Saturday, May 7, 2011

What to Call bin Laden's Death?: Michael Sean Winters vs. Michael Moore

Bless his heart, Michael Sean just can't seem to help himself, when opportunities arise to take a punchy jab at "the left."  I can well imagine it's a hard job, but somebody has to do it, and this obviously keeps Michael Sean on his toes, as he mediates between right and left for the beltway establishment.  And as he assures that his own Catholic church and other American religious groups remain duly conservative in the officially mandated areas (e.g., "respect for life" and for the sanctity of marriage), while exploring left-leaning values about other issues like health care and justice for working people. 

Someone has to do it: to keep the beltway establishment sorted out, when it comes to left and right and where the Catholic church stands (here feint left, there march right).  And I'll grant that this insider sorting and herding is a ponderous burden for any power broker whose self-assigned political task is deciphering Catholicism (and American religious groups in general) for the powers that be, given the refractoriness of American believers.  And the vibrancy and diversity that vastly exceed the little boxes in which the power brokers want to confine religion, to keep it on the right track and ideologically useful for those in power who profess to be liberal  but must be made to toe the conservative line in areas designated by the Michael Sean Winters of the beltway world.

But I have to admit, the point of this particular jab simply goes over my head.  Why is it goofy for that Ur-leftie Michael Moore to call bin Laden's killing an assassination?  That's, of course, the term I myself have lit on in the several pieces I've posted about this event.  And I arrived at it through the following process of thought:

To say that bin Laden was murdered would only inflame the dangerous and rather ugly passions of all those ready to pounce on any statement that might betray the slightest bit of sympathy for a man who, as we all know, played a key role in orchestrating the mass murder of thousands of people in 2011.  "Murder" seems not to be quite the precise word here.

To say, on the other hand, that he "received justice" also strikes me as slightly off, unless one defines justice as "rough justice."  I find it difficult to let myself think that justice is ever effected by killing anyone, and that the chain of violence can be effectively broken by doing violence to a violent man in the hope of ending violence.

I also find it difficult to imagine myself or anyone else having the right to make decisions that belong only to God: to make the decision that ultimate, divine justice is achieved by executing anyone.  I can certainly see and understand the passion of all those who lost loved ones, friends, family members on 9/11 to see bin Laden brought to justice.  And I can even see his execution as a form of rough justice.

But I'm not sure I'd be inclined to describe what was done to him as justice, purely and simply.  And for the reasons I've stated in the preceding paragraphs, I'm also inclined to shy away from the term "execution," since it seems to me some form of justice that exceeds rough justice would demand a formal hearing and public sentencing of some kind by duly recognized authorities, if we want to employ the term "execution" with any kind of justice.

And so in my own thinking about the bin Laden event, I landed on the word "assassination" as perhaps the most adequate way of describing his killing--never dreaming I was landing on a prototypically leftie term that . . . well, what?  As I say, I'm not sure I understand Michael Sean Winters' objection to this term.

I'm not sure, in fact, that I understand the thinking of many of my fellow Catholics in the U.S. about the bin Laden events, or about America and its place in the scheme of things.  As I read the various responses to the killing of bin Laden on Catholic blog sites, I'm struck by the too easy equation of killing with justice at which some of my fellow Catholics who profess to be pro-life liberals seem willing quickly to arrive.  I'm struck by the American jingoism of many other fellow Catholics, which seems to come perilously close to equating this nation with the embodiment of the reign of God in history.  God bless America! some of them crow, as they post their jubilant responses to the killing of bin Laden.

I'm struck by the chipper, celebratory tone that seems ill-suited to Christian rhetoric as we speak about anyone's death--and yes, admittedly, in this case, a tyrant's death, and one with bloody hands, whose death may well make the world safer now (and then again, it may well not do so).  Chipper, celebratory rhetoric coming from the lips of people who are also the loudest proponents of a "pro-life" ethic in our culture.  For my money, the best, the most thoughtful, the most religiously compelling reflection on bin Laden's death that I've read thus far on blog sites has come not from one of my fellow Catholics, but from Eric Reitan, who has Lutheran roots.

As Reitan thinks through the thorny question of how justice might be served by anyone's death, and by bin Laden's, in particular, he concludes that Osama bin Laden is, indeed, now in hell.  But here's what that conclusion means for Reitan:

God has all the time in the world, and the resources of the infinite.

So, is Osama bin Laden in hell? Yes, absolutely. But I will not be at peace, I will not believe that justice has been done, until he is redeemed.

And I can definitely live with that conclusion and the way it's framed--and the theologically creative way in which it reframes our punitive understanding of hell to make sense of the early Christian motif of the harrowing of hell by a Christ whose merciful determination to redeem all of creation extends to the depths of hell itself.

The graphic is a depiction of Christ's harrowing of hell from the Petites heures de Jean de Berry, 14th century.

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