Late last night, President Obama triumphantly declared that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed in Pakistan by a covert team of Navy SEALs guided by the CIA. In his statement he said the following [emphasis mine]:
For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.
Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must –- and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.
As we do, we must also 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. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.
I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. Before I go there, I want to emphasize that I in no way approve or endorse the actions of Osama bin Laden or those who have chosen to follow his insane and murderous agenda of jihad.
However, we can not, under any circumstances, stoop to the level of thinking that his death in and of itself is a good thing. We can argue (and no doubt will) that in accordance with the principle of double effect, his death was justified as a necessity to save lives. For my purposes here, that argument is best left elsewhere. My point is simple: the only response to the loss of any human live is sorrow and regret. Death is the wages of sin, and death without repentance merits eternal separation from God: hell.
There are no exceptions to Jesus’ command to love our enemies. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini – and now bin Laden. No doubt there will be others. We are called to love them, and forgive them.
I am reminded of the closing scenes of a movie starring the admirable Gregory Peck: The Scarlet and the Black.
Throughout the movie, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, played by Peck, stands opposite to Colonel Hugh Kappler. Kappler is a Nazi leader occupying Rome and systematically imprisoning, torturing and killing the many targets of the Third Reich. But his army’s hold on Italy and Rome is slowly weakening and he comes to recognize that their defeat is inevitable. He calls for a meeting with the Monsignor at the Colosseum, promising safety in return for a conversation:
[Colonel Hugh Kappler] Wait! I know about you. And your Church. I’ve been talking to people. I know all about you.
[Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty] What is it you want from me, Kappler
[Colonel Hugh Kappler] They say… that you can’t pass a begger… or a lame dog … but that you see yourself with some sort of obligation to look after … anyone in trouble. You help British and American prisoners, Jews, Arabs, refugees, anybody. It’s a … part of your faith. Is that right?
[Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty] Well I wouldn’t deny it; that’s why I became a priest.
[Colonel Hugh Kappler] Brotherly love. And forgiveness. That’s… the other half of what you believe. True?
[Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty] True!
[Colonel Hugh Kappler] Well, I’m glad of it, because I have three more for your mercy wagon. My wife and two children. If the partisens get to them, they will be killed. I want them out of Rome and safe. That’s what I want from you priest.
[Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty] You’re asking me to save your family?
[Colonel Hugh Kappler] If you really believe what you preach, you’ll do it.
[Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty] You expect me to help you, after what you’ve done? You think you can demand forgiveness? You think it comes automatically just because you want it?
[Colonel Hugh Kappler] I’m not talking about myself.
[Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty] You turned this city into a concentration camp! You’ve tortured and butchered my friends. You’ve violated every principle of God and man. I can’t believe it, after all you’ve done, you want mercy
[Colonel Hugh Kappler] I told you, for my family.
[Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty] They’re just part of you, part of what you stand for. They’ve taken whatever they could get, without a thought of the suffering all around. And now, you demand that they be saved. [pause] I’ll see you in hell first.
[Colonel Hugh Kappler] No. You’re no different from anyone else. All your talk means nothing. Charity, forgiveness, mercy. It’s all lies. Do you hear me?! Lies! Don’t you talk to me about God and humanity! I know what humanity is! It’s one half with the power and the will to use it. And the other half only cattle to be led. There is no God. No humanity. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?! Priest! Priest!!
The screen fades to black, before opening to images of the liberation of Rome. In a dark cell, Colonel Kappler is being questioned. One interrogator begins accusing him of establishing a line of escape for Nazis. “Your wife and children disappeared from Rome, they were smuggled into Switzerland, as you well know. Now how was it done – and who helped them?”
Realization dawns on Kappler’s face, even as he denies to the interrogators what he now knows to be true: Monsignor O’Flaherty saved them. Not because of Kappler’s plea but due to the truth of his statement: brotherly love and forgiveness are what make up our faith.
The movie concludes with this epilogue, narrated to the viewer:
After the liberation, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was honored by Italy, Canada and Australia, given the U.S. Medal of Freedom and made a Commander of the British Empire [CBE].
Herbert Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes. In the long years that followed in his Italian prison, Kappler had only one visitor. Every month, year in and year out, O’Flaherty came to see him.
In 1959, the former head of the dreaded Gestapo in Rome was baptised into the Catholic faith at the hand of the Irish priest.
Osama bin Laden is beyond our reach to convert. He is not beyond our love, or our forgiveness – and certainly not beyond God’s. We will certainly be surprised by who is in heaven – and who is not. Frankly, we should be surprised to find ourselves in heaven. We should be praying that all of humanity is there to greet us and to be with God.
Love, and pray for your enemies. Pray for Osama bin Laden. Like all sinners – and admittedly, perhaps more than many – he needs them too. Which is why the duty is ours to offer them up faithfully and with love.
your brother in Christ,