May 3, 2011
So Osama bin Laden has been found, has predictably resisted arrest by US Navy Seals, been killed (in spite of possibly using his wife as a human shield), and been buried with a Muslim ceremony in the North Arabian Sea. As I watched the spontaneous rejoicing outside the White House and elsewhere, I was reminded of the service of thanksgiving that was held in London at the conclusion of the Falklands War in 1982. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher expressed her displeasure when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, himself a decorated veteran of WWII, declined to sound a note of triumphalism, asking instead that the congregation pray for the dead and those mourning on both sides of the conflict. He questioned nationalism as being close to idolatry and said:
“Those who dare to interpret God’s will must never claim Him as an asset for one nation or group rather than another. War springs from the love and loyalty which should be offered to God being applied to some God substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism.”
I think there is much to celebrate in the death of Osama bin Laden. I am proud of the President, his advisors, the intelligence services and the Seals who carried out a dangerous operation. In distinction from some operations in the past, this one seemed to be careful and thorough and was given every possibility of success. Conspiracy theorists and general naysayers are questioning whether there really was a body in ways that cannot but have echoes of Holy Week this soon after the memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus. A chapter has certainly been ended; there is much in American strength and perseverance to celebrate, and for those who believe in capital punishment, “Justice has been done”. A mass murderer’s life has come to an end and a message (which will serve to inflame the passions of our enemies) has been sent. Vigilance will need to be a watchword for some time to come.
I wonder if we need to keep on being an invading force in Afghanistan and Iraq at this point. One of the lessons of this series of events is that it has taken almost ten years to build the kind of human intelligence resources on the ground that have allowed us to move forward in spite of having a more-than-ambivalent ‘ally’. Why should we not withdraw our troops in the service of giving them some rest and rebuilding our economic base at home? At the same time we could prepare for such ‘targeted’ operations as we have seen in the Abbottabad compound when they are called for by events.
As for the call to pray for our enemies, we have been doing that all along at All Saints’, remembering all those affected by war and violence but singling out no one by name. Just so, we will not be singling out bin Laden and the others who died in the raid on his compound (Does anyone know their names?) in our parish prayers next Sunday. Instead we will give thanks that this particular chapter of our national life is over, give thanks for the safety of those who carried out this raid, and continue to pray for our enemies in the sure knowledge that warfare and violence, however necessary they may be in some circumstances, are never in accord with the intent and purposes of God for the flourishing of all life.
An interesting footnote: it was widely reported after the fact and after Thatcher had accused Runcie of being unpatriotic even as he stood by what he said in the sermon in 1982, that it had in fact been drafted, if not written, by Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London who so many in the world heard preach at the recent Royal Wedding. Patriotism need not be idolatrous. Triumphalism almost certainly is.