’ve mostly been thinking on a more theological than political level, as I feel more comfortable in that realm. What does God’s sense of justice look like? I’m sure I’ve expressed my feelings about this before in some form—my belief in a God whose justice is much more restorative than retributive. Why? I guess because I believe God likes to fix things that are broken. Because I believe God is free, not necessarily bound to any laws of the universe that God has set up or that we assume can only be broken with the abandonment of logic.

And because I believe God loves relationship, loves forgiveness, loves reconciliation, loves peace, and that the kind of justice that really feels “right” to God is a justice that doesn’t simply throw out dirty laundry but persists until that laundry is clean. God pursues, God doesn’t give up. I also think God knows we’re by nature a communal people, better than we know it, and that there is a deep joy and release and peace which come not from the "elimination" of those who’ve wronged us, but from their reformation. Not only their reformation, but their reconciliation with those who’ve wronged them or been wronged by them.

But alas, can/will God reform and reunite with a community someone who doesn’t want to be reformed and reunited? That’s a good discussion too.

But as far as whether or not justice has been brought in this situation, it seems fair to say that as broad of a concept as justice really is, that it depends on the perspective of the person. I’ll admit I don’t feel justice has been brought to Bin Laden or to those hurt by him. I’m not saying the US did anything wrong in all this, just that I don’t feel my sense of justice to be satisfied. But I also am much more removed and unaffected from any activity linked to this man than some other people and their families. I get that.

Christian Witness

I also have been thinking about the Christian reaction to the event, mostly with a sense of nervousness that outweighs my optimism. This seems like one of the those historical moments where the Church is provided the opportunity to be a voice of hope and comfort and guidance. I hope that it is has been. Unfortunately, the primary Christian response I’ve seen has been through facebook, and it hasn’t been all that great.

Meaning, if I weren’t a Christian, I’m not so sure that the comments being made would draw me in, would woo me to become part of the Christian community and life. There’s been a few too many Christians a little too excited about the torturous fires of hell. I don’t really imagine, if hell is tortuous, that God is really that excited about hell, unless maybe there’s some kind of greater end goal to hell (e.g., hell is more like purgatory than something unending).

I think we have to be really careful talking about hell in general in these situations. Maybe we feel like we want to communicate to people, “don’t worry, God is just, and he’s letting the devil kick Bin Laden’s ass right now!” to reassure them that God loves what is good and “hates” what is evil. But I think it’s risky, as we might communicate a God that is a bit more angry and vengeful than we mean to.

Hell may very well be essential to our faith. But when I talk about my wife to other people, I don’t start by talking about how she blows her nose on her shirt sleeve. I wouldn’t deny it; I just wouldn’t begin there as a way of giving you a complete and truthful picture of my wife (Note: she doesn’t really do that.). There's better ways of telling you the complete story of who my wife is than starting with something unpleasant. Not that there's anything unpleasant about my wife. She's a queen.

And then there’s the matter of being overly assertive about anyone’s eternal destiny at all. Some Christians out there seem to have shown a kind of compassion for Bin Laden considering “where he is now;” I’m uncomfortable with that. I think there’s a difference between being confident in and proclaiming what you believe and talking about stuff that even Jesus has warned us not to be too sure about.

We are not given the privilege of knowing with certainty how that will work, and I think it’s a godly, holy, beautiful thing to hope for the best and for what will most glorify God in the end. Some speculation is a great thing, and creates some good conversation for sure; but our claims should be tempered with a good dose of humility and awareness of our finitude, I think. Any who's in/who's out conversations can be more harmful than helpful.

A Thought Experiment

In light of all this, I’ve found myself indulging in a sort of thought experiment: what is the best possible outcome? I don’t mean in the coming weeks, here and now; I mean on the eternal, next-life kind of level. What can I imagine to be the best—the most beneficial, most rewarding, most God-honoring, most human-honoring, most good, most beautiful—outcome for the lives of all individuals involved?

I’m not advocating this as the “best” way to do theology. Trying to decide yourself what seems ideal is fraught with danger. In doing so, I’m probably at risk of projecting my wants onto God and others, or assuming I’m the best judge of an individual’s destiny and actions, or being a relativist and choosing my beliefs apart from any tradition, or just being plain arrogant.

That said, it’s a helpful thought experiment for me, because it gets me thinking about what it is that I hope for, what I believe to be the ultimate good, and, as a theologian, where the gray areas of theology allow at least the slight possibility that my indulgent ponderings about the afterlife might have some hint of truth, if not more than a hint.

So what’s the best possible scenario I could imagine for Bin Laden? I’ll start with what it’s not. It’s not annihilation. For one, someone being completely wiped out from existence is far more unimaginable to me than unending life. I cannot easily imagine nothingness. And there’s a part of me that hurts to think that this man’s story is finished, after all that has transpired in his life. I want more. I want a better ending to his existence.

I don’t think it’s perpetual, unending, tortuous hell, either. That doesn't feel like the best outcome. Even if it’s true that God is so bound by our free choice or by the moral laws of the universe or by God’s own nature or something that God must leave/send people to hell, I can’t imagine God’s happy about it. It seems like the life of God would be lacking, knowing that some are forever lost. Maybe I just don’t have a big enough picture of God that accounts for God’s ability to be complete and whole and content despite the loss of much of his creation to eternal torment. It just doesn’t seem like the best, from my finite, 28-year-old human perspective.

Nor do I think the best is a "free pass" through the gates of heaven, as if Bin Laden may just come waltzing in, saved by grace, all wrongs forgotten, off the hook. Such a notion is offensive to a lot of us, I’m sure (though maybe for the wrong reasons, such as a feeling similar to that of the entitled older brother in the story of the prodigal son). Actually, it doesn’t seem like he’d “fit” there. He’d be out of place. It might be uncomfortable for him, much like the sharp grass in Lewis’ portrait of the “unfit for heaven” in The Great Divorce.

So What's the "Best?"

Really, the best possible outcome I can imagine is really reflective of my personality and passions…in which case my vision might truly be a projection of what I want, rather than what really is God’s will and plan. But since I prefaced this as a “thought experiment,” then I can get away with that, can’t I? :)

I love unity, togetherness, ecumenism, and reconciliation. And I understand God as Trinity—One God, but a God who is somehow miraculously a unified plurality—three distinct persons, but so intertwined and interdependent that “they” are essentially One. I know that’s not the best definition of Trinity, but I’m still looking for one. :)

And I believe this to be similar to our destiny—a reconciled humanity, where no one keeps any record of wrongs, where all have been forgiven, where we are able to receive others as gifts and appreciate them for who they are, allowing others to impart and to give just as they receive from us. A community of diverse persons, yet one.

But how could Bin Laden fit in such a world? (Stick with me…just being speculative and hypothetical here). What if it took a one-on-one reconciliation between him and every person affected by his life and actions? That is, for him to sit down for coffee in God’s new world, individual by individual, listening to their stories, hearing their pain, and allowing that pain to be felt deeply in his soul. Then, to ask, with the greatest humility and sorrow, for forgiveness from those he has wronged.

Would he really do this, if God gave him the chance? I don’t know. Maybe not. But what would we do? I can’t answer this as well as someone more directly affected by his crimes against humanity, but I would hope that in accordance with the character of Jesus and of what I believe to be an essential Christian value, that I would forgive. Not just for his sake, but for my own. Because for me, few things are as painful as broken relationships, and few things as blissful as restoration. To forgive someone—it’s freeing, a gift both for the forgiver and the forgiven. “To err is human, to forgive divine” as Alexander Pope wrote.

My best case scenario for Bin Laden and for all who have wronged others—myself included—is not that we’d be perpetually punished for our wrongdoing, our evil, or our ignorance about the “true way,” nor that we’d simply be let off the hook for what we’ve done, as if God didn’t take our actions seriously. I guess you could argue that this is what grace is, what Jesus' cross means—that we’ve been let off the hook. Maybe so, though most Christians I know don’t believe that we’re really “off the hook” until we consciously acknowledge and accept that we’ve been let of the hook. That’s also a good discussion.

My best case scenario, and the thing that I will continue to hope for and pray for, is that somehow God would break through the hardheartedness of all of us so that we may find true peace, joy, and freedom; and that somehow, as improbable as it seems, a future may await us where God’s will—God’s desire—that “none should be lost” actually becomes reality, and that we will one day be people capable of forgiving even the most horrendous of actions—not just letting people off the hook for what they did to us, but actually loving them, valuing them, wanting to be a part of their lives and share meals and play catch and drink microbrews with them. I hope God gets what God really wants, if this is in fact what God really wants.

I’m an optimist. Obviously. Maybe my “thought experiment” paints too rosy a glimpse of our future. Or more likely, it’s “rosy” to my finite mind, and I’ve forgotten or dismissed some key aspects of God’s character, or the nature of love and justice, or Biblical truth, or what it means to be human.

What I really have hope in is a future of which God—a good and gracious God who loves and is love—is in control. I have faith in this God and in this future, and that it will likely surpass even my most marvelous, extravagant hopes and expectations.

But in the meantime, even though we cling to hope, may I not forget to mourn, to grieve, and to lament, in solidarity with those suffering and with God, who hurts along with us.

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