Volf: Fear and relief

Current Affairs

Many of my friend and my favorite blogs have been posting their thoughts on the news that Osama bin Laden was killed by the US military on Sunday. I’ve not said anything because, frankly, I’m not sure what I think yet. There’s a great deal to process and I’m leery of people who either start making with the cheers or tutt-tutting others because *they’re* cheering.

I was the rector of a parish in far eastern PA on 9/11. A number of my parishioners worked on Wall Street. They lost co-workers. Most were trapped in Manhattan for days. I remember one parishioner in particular, a powerful business woman and investment banker who, when she made it home and reunited with her family that evening at a church service, broke down in huge heaving sobs at the altar rail because of the horror of what she had been through. I remember the fear that stalked us all in the days, weeks and months that followed. I’ve buried parishioners killed in the wars that have followed and prayed with the parents of our wounded members; just as so many other of my clergy friends have.

I don’t know that people are feeling vindicated by Osama’s death, but I think some people are feeling something like relief. Not quite “safe” perhaps, but a sense that at least this particular person won’t threaten them or the people they love again.

Prof. Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School, who’s writing and lectures on the nature of evil and the proper Christian response have been foundational in the development of my own thinking, captures something of the complex mixture of emotions I’m feeling. He writes in an essay of the Christian Century website:

“My friends’ responses and my own memories of the horror of 9/11 and its aftermath nudged me to the following considerations:

  • Osama bin Laden was the most infamous voice of hatred and the most dangerous purveyor of terror in today’s world. Clearly, a significant measure of good has been achieved in that an evildoer of such magnitude is no longer scheming about how to harm and kill innocent people–as well as seriously disrupt the lives of just about all of us (airport scanners!).
  • For the followers of Jesus Christ, no one’s death is a cause for rejoicing. This applies to Osama bin Laden no less than to any other evildoer, large or small. Jesus Christ died for all; there are no irredeemable people. The path of repentance is open to anyone willing to walk on it, and no human being has the right to permanently close that path for anyone.

  • We are right to feel a sense of relief that a major source of evil has been removed. But we should reflect also on the flip side of that relief: the nature of our fears. As the King hearings and state-level anti-Sharia bills indicate, many people in our nation find themselves under a spell of a ‘green scare’ analogous to the red scare of the 1950s. But fear is a foolish counselor, and our war in Iraq–unnecessary, unjust and counterproductive–is evidence of this.

  • Osama bin Laden was killed through an action that instantiates American exceptionalism. We will never consent to grant other nations (China, as an emerging superpower?) the right to intervene in other sovereign states the way we just intervened in Pakistan. As believers in the one God, Christians are universalists. We should not ourselves exercise rights we are unwilling to grant to others. This basic principle of morality should apply to international relations as well.

More here.

I’m not sure I can follow him all the way on his last point, but it’s a point taken. I wonder how much moral difference is made by the fact that we sent in military force as opposed to covert operatives. Certainly other countries have used deadly force to kill (assassinate) their foes when they find them even outside their own territorial boundaries. Does the fact we used regular military materially change the situation either way? (I don’t know – I’m still thinking this all through.)

There’s a prayer in the Book of Common Prayer that a number of people have been posting. As is typical, the Prayer Book tends to have the ability to words to the complicated feelings so many of our having. It’s the Collect for Our Enemies (BCP p. 816):

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Matt Marino says

    Great post. Thanks for thinking out loud.
    On Volf’s last point, It does seem that (especially in politics and science) humans tend to do what they are able to do and then let others ask the “should” questions later.

  2. Martial Artist says

    Dean Knisely,
    I can probably go with Volf’s last point less far than can you. In large part that is because I cannot imagine the United States failing to pursue another such criminal strongly suspected, or especially, known to be residing within our territorial limits. It seems quite likely that Pakistan was attempting to have it both ways–being our ally, while not pursuing bin Laden’s apprehension with anything approaching vigor. Were our leadership to allow something similar to occur with regard to a terrorist enemy of any nation with whom we have friendly relations and who also would treat the terrorist according to some reasonably close approximation to what we consider the Rule of Law, I would support exactly what Volf suggests we would not permit. I have heard some public figures whom I generally respect question a President’s legal and Constitutional authority to have even a terrorist assassinated. But I have not heard anything that suggests to me that that is what the current President, of whom I am not a fan, ordered. My presupposition, absent evidence to the contrary, is that Mr. Obama ordered bin Laden’s capture, and authorized the SEALs assigned to use deadly force to defend themselves in the process, if necessary. If my presupposition is correct, then Mr. Obama did nothing that his predecessor hadn’t already authorized by declaring bin Laden wanted and placing a bounty on him.
    That said, I greeted bin Laden’s death not with any sort of gladness but with a sense of closure–a sense that justice of some reasonable sort, and certain justice from God, has now been set in motion with respect to this one terrorist. But I also managed, out of obedience to our Lord, to say a prayer for his just treatment by God, admittedly as much for the sake of my own soul as for that of bin Laden.
    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Toepfer, LCDR, USN [ret]

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