It has been over a week now since the 10-year chapter in the much longer story of our human struggle ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden.
First reactions of cheering and celebration were soon met by reminders that an isolated event, even of that magnitude, would not be the end of the problem of terrorism.
Then there were further reminders that a faith perspective, especially but not exclusively a Christian one, does not rejoice in the brokenness of any part of God’s creation, even the destruction of one’s enemies.
This process itself has been a good reminder to me that our responses seem to follow this typical pattern. When wronged, the initial reaction to strike back in kind seems natural, but, after we count to 10, other and better options usually present themselves. We often make more constructive choices.
The defeat of an enemy, especially such a notorious one, naturally brought forth a kind of satisfaction, relief, even joy that justice for thousands of horrible crimes had been rendered. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for thousands of lives – righteousness has been vindicated.
But we move on to further reflection and realize that the problem of which this is a part is still with us. While a kind of “closure” deserves to be felt by many, we will still struggle with humanity’s inhumanity; the glee born of sweet revenge gives way to deeper wisdom.
Maybe one of the lessons of this process for those of us who presume to nurture moral and ethical discernment in our fellow pilgrims is the importance of building our ethics (and the laws and policies that seek to implement them) on this later reflection rather than on our earlier, though natural, impulses.
The Bible itself reflects this pattern of evolving response. The Song of Deborah in Judges 5, perhaps the oldest piece of literature in our Scriptures, praises God for the complete destruction of Israel’s (and therefore God’s) enemies.
Contrast that with Isaiah 53’s much later image of the suffering servant as the agent of God’s redemption, and Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
On which of these stages in the covenant community’s response should we build our ethics?
Many arenas of our ethical discernment are touched by this process of moving from impulse to reflection.
Decisions, policies, laws and practices can be based on the early stages of reaction (“Let’s get even and protect what is ours”) or on the more mature reflection that draws together our faith affirmations and our deeper commitments to the well-being of the human family (“What is needed to move this brokenness toward wholeness?”)
When an ethic of justice is based on the reaction stage of our response to a problem, the results are the Draconian quality of much proposed immigration legislation, our practice of capital punishment, our tendency to blame whole communities of people for what extremists do in their name, or preemptive war without the kind of careful reflection embodied in just war theory.
Is it reasonable and wise for us who teach ethics (formally and informally – and that’s all of us, really) to nourish ethical discernment on the deeper theological reflection that takes over after our first impulses have receded?
Is it reasonable and wise for us to expect our legislators and other leaders to formulate policies and laws on the basis of careful reflection on the principles of our commonwealth rather than on the impulses of prospective voters and the pressures of (in)vested interests?
We’ve had the good help of many voices in recent days reminding us that we do better when we think and reflect carefully. Let’s hope we will be good stewards of that gift.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.