Can We Forgive Bin Laden? – Update


On September 11th, I had the day off. Ordinarily, I would have been in the city, but a doctor’s appointment kept me in Queens.

As the day wound on, I grew angry. I began to try to hunt down friends who I knew worked downtown. Noelle…check. Tina…check. Mike…check. Patrick….OK.

Then the first phone call arrived. “Mike, it’s Brett (my then priest-boss). We’re not sure but we think that Debbie Welsh was on one of those United flights that crashed.” Debbie was a parishioner who sang in our choir and had just conducted an evening for our young adult group on marriage with her husband, Patrick. They were wonderful and in love with each other after years of marriage. She had beaten skin cancer and had been a flight attendant for years, often bringing home extra airplane meals for the homeless in her Manhattan neighborhood. In short, Debbie was a great gal. Her smile beamed each week in the choir and her tall frame stood out and always made me smile right back at her.

But my smile turned to sadness that day. I hugged my then, fiancee when I saw her after school ended. Her classroom that overlooked downtown Manhattan from the edge of Queens had drawn their shades to block the fall of the towers from the eyes of little children.

We were all afraid and angry.

We went to support Patrick, Debbie’s husband, sometime in the next evening. It was hard to watch him mourn his young wife. They were a great couple and I enjoyed their company. They were hysterically funny and complimented each other well.

Then I got more news. My wife’s cousin Jeannine, a distant cousin, but nonetheless hers, was confirmed as one of those who died in the towers. Even later, I’d find that my Fordham classmate, a firefighter, Tom Cullen would meet the same fate, heroically dying while trying to save others. He always wanted to be a fireman. It was all I really knew about him, other than I thought he was a nice guy and had married my other classmate, Sue.

Three lives…now gone. Senseless. The wrath of a madman, or madmen, or an evil culture. Who knew just who they were?

The face of that madness, Osama bin Laden, went on the lam. And yesterday that ended. It ended in another senseless death, a death that did not have to happen. A death that results from the hatred that terrorists always breed. A death that was brought on by the nightmare of violence.

“Good riddance,” I thought at first. My second thought was an impression that President Obama had just captured not only America’s most hated enemy, but also re-election. I wondered how he was able to do this and was impressed that he was able to do this in his first administration when our last President could not accomplish this in his 8 years.

Being a pro-lifer, I’m ashamed to say that I was nearly, but not exactly, joyful at the sound of Bin Laden’s death. I looked to my wife and said, “I know it’s not right to celebrate this, to take pleasure in vengeance, but I have to say that I’m not going to lose too much sleep about this death tonight.” Perhaps it is the cost of war, innocents die and many others lose their innocence.

I guess I’m not exactly able to offer the forgiveness that I know God offers Bin Laden without reservation today, the same forgiveness that is offered to each one of us for our sins. I wonder if Bin Laden accepted that forgiveness? Part of me hopes that he once again, rejected God’s offer of peaceful reconciliation. Truly hell would gain a most welcome guest, a prince of darkness to rival the personification of evil itself.

For Millennials, September 11th was a seminal moment. Coupled with the madness of Columbine, the world suddenly became a very precarious place. Last night, many young people filled the streets and while all seems right with the world right now, we all fail to see that things are not any different. War still rages on many fronts and terrorists still plan attempts to bomb subways and buildings and not merely disturb our peace, but eradicate it.

This does not look one bit like the peaceful kingdom of God.

Americans, in general, like retribution. They often favor capital punishment and continue to welcome it in the joyful streets of our country this day.

But why would we not welcome peace and forgiveness? Wouldn’t that be a larger dagger thrust into the madness of terrorism? Ending the hate of sinful men can only begin when we kill hatred ourselves and not when hatred stops another human heartbeat, even in the name of justice.

Has terrorism won a further victory with our sure-to-be fleeting joy?

One person who lost their father in the 9-11 disaster summed it up pretty well. “It’s hard for me to rejoice when a human being is dead, I know it’s wrong to be excited and happy. But that’s how I feel.”

Indeed and who would blame him? Nobody will judge anyone for rejoicing over the next few days, but perhaps it’s time to judge ourselves?

Can we forgive Bin Laden? Can we pray for God to have mercy on his soul? Can we weep for the senseless death we find in any war? Include his name in the prayer of the faithful?

Answering no, only means that the enemy continues to win–even when it feels right to celebrate.

Perhaps God can forgive Bin Laden and in God’s perfect reconciliation we find our human imperfection reaching its limits? After all, we are not Jesus, who called from his cross for mercy, not for himself, but for those who nailed him to the wood.

But that merciful call goes out to us as well. It haunts us to pray for peace and not pain, reconciliation, but not revenge.

Can we forgive Osama Bin Laden?

I hope one day I can. And because I believe that Debbie, Tom and Jeannine are firmly united with God in eternal salvation, it helps me to also believe that their sainthood already gives them the perfection to do what I and probably many others find so difficult, nay, even repulsive or impossible.

Our resolve in defeating the enemy needs to grow much deeper and grow roots beyond retribution. Our final victory lies when the hatred of terrorism leads beyond the self-congratulations of patriotism. We will have defeated the spirit of terrorism when we begin to stop hating these enemies, even under the disguise of cheap justice.

We can rejoice only when peace reigns instead of vengeance.

So today let us pray for that peace. That God can turn the hearts of those who undoubtedly will seek retribution on the United States of America and their allies. Let us pray for non violent solutions to differences, to avoid war at all costs.

And may we forgive those who trespass against us, so that we may not be led into the temptation to celebrate vengeance.

And instead be delivered from all that is evil. Amen.

For more on the Catholic response to today’s news check out these links:

Deacon Greg has a great reflection on the troubling cheering in the streets.

But is the taking of another human life, no matter how despicable that life was, something to rejoice over? The vanquishing of Bin Laden calls for a more sober response. A quiet, grateful exhale, and two simple words: “Mission accomplished.” Then, shake the dust from our boots, and move on. The story isn’t over. There is still more work to do.

The reality remains that the death of Osama Bin Laden doesn’t end what he began. And displays like the one above only serve to make us seem as vengeful as the Afghans who giddily danced in the streets after the Twin Towers collapsed.

We’re better than that.

Br Dan Horan has much in the way of great material today:

A biblical view on Bin Laden’s death

And a reflection on celebrating over Bin Laden’s death.

A good money quote here:

“As a follower of Jesus Christ, I do not celebrate any human being’s violent death. My prayers go out to the entire world tonight. May the fear that has shaped our world in the last decade cease and may peace prevail. No more war. No more violence,” my Facebook status reads tonight.

And of course the Vatican has made a statement as well:

Osama Bin Laden – as everyone knows – has had the gravest responsibility for spreading hatred and division among people, causing the deaths of countless people, and exploiting religion for this purpose.

Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of everyone before God and man, and hopes and pledges that every event is not an opportunity for a further growth of hatred, but of peace.”

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  1. Remember that Bin Laden had the opportunity to surrender. He did not, instead he reportedly used a woman in his compound as a human sheild and both were shot to death. It appears that Bin Laden was not asking for forgiveness.
    I don’t think what Americans are feeling retribution but hopefully redemption and/or justice for all the people who died on September 11, 2001.
    I have prayed for members of Al Qaeda to turn away from the evil of their ways and to turn themselves in to responsible authorities, that is all. Never forget that cowardice in the face of evil is not peace.

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  3. Paul, that’s not the question. I’m not asking if Osama Bin Laden asked for forgiveness, but rather can we freely offer it despite his hatred. Matthew’s Gospel reminds us that Christ told us to pray for our enemies. Do we believe that? A good article on this is here by Br. Dan: http://datinggod.org/2011/05/01/what-does-the-bible-say-about-bin-ladens-death/

  4. Via Facebook

    From Anthony Cavaliere

    Do you think God forgave Him? Was he even asking for forgivness? If he had God would forgive and we would have to as well. But if not then we cannot. God commands that we forgive those who are truly repentant. His offer of forgivness and salvation is made to all people but many if not most wil refuse to admit to sin to their eternal peril.

  5. Via Facebook:

    From Kenneth Wright

    Easy to forgive the dead when the deeds end than the living who continue to act.

  6. ‎@Uncle Ant: I do think God forgives him but I’m not sure if that forgiveness is possible. A cursory reading of the article shows that as well.

  7. Via Facebook:

    from Anthony Cavaliere:

    The guy is in hell. I guess that is not a good thing but it is just. The Lord does not desire the death of the wicked but that all come to repentance. God cannot forgive those who do not wnat to be forgiven not because He does not offer it but because they do not want it or Him.

  8. We don’t know that. Stop pretending to know the mind of God. God alone judges. Not us.

  9. Via Facebook:

    From Connie Lane Neuman

    One of the things I appreciate about the Catholic Church is that it does not presume to say that anybody is in hell. Not Hitler, not Stalin. Not this one. God’s mercy is everlasting.

  10. Via Facebook

    From Anthony Cavaliere

    Mike, I misspoke. God’s justice is always a good thing because God is good and always does what is right. My sense of where Ben Laden is now comes not from my own ideas or what is popular or trendy but from God’s word. He has revealed Himself so we can know His will. Look at what Jesus says in Luke 13:3 and John 14:6. Ben Laden He did not know Jesus. He did not repent. He has perished. The question you should ask is Have I repented? Where do I stand with Christ?

  11. I ask that daily, thank you. We still don’t have definitive knowledge of how God mercy is finalized today for Bin Laden or us.

  12. Short answer – no.
    Forgiveness generally can only come after a person has healed and I think no matter how long we live, I don’t think we will ever be completely healed from that day

  13. Good answer, Dan. I think we can forgive but not forget. Scars may always remain from that day but I think healing can and has taken place. Admittedly, I’m sure that wounds get re-opened as well.

  14. Via Facebook from Marcos Zamora

    God does not Judge the way we humans judge Viva la difference

  15. Via Facebook from Bj Daly Horell

    My friend Tricia Leonard Pasley, a wise woman studying for the priesthood, tells me that a young Jewish friend believes that Hitler went to heaven. “How can we limit God’s love and mercy?” he said. But when Hitler saw what was going on in heaven, he wanted nothing to do with it, and so he left. I like this young Jew’s perspective.

  16. Via Facebook from Connie Lane Neuman

    Underscoring that a lot of the time…not all the time, but a lot of the time, we have a choice. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15

  17. BJ–I think I have that same opinion as your young jewish friend.

    Connie–that verse ended up being a huge part of our alternative break trip this year. We now have a cross with the verse printed on it in the Center.

  18. Via Facebook from Karen Carlson Hughes

    “You know I had the same thought. I told my son I had mixed emotions about this. On the one had I am glad he is gone on the other it is difficult to have the blood on your hands.”

  19. Via Facebook from: Laura Prisbylla who commented on Rich Andre’s status:

    Laura wrote: “The piece Mike Hayes posted is so very thoughtful and wonderfully expressed . . . I’m inclined not to rejoice, but to grieve that the hate and evil bin Laden preached is still very present in the world. Just as the terrorist act on 9/11 did not eradicate the spirit and resolve of free people, neither will this man’s death dissolve his hold over his followers. Our prayers must continue to be for peace, peace in human hearts and peace in the world.”

  20. Via Facebook from Becky Eldridge’s thread on this story

    From Amy Uffman Bunting

    Forgiveness can be a hard HARD thing, but when we think of our sin before a HOLY God and that he sacrificed his own son so that we sinners could be justified and declared righteous…how can we who have been forgiven not forgive?

  21. Via Facebook from Becky Uffman Eldredge

    ‎@Amy, I totally agree with you that forgiveness can be very challenging, especially when we have experienced deep woundedness. I am thankful for both your reminder and Mike Hayes reminder that forgiveness comes ultimately from God!

  22. Via Facebook: FromTracy Garrison Feinberg:

    “Mike: beautiful post, and it is making me think. But is forgiveness up to me? Right now I”m feeling that forgiveness in this case is up to God, not me, and I do realize it is because my anger at OBL and especially those who murdered Debbie directly isn’t allowing me to open my heart to forgiveness, even ten years later. I struggle with this constantly.”

  23. “senseless?” quite the contrary!
    OBL was planning more death and destruction, possibly acquiring Nuclear weapons. Dispatching him prevented more people dying. he was unrepentant follower of a faith that promoted Jihad in the name of a vengeful god, this is the ultimate blasphemy!

    Tom Cullen lived next door to me in Walsh, nice guy and very friendly. So sad.

    Both my Brother and Myself were supposed to be at a conference at Windows on the World that day. I still wonder who would take care of my Parents if something awful happened!

  24. I’d add another nuance: we are called to forgive. Forgiveness is hard work, and if it were easy, it would be a cheap grace.

    For anyone who feels unable to forgive bin Laden, can that person at least pray for the grace to better comprehend God’s mercy? Jesus preached that God loves each of us more than we could ever possibly merit, and he commanded us to love one another in that same unconditional way.

  25. I’m not in New York or DC these days, and I suspect if I were I’d have a clear sense of where all the football-game-like USA! cheering is coming from, for better or worse. But not being there, I’m not so sure.

    I take no joy in the murder of anyone. But I theorize that that’s only part of what the cheering is all about. I imagine it’s also a sort of response to all the bad things that have gone on in our country and world these last ten years. And some of the response is giddy, naive, foolish — but some of it I think bespeaks a sense of hope that our sorrow might be over. That we can let go a little bit.

    Today I flew to Chicago from Los Angeles. Every airport has those announced TSA warnings about the threat level, but at O’Hare (and Rapid City, of all places) they’re particular bad, repeated over and over with little pause. They drive me nuts – it’s orange, already, let it go.

    But today I was in the report 20 minutes and the announcement was never made. Was it a weird coincidence or an actual change? I don’t know. But I must say I did feel some relief.

  26. The lord tells us we will know that we are his by our fruits.. so if we do not show kindness and grace we are not of him. I am happy I am not God i dont have to decide where people go when they are dead.But to say everyone goes to be with the lord is against the teachings of the bible , read it to know .. there is a real hell and heaven.. I also know he is not will that any should perish, we make choices !

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  28. Mary,

    Nobody said there wasn’t a real hell. However, God offers unlimited forgiveness to all. Which is clearly the teaching of the church. Whether Bin Laden or anyone else (including myself) chooses to accept that a reform their lives (even after death, again the teaching of the church) is another matter entirely.

  29. I still question my “right to life” views. As a Catholic Christian, I believe that all have a right to life it is not our decision but the Lord’s who goes and where and who stays. I pray for all those that celebrated because it is in poor taste if nothing else. His death should have us praying the rosary for peace everyday and asking Mother Mary for guidance on how we can be an instrument of peace and not further our own hatred or other’s. May God be merciful to OBL and myself for the times I have left the road Jesus asked me to follow. We must realize that we are all loved children of God and that he choose us and he son showed us the way. Thank you God!

  30. We got move on got to let go the past. I forgave longtime ago I didn’t have a choice but to let go, I don’t want to hold on to the past I want to look forward to the future. Theres no future in your past.

  31. And it says in the bible if we don’t forgive god isn’t gonna forgive us he will love us but won’t forgive us.

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