Before President Obama announced late Sunday evening that the United States had killed Osama bin Laden, a crowd gathered outside the White House chanting “USA! USA!” and singing “God Bless America.”
As patriotic triumphalism swept the country, ordinary Americans shot off fireworks, political leaders issued victory statements and newspaper headlines announced pride in national success.
Bin Laden’s death came eight years to the day that President George W. Bush declared the conclusion of major combat operations in Iraq. Bush made his announcement on a U.S. aircraft carrier under a banner that said, “Mission Accomplished.”
The Iraq War then worsened, costing the lives of thousands of American and allied forces and injuring tens of thousands of combatants. The Iraqi civilian death toll exceeded 100,000, according to one source.
In a nine-minute statement from the East Room of the White House, Obama gave limited details about the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan.
The president said the nation must “reaffirm that the United States is not – and never will be – at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.”
Aidsand Wright-Riggins, executive director of American Baptist Home Mission Societies, gave a statement to EthicsDaily.com about bin Laden’s death.
“I too am tempted toward the triumphalism and patriotism,” said Wright-Riggins. “I have to remind myself that payback, retribution and vengeance are not the same thing as biblical justice. Killing Osama bin Laden does not and will not break the inexorable cycle of violence in which the world is so enraged. Praying that God would deliver us from our enemies requires that we engage the enemy within ourselves as well – enemies like nationalism, narcissism, self righteousness and the like.”
The American Baptist Churches-USA leader said: “Our eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth methodology will leave the whole world blind and toothless. God knows we must find a better way. If we must wave the flag and utter the phrase, ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’ today, let us do so lying prostrate on our faces in humility and in prayer.”
Wendell Griffen, pastor of Little Rock’s New Millennium Church, said American joy over bin Laden’s death should not be a surprise, but warned that “this is no time for triumphalism.”
He told EthicsDaily.com, “The moral challenge now is whether people (policymakers and everyone else) are willing and able to face and engage in the solemn work of addressing the factors that influence people to become terrorists.”
Griffen said Americans “should give serious thought about how to reconcile human differences so that violence, hate, and cruelty don’t take root within people. That work is more important than killing one terrorist, even if he was Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden is dead. The more important work isn’t.”
Griffen is scheduled to lead a seminar on prophetic preaching at the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in June.
Both Wright-Riggins and Griffen are members of the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
A third member of the board, Joe Phelps, questioned why bin Laden and others so hate Americans.
“Amid all the reports, analysis, and concerns about backlash surrounding bin Laden’s death, will there also be a serious attempt to get behind the rage and revenge that animated him and al Qaeda?” asked Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
He wondered, “Are there positive actions that we can now take out of love for our neighbor, both our neighbor as ally and neighbor as enemy, that might mitigate such rage going forward?”
Martin Accad, associate professor of Islamic Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon, told EthicsDaily.com that bin Laden’s death was “no big deal in the streets of Beirut.”
“[F]or many in the Middle East and Muslim world, even though they may feel revulsion at the crime of 9/11 and at bin Laden’s hideous means, Osama has also come to symbolize a cry of anger – anger against the arrogant and hypocritical foreign policies of many western nations. Anger at the global ruling class that thrives on keeping the ‘masses’ quashed and hypnotized by the display of its own power,” said Accad.
Director of the Institute of Middle East Studies, an initiative to transform the “thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims,” Accad said the world might learn from the tragic decade since 9/11 – if the church “now promotes a policy of national humility rather than street triumphalism.”
If not, he said that he feared “the only thing worth saying on today’s occasion might be – ‘the king is dead, but murderous anger lives on.'”
Charles Kimball, author of When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, called for redoubled interfaith education and dialogue.
“[W]e must recognize that the conditions that helped create and sustain Osama bin Laden’s extremism continue to exist: unrepresentative, autocratic rulers in many predominantly Islamic lands, perceived heavy-handed and predatory U.S. political, military and economic involvement in many of these same countries, and the deep frustrations with the plight of Palestinians after more than 40 years of military occupation,” said Kimball.
Working off a statement made on Sept. 11, 2001, Robert Parham, executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, said the faith community should again offer different language and solutions from politicians.
“America’s celebratory reaction to the news about the killing of Osama bin Laden represents both patriotic triumphalism and personal satisfaction,” said Parham. “While nationalistic chest thumping will be widespread, goodwill people of faith would do well to remember to strive after what makes for peace.”
He hoped that American Christians, who have often demonized Muslims, would now admit that bin Laden was not an Islamic leader, as well as engage in interfaith dialogue and action with goodwill American Muslims.