Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Osama bin Laden and the Duty to Forgive

By Dr. William C. Spohn

Christian ethics requires spirituality for it to achieve its purpose of transforming the person and the world. It seeks to respond to the action of God in Christ to heal the individual and to heal the world so that it comes closer to what the new Testament calls "the Reign of God," that is, the world according to God. I want to explore how Christians might respond to the tragic events of September 11 in light of the fundamental command of Jesus to "love your enemies." Christian ethics is grounded in the story of Jesus and our common humanity. It takes more than a logical mind to move from that story to living like a follower of Jesus; it requires spiritual practices. In the case of September 11, we need to develop the practice of forgiveness to love our enemies. Since spiritual practices are the core of any genuine spirituality, it follows that spirituality is essential to Christian ethics.

First, let me be clear about terms. I will use the term "Christian ethics" to refer broadly to the actual living of the Christian life, not only the study of its values and principles. Christian ethics refers to a way of life lived by actual people, not a theory that lives in argument.

I need to be especially clear about the elusive term "spirituality." It is usually a contrast term to the decidedly less popular term "religion," as in the statement we hear so often, "I am not a religious person but I am very spiritual." This statement usually means that the person does not find a personally engaging connection with God or the transcendent spiritual dimension of experience through institutional religion. Churches, traditions, dogmas, all these represent a purely external and formal approach that does not affect anyone deeply. "Spirituality" stands for those moments of breakthrough and nourishing contact with the sacred. Those moments happen when we least expect them, whether on a beach at sunset or in the self-disclosure of intimacy. Since these moments happen spontaneously and usually when we are alone, it makes little sense to seek them in organized religious services that pull together many people. In effect, spirituality delivers what religion promises but cannot deliver.

There is another meaning to spirituality which has been around for centuries, at least in the Catholic tradition. Here, spirituality means the practical, affective, and transformative aspect of authentic faith. Spirituality here relies not on peak moments, though it is not against peak moments. It relies on practices, committed activities that gradually change us and open us up to contact with God. The New Testament points to a number of fairly ordinary practices that are necessary ingredients of being a follower of Jesus: service, forgiveness, gratitude, hospitality, struggling for justice, nonviolence, solidarity with the poor, prayer, and worship in community. These are the ordinary, day to day ways that Christians find God and God finds them. Peak moments are fine if they wake us up to the spiritual, the sacred, the mystery that lies around us. But what do you do once you have woken up? How do you start living a life that comes out of that depth, instead of going back to living on the surface?

Living a life in the spirit day to day is what changes us and changes the world, or rather gets us to work to change the world. If we only make sporadic contact with the mystery of God, we are unlikely to change. I know a rabbi who describes a conversation he has with young Jews who tell him that they don't come to synagogue or keep Sabbath anymore because it isn't meaningful to them. They don't find any connection with God doing those things. When he asks them where they do find connection with God, they'll often say, "When I am walking the beach at sunset" or something similar. The rabbi then asks them, "When was the last time you walked on the beach at sunset?" Usually they can't remember. It is not a practice for them.

Loving Our Enemy after September 11

We need specific spiritual practices, committed habitual ways of acting, to live out Christian ethics. Let's see why spirituality is needed to live out Jesus' command to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Although that quotation is from the Sermon on the Mount, it is repeated throughout the New Testament. It expresses the lifestyle of Jesus who showed God's mercy even to his last dying breath when he prayed for those who had crucified him.

Love of enemies is a distinctively Christian way of proceeding. Philosophers write about treating enemies with the respect that is due their human dignity. Forgiveness may make sense rationally, but I have never read a philosopher who argued that we are obligated to love our enemies. Respect, yes; avoid harm, yes; endure, perhaps; but not to love them. I suspect that apart from religious narratives of the relentless mercy of God, love of enemies is inconceivable.

But I do not want to argue from the premise of the infinite mercy of God to the practice of forgiveness as a necessary conclusion. I would rather do it the other way around: namely, that the practice of forgiveness is the only way we will be able to understand the relentless mercy of God I want to discuss the spiritual practice of forgiveness that is necessary to love our enemies. Forgiveness takes away the block between ourselves and the enemy; it refuses to let our response be dictated by the enemy's hatred of us. As such, it is the indispensable step to loving the enemy.

1. Acknowledge that we do in fact have enemies.

We prefer to be in denial rather than face up to the problem. I can recall giving a talk on this once at a church conference. Afterward a woman came up and said, "I liked your talk, but it doesn't apply to me. Ever since I met Jesus I don't have any enemies." I asked whether there was anyone she had a hard time with, or didn't speak to. She replied, "Well, my son -- but he doesn't count!"

"Love your enemies" is not a hard command to obey so long as you don't have any enemies. Since September 11, people in the United States have come to realize that we do have enemies who are committed to terrorize and destroy us. We woke up to the awkward fact that there are millions of people in the world who hate us, or at least hate what they think we stand for. Even if we eliminate Osama bin Laden, there are many Islamic fundamentalists who will be willing to take his place. During the Cold War, we had enemies who were willing to destroy us, but we lived in the nuclear stalemate of Mutually Assured Destruction. In this new war of terror, we have enemies who fly hijacked airliners into office buildings and spread deadly chemicals through the mail. Who knows what they will do next? Poison our water? Blow up our bridges or dams? Detonate a nuclear bomb in some crowded city? In the Cold War, Communists were our national enemies, but they mostly lived far away. In this war, the enemy has lived as close as Santa Clara and Foster City, and may be living somewhere close to us right now.

Sometimes it's hard to acknowledge our enemies because we don't feel any enmity toward them. "Enemy" is not necessarily a two-way street. Someone can hate you even if you don't hate them. We don't hate Muslim fundamentalists; up until recently we didn't even pay any attention to them. Jesus has something interesting to say about one-way anger and hate. A lost of the moral wisdom of Jesus is found in little stories and sayings, not in abstract arguments. We have to use our imaginations on his stories and images to get the point.

"When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." (Matt 5:23-24)

Notice that Jesus does not say "if you have something against your brother or sister" but "if your brother or sister has something against you." Jesus doesn't say "if your brother or sister has a legitimate grievance against you." The other person may be mistaken, and you may be innocent, it doesn't matter. So long as there is that gap of anger and enmity, even if it is one-sided, there is a gap between you and God. No sense in proceeding with a religious offering that proclaims your closeness to God so long as there is someone that stands at a distance from us. We may not have caused their anger, it may be completely unfounded, but it still has to be healed before we can go to the altar. Acknowledging our enemy therefore leads to the second step in the practice of forgiveness:

2. Understand your enemy.

Americans got off to a good start after September 11 in understanding who their enemy was not: not all Muslims, all Arabs, or all American Muslims. Hopefully we will not treat the Afghan people as our enemy and destroy what is left of their country.

The little example from the Sermon on the Mount urges us to try and grasp what exactly it is that our brother or sister has against us. When we are angry or threatened, we want to flee or retaliate; the last thing we want to do is understand. That means stepping out of our shoes and into the shoes of the other. It means trying to see ourselves from their point of view, which seems pointless when we know that they are wrong about us. Why should I apologize for something I didn't do? Why should I try to understand someone who so obviously misunderstands me?

Ten days after the September tragedies, Newsweek magazine's cover read, "Why They Hate Us." The issue contained a lengthy historical and sociological analysis of the basis of Muslim grievances against the West. Frankly, it was painful to read. We are blamed for the oppression and failure so common in the Arab world. Much of this is a cover for failed attempts at modernization, but we have made some serious mistakes. President Bush has done a fine job in rallying the nation in this time of crisis, but he does not help us understand our enemies when he says, "They are evil and we are good. They attack us because we are good." We have made mistakes. Our dependence on cheap oil from the region has led us to support authoritarian regimes to keep the supply steady. They suppress dissident elements in their societies who are demanding change and we get blamed for providing the regimes with money and power. Our support of Israel is seen as endorsing every move that Israel makes against the Palestinians. Our pop culture and ways of doing business offend many traditional social mores.

Understanding our enemies does not mean excusing them. Those were horrifically evil acts that they did and nothing can justify them. The drive to understand actually moves in the opposite direction from excusing them. It recognizes that there must have been some reason, however twisted, behind the suicidal, murderous bombings. They may have been the acts of evil men but they were not the acts of psychotics. My students find it very difficult to admit that anyone could be evil. They cannot imagine that anyone sane could be a serial killer or a child molester so they write them off as "crazy." I don't know whether Osama bin Laden is evil or not, but I don't think that he and his followers are simply crazy. To write them off as crazy is to offer a psychological excuse for their actions; it is not to forgive them. For us to forgive our enemies we have to know what their reasons are. That means we have to read about their history and our foreign policy, we have to get a hand on globalization and the clash of cultures behind their anger and resentment. This leads to the third step in the practice of forgiveness:

3. Pray for those who persecute you.

Why would Jesus mention this in the same breath with "love your enemies"? This is a standard Hebrew parallelism, where a thought is expressed again to deepen it. Possibly we will never be able to love them if we don't pray for them. Praying for our persecutors helps us see them in a new light. Can you pray for someone you hate? Not for long: you'll have to quit praying and keep hating or keep praying and quit hating them. Prayer of petition, asking for what we need and what others need, is a very basic and pedestrian spiritual practice. Almost all of us prayed this way as children, but perhaps no longer. We were told that God always answers our prayers, but we discovered that the answer was often "No." Our prayers didn't seem to have any effect on the basketball game or the final exam, especially when we hadn't studied for it.

Let me suggest that praying for our persecutors is not intended to change them so much as to change us. Bringing them before God regularly and repeatedly changes the way we look at them. We start to see them from God's perspective, or at least that is what Matthew expects when he writes,

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matt 5:44-45)

Sunshine and rainfall are quite indiscriminate and, following the logic of those images, God is quite indiscriminate in loving everyone. The just and the unjust are all Gods' children, and God is stuck with them, just as parents are stuck with their children, however they turn out. But since God is father and mother to us all, then those who persecute us are part of our own family. We are stuck with them and they with us. The images of brother and sister now get overlaid on the images of evil and good, persecutor and oppressed. Where those divide, the family categories relate; where those categories distinguish, the family terms are indiscriminate. Meditating on this passage and entering into praying for Osama bin Laden may help us see him in God's perspective even as someone who is inescapably our brother, even as someone worth praying for. God brought him to life and continues to give him life through the ordinary processes of nature.

Praying for our enemies will change us by changing the way we look at them, and eventually God's grace may change the way we feel about them. I presume that we will be threatened by terrorists for some time to come. They will disrupt our way of life and keep us on edge. This will naturally breed resentment unless we have a practical counter measure, a habit of mind and heart that neutralizes the desire for revenge. Praying for our persecutors may be a good beginning.

Most of us learn by doing: we are more likely to act our way into new ways of thinking than to think ourselves into new ways of acting. Spiritual practices like meditating on the stories of Scripture and praying for others are ways of acting that will over time change the way we think and feel. Which is an outcome better than the alternative. As St. Augustine said, "Our enemies will not destroy us but our enmity will." Or as someone else put it, "Resentment is a liquid that corrodes its container." This leads to the fourth and final point:

4. We need to forgive our enemies even when we cannot be reconciled to them.

While forgiveness can happen on one side of a ruptured relationship, reconciliation takes both parties. It is probably true that our enemies could care less about our forgiveness. It may be true that forgiving them will not change them at all. We like to let ourselves off the hook by thinking that forgiveness is pointless because it will never change the enemies. They would have to meet us at least halfway, then we can talk about forgiveness.

We cannot bring about full reconciliation with the enemy by ourselves, and demanding that as a condition of our own forgiving sets an impossibly high standard. The act of forgiveness sets aside the harm done us, it is willing to start anew. Forgiveness does not erase the memory of the harm done, it refuses to let that past determine the future of the relation, at least insofar as it is up to us. It refuses to dwell on the harm done, to turn it over and over in the mind and fantasize about getting even. Forgiveness admits the truth but it does not keep telling others about the harm done, or undermine the other's reputation by innuendo.

There are countless biblical images of the renewing power of forgiveness, mostly examples of how God forgives. Psalm 103 sings that God

"…will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our iniquities our sins
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who revere him."

Luke's gospel speaks of the Good Shepherd, and the father of the Prodigal Son who waits for his return and is moved with compassion when he sees the son a long way down the road, then runs to greet him and restore him to the family. Perhaps the most telling accounts of forgiveness are between Jesus and Peter or between Jesus and Judas, trying to turn him around even at the moment of betrayal, "Do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?"

Scripture does not give a recipe for forgiveness; instead, it models forgiveness, displays it in image and story. These patterns become the template for Christian ethics as it seeks to discover how to forgive. The Christian does not copy the action of Jesus since that would be impossible. Christians hear stories like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan and have to figure out themselves how to act along these lines. As the punch line to the Good Samaritan parable puts it, they are called to "go and do likewise." (Luke 10:37).

If the enemy refuses to be reconciled, then what? Forgiveness is not an offer to be refused, or a strategic move taken off the table if it is declined. It stays, whatever the enemy does. Can we bring the enemy to legal justice even if we have forgiven him? I don't see why not. Forgiveness does not require passivity or become a spectator to further evil. Gustavo Gutierrez, a saintly priest who has worked for years in the slums of Lima and the founder of liberation theology, once wrote that the most loving thing to do to the oppressor may be to take away his capacity to oppress people by removing him from political power. Loving the enemy in this case could be the motivation for revolution. Perhaps the only way a battered wife can forgive her husband is to leave him or see that he is brought to justice. We can forgive bin Laden and still bring him to justice, although we might argue about the best way to do that. Christian pacifists will say that we are bound to respect human life absolutely and that the way to peace must be the way of the cross. Christian supporters of the just war will argue that defending the innocent requires us to use force to prevent Al Qaeda from further wrongdoing.

The manner in which we conduct military operations will reveal the motives driving us. To the President's credit, he did not succumb to the temptation to retaliate swiftly and brutally, to use nuclear weapons to turn Afghanistan into one huge glowing parking lot, as one pundit put it. But even just wars have a way of becoming unjust as they get fought, and the longer this war on terrorism lasts and the more American civilians are killed, the more likely it will be that the early restraints will fall off.

If the enemy persists, then we will have the opportunity to deepen into the habit of forgiveness. It will become part of us. Forgiveness is not just a single act but a habitual stance, a deliberate way of facing this reality that is renewed over and over again. A person with the habit, the virtue, of forgiveness, approaches life with a readiness to forgive, just like an angry person approaches life with a readiness to be outraged, or like a proud person approaches it ready to take offense.

I have argued that loving the enemy is the appropriate Christian response to Osama bin Laden, but that will be impossible without the spiritual practice of forgiveness which entails acknowledging the enemy, understanding him, seeing him through God's perspective by praying for him, and finally forgiving him. Recall the story of Terry Anderson, the American journalist captured by the Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and held captive for five years. His captors allowed him one book to read, the Bible. He hadn't seen it or the inside of a church for years, but he read the Bible over and over again. That became a spiritual practice that changed him profoundly. When he was finally released, he was asked whether he hated his captors. He said, "No, I don't hate them. As a Christian I am required to love them." I doubt that he would have heard the invitation to love those men if he had not fallen into the spiritual practice of reading the Bible in his solitary years of captivity.

I don't want to imply that spiritual practices have an automatic effect. There's no magic involved here. It all depends on the intention we bring to these disciplines. After all, the hijackers of September 11 prayed devoutly five times a day and fasted during the month of Ramadan; some may have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Yet they were full of murderous hate.

Forgiving our enemies may be possible, but why do we have to love them? If loving them means liking them that is probably impossible. At a minimum it means respecting their human dignity and not doing them harm. A further step may be to confront them and in a nonviolent way, call them to account. Forgiveness wants to push on to reconciliation, to a two-way renewal of the relationship that has been violated.

Finally, the unconditional nature of forgiveness only makes sense if it is supported by the unconditional love of God in our lives. That is why praying for the enemy is crucial: it brings him before the face of God, but it also brings us there. At that point we realize not only that we need the power to forgive but that we ourselves need to be forgiven as well. Without the sense that we have been graciously forgiven, our act of forgiveness will probably be grudging and condescending, as we tell ourselves, "Well I would never have treated her like that." Knowing that we have been forgiven by God should neutralize the feelings of superiority that can come from being the one who takes the first step to heal a broken relationship. The practice of forgiveness may prove to be enormously difficult and expose just how much we need to be forgiven and healed.

So this is the final effect of forgiveness. It moves from being an action, to becoming a way we perceive others, to a habit of the heart, and finally to becoming part of our very identity, our understanding of who we are before God. The practice of forgiveness engenders the virtue of mercy in us and at the same time shows us how much mercy we need. This is not a question of guilt but of realistic honesty.

Peter, as usual, asks Jesus the question we are afraid to ask, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" (Matthew 18:21) Peter is using a Hebrew code here: seven is the symbol of infinity, so he is asking, Are there any outer limits? Jesus replies also in code: "Not seven times, but seventy times seven." Multiply infinity by ten and then square it infinitely and you have your outer limit.

Jesus then tells him the story of the unforgiving servant. Again, the New Testament does not give us an argument about forgiveness or a recipe for how to do it. Jesus tells a story and we have to figure it out. Matthew 18:23-34 about a servant whose master forgives him an enormous debt that he could never have repaid. He then turns around and savagely beats a fellow servant who owes him a small amount. The master hears about it, summons the first servant and says, "You worthless wretch, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you?" So the master then slaps him in jail "until he would repay his entire debt," that is, he would be in prison forever.

What's the point? Is God's forgiveness of us conditional, that is, dependent upon whether we forgive each other? That doesn't seem to fit the images of the father of the Prodigal Son or the Good Shepherd. Instead, Jesus seems to say that the wicked servant never accepted the forgiveness that was extended to him. He got off the hook, but was not changed in the least. That became obvious when he treated his fellow servant brutally over a pittance, when he had been treated mercifully over a huge amount.

The way I read the story is this: God offers forgiveness freely, but we don't have to accept it. If we do accept it, it will carry over into our dealings with others. We will naturally be merciful. If we are brutal with them, that means God's forgiveness never entered into our identity in the first place. Being merciful, we will begin to comprehend who God is. Being brutal, we will construct a god who is as brutal as we are.

So the final challenge about bin Laden is not an abstract one. It is a challenge that we invite every time we say the Lord's Prayer, which contains the most dangerous line we could ever say: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" (Matthew 6:12). This is the only obligation we put on ourselves in that prayer. We are asking God to treat us in exactly the same way as we treat those who have wronged us. We are saying, "Be as close to me, God, as I am to the person most distant in my life." What a frightening thought. Since September 11, every time we say the Lord's Prayer we are saying, "Forgive us, O Lord, to the same extent, no more and no less, than we forgive Osama bin Laden."

From a speech given by Prof. Spohn on 8 November 2001 at St. Mary's College, Moraga, California.

Dr. Sphon is a professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Bannan Institute for Jesuit Education and Christian Values, Santa Clara University

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