This is the second of two posts engaging the death of Osama bin Laden. We published Sam Wells' post on May 4, 2011.
My niece, Caroline, was six years old on Sept. 11, 2001. That day her parents faced the dilemma of millions of other families with first-graders: How do we talk to this child about what has happened? It was scary. It was real. It was serious. Americans were dead but in Stillwater, Oklahoma, she was safe.
My sister talked Caroline through one round on CNN -- watching the planes hit their targets, the pillars of smoke, the collapsing towers. She explained how the attackers hated the United States and wanted to hurt us. Caroline took it all in rather matter-of-factly. She is that kind of kid.
But later, buckled into the back seat on the way to soccer, she did have a question:
“Mom, how did the men who flew the planes get away?”
How did the men who flew the planes get away? For a six-year old, whose life is filled with “look both ways” and “wash your hands” and “don’t get in the pool without an adult,” this is a logical question. It doesn’t make sense that a grown-up would hurt himself on purpose.
But a little child shall lead us. How the men who flew the planes got away begs the question of whether we can commit violence against others without doing violence to ourselves.
The truth is, we can’t. And they don’t tell you that on CNN.
Monday morning, May 2, 2011, I asked my daughter if she had heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed. A grad student at the end of the semester, it was possible she hadn’t looked up for the past 12 hours. But, yes, she had heard and had a question:
“I…I kind of feel sorry for him. I mean, is that okay?”
Is it okay to have compassion for Osama bin Laden? Well, yes. But they don’t tell you that on CNN.
Thanks be to God, my friends began to speak immediately in public forums, either quoting Proverbs -- “Do not let your heart be glad when your enemy stumbles” -- or evoking Martin Luther King, Jr. The sentiment was clear: Violence begets violence.
But more than expressing these principles, the pastors among them were able to hold the complexity of the moment. They did not have to collapse the events of the day into purely good or purely evil; they could acknowledge the multitude of human feelings, sometimes in conflict with each other even in the same person. They could do this because they draw from sources outside the global news network and the military-industrial complex: they draw from the source of life itself, dead and risen.
I texted my daughter to look at my Facebook page. “Yes, it is okay to feel sorry for Osama bin Laden and here’s how you can talk about it. This is what I mean by the public voice of pastors preserving a space to nurture and validate compassion -- like yours and Caroline’s.”
Public voice is not so simple. The voice part itself can be tricky -- how to say what needs saying. But to have a public voice, we have to speak in public. Or better, in publics. It’s actually not surprising that my “friends” expressed thoughts I valued, quoted people I respect, cited sources I cite. They are my handpicked “friends,” the “tweeters” I choose to follow. They write for blogs and posts listed in my “favorites.”
Are we just talking -- and listening -- to each other?
We need at least two public conversations: One within our own communities, where we hash out the truth with each other, so we know what it means that the men who flew the planes didn’t get away; another at the intersections of many communities, where we can listen and hear, resist what would destroy our common life and live into shalom that holds complexity in grace.
Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Education Beyond the Walls at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and former Vice President for Ministry Programs and Planning at the Fund for Theological Education.