Osama bin Laden is dead. Shot in the head by Americans during a raid on the house where he was staying in Pakistan. And I’m challenged by my faith.

My own Unitarian Universalist tradition embraces the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And teaches justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. 

I feel these convictions in my heart, and yet I don’t know where in my heart to find compassion for this man; I don’t know what justice would look like given what he did; I struggle to see the worth in a life spent sowing hatred and plotting destruction.

The Christian tradition in which my own is rooted counsels the believer to “love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5). 

It’s no great reach for me to pray for the souls and the families of those who died in the attacks this man planned, and in the compassionate and heroic response to those attacks. I suspect that hating him and the others who executed his plans is beyond me—but I’m not sure it should be, and I’m a little embarrassed not to find that hatred in my heart. On the other hand, I’m not sure I can find my way all the way to loving him.

The Jewish tradition from which Christianity springs says, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble” (Proverbs 24). And at the core of that tradition, in the Ten Commandments, we are told, “You shall not kill.”

I have never believed that I would be able, in a life-or-death situation, to kill another person. But I have never been in such a situation. And I can love and extend compassion toward those who, face to face with him, found it in them to kill Osama bin Laden.

How then to respond to this event? I can imagine weeping–in sadness, and in relief. Sadness because any death we deal out to any one of us, no matter who, diminishes us all; relief because the specter of fear and harm and mayhem bin Laden personified has been lifted from us all. I can imagine prayer—because a soul in the kind of turmoil this event has produced must give voice to its anguish, must seek solace, must frame in words its yearning for understanding and guidance and order. And I can imagine asking forgiveness–for bin Laden and for all who prayed for his death; for President Obama who bears the burden of having ordered him killed; for our soldiers who faithfully carried out those orders; for the families of his victims who yearned for revenge; and for all of us who, time after time, lash out in fear and anger when we are hurt, though we know the better course is compassion. I can’t imagine cheering, or celebrating, or pumping my fist or waving a flag.

I understand that as flawed and fallen humans we sometimes feel inevitably compelled to take the life of another. And I understand that the turmoil produced by that compulsion might move us to justify our actions, to proclaim our right to vengeance, to take it upon ourselves to decide what is justice and to mete that out with a lordly hand. But I believe that at such times the best in us is that piece that humbly asks forgiveness for transgressing a divine law we revere but cannot fully embrace. Can we accept that we felt we had to do this, that it goes against what we believe, and that our lot is to live with the consequences? That would be a hopeful sign indeed.

-Rev. Evan Young

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