Around the midway point of the 2oth century Albert Camus’ existential novel L’Étranger (The Outsider), told the story of the killing of an Arab man, a story which forced Western culture to confront its own ethical viewpoint. At the beginning of the 21st century the killing of another Arab man, has forced us to do the same.
The Christian Left
As the death of Osama Bin Laden broke,with one eye I was watching the coverage on television, and with the other, the Facebook feed. Reading the status updates, my friends on the Christian left, were dismayed by the spontaneous scenes of people celebrating the killing of Bin Laden in New York and in Washington D.C. My friends who work tirelessly to see God’s peace break out in the world, reminded us that violence begats violence, that killing cannot bring about the kingdom of God. That the victims of 9/11 were not brought back to life by the death of civilians in bombing raids in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. They produced scriptures that commanded us not to celebrate the death of the wicked, and quotes from Martin Luther King, and Ghandi, lauding the attributes of the approach of love and peace.
The Christian Right
Simultaneously my friends on the Christian right, expressed relief that justice had been done. They updated their belief that a man who declared war explicitly on Christianity, who wished to finish what Hitler had started by killing the Jews, who wished to subjugate women, and who deemed Hindu’s, atheists, homosexuals, and Buddhist’s killable on the spot, who had made it his life’s mission to violently create a world wide Caliphate, who wished to kill you and I, was dead. My friends on the right, with heavy hearts, concluded that sometimes, when individuals choose the path of evil, who present a clear and present danger, that they regretably must be killed. My friends also produced scriptures that told us to celebrate the death of the wicked, as well as quotes lauding the quest for justice and the pursuit of freedom.
As the heat online grew, I noticed some of my younger Facebook friends were becoming dismayed or confused. Respected leaders, people they looked up to, seemed to disagree so strongly, both sides providing compelling arguments. On the TV and online the experts, politicians and opinion makers also presented their arguments forcefully. Each using the death of Bin Laden to expound their agenda, or worldview. His death quickly became symbolic, being used to advance various political, social and religious ideologies.
The Embodiment of Evil
Historian Diamaid MacCulloch, has noted it was the Greeks who developed the habit of turning people into symbols of things. Their gods represented ideas and concepts, so it was natural that this philosophy would spill over into the human realm. Follow this line of thinking and Hitler becomes the embodiment of evil, Ghandi of peace and so on. The problem though, is that life is never that clear cut, hence why almost all Biblical characters do not fit neatly into boxes, into camps of good and evil. The Jews with their monotheistic iconoclasm understood much better than the Greeks that it was difficult to turn people into symbols and perfect representations of abstract ideals.
The controversy over Bin Laden’s death reveals a great philosophical and theological question. A question which is concerned with the intersection between justice and love. It asks how can we be both just and loving? It is possible to have love without justice? Is it possible to have justice without love? Is God a God of Love or of Justice?
The gods of the Left and Right
In our society with its divisions of left and right, progressive/liberal and conservative. The left will almost always err on the side of love, it will always take into account circumstance, environment and upbringing. It will view God as primarily a God of Love. The right will always err on the side of justice, and will always look to personal choice, and the decisions one takes, despite their circumstance, environment and upbringing. The right will always view God as a God of Justice.
These are huge weighty issues, issues wrestled with throughout history. Issues held and pondered by our greatest minds, philosophers, jurists, leaders and theologians. We can see this dilemma struggled over during the dark days of World War Two by figures such C.S Lewis, Dorothy Day, Neville Chamberlain, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and George Orwell, great figures who chose to stand on the sides of either justice or love.
Ideology and the Problem of Scripture
Christians when looking to scripture, can easily find proof texts, which taken in isolation can justify one side or the other. But both sides when faced with the totality of scripture, will find troubling passages and teachings, texts which seem to undermine our ability to firmly come down on the side of love minus justice, or justice minus love.
I remember sitting in a Californian prison with convicted murders who had been caught in the cycle of retaliatory gang killings, a constant spiral of death and violence, a misguided quest for justice which only resulted in more blood. As I sat there I was on the side of love.
I remember standing and listening to a holocaust survivor in Caulfield, Melbourne, who felt that European Christian culture’s desire for love and peace minus justice, had facilitated the rise of the Third Reich and almost seen the annihilation of his people, the Jews. A people who he believed only existed today because almost too late, supposedly Christian nations chose the path of justice. As I listened I found myself sitting on the side of justice.
The Voice of the Victims
Interestingly as I watched the TV coverage of Bin Laden’s death, there were several interviews with victims of Bin Laden’s violence, people from as diverse places such as Indonesia, Kenya, the United States and Australia. Almost every one expressed a confusion over their feelings, an initial relief and jubilation at the news of his demise, followed by a sense of loss, a fear that this death would only bring more. I think that it was the victims who spoke the most clearly, who unwittingly got to the heart of the issue.
Justice meets Love
And so I find myself shifting from one side to the other, as I read history, as I process our world today, I only feel more conflicted, more confused. I want love, I want justice.
And then as I write, I look up and out of my office window across the buildings. In the autumnal sun, atop of the faux gothic church, a Cross sits. It is weather beaten and missable, yet it speaks of those expansive Golgothan minutes, where the perfect balance was struck. When on a wooden cross justice and love was held in divine symbiosis.
We as believers will continue to debate and argue over how to live that out that symbol. We will ponder and fight over the tension of holding to both justice and love, struggling to enflesh a seemingly paradoxical truth.
So I do not celebrate Bin Laden’s death, nor do I mourn his passing. I quietly sit and listen to my fellow believers on the right and left.
But most of all I wait. I wait for the return of him, who is both perfect love and justice.