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The False Atonement of Osama Bin Laden

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28

[In Bin Laden’s death there are] …no red states or blue states, just United States; no MoveOn progressives or Tea Party conservatives, just Americans. – Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post

After months of preparations, a small detachment of US commandos entered Osama Bin Laden’s high-security compound in Pakistan and put a bullet in his head. Bin Laden’s body was quickly evacuated from the scene, to be buried at sea. President Barak Obama soon appeared on television to announce to the nation and the world that the mastermind of the September 11thYouth Celebrate Bin Laden's Death attacks and spiritual leader of Al Qaeda had been killed. “Justice has been done.”

I first got word of Bin Laden’s assassination just before going to sleep on Sunday evening. I also learned that crowds had gathered in front of the White House (and, I would later learn, in New York City). Hundreds of people – mostly the very young – took to the streets to celebrate the death of the perpetrator of the most devastating foreign attack on the United States in living memory. For many of those celebrating Bin Laden’s death on Sunday night, the 9/11 terror attacks took place before they were in high school.

While the youngest generations were the most visible celebrants late Sunday evening, jubilation seems to have swept through all generations. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post crowed the following morning, “Triumphalism and unapologetic patriotism are in order. We got him.”(1) In perhaps the most extreme example of said triumphalism, the New York Daily News trumpetedCelebration Outside the White House the news, saying, “the message of the Bin Laden killing is this: We are still here. And he rots in hell.”

It is clear that the youth gathered outside the White House and on the streets of New York on the evening of Bin Laden’s death were not merely isolated demonstrations of adolescent bluster. Much of the nation, led by our news media, has found a delirious national unity in the death of our chief enemy.

From everything I understand about the man, Osama Bin Laden was devoted to murder and fomented hatred and death throughout the world. He worshipped a false God of violence and coercion, taking pleasure in the deaths of his enemies. And for almost a decade he served as the arch-enemy of the United States and the Western world in general. Now, through his assassination by the United States government, the process of scapegoating is Rot in Hellcomplete. The United States has spent ten years piling the sins of the nation on top of this man, and his death promises an opportunity for redemption. A ragged, divided nation looks to Osama Bin Laden for atonement.

Thanks to the death of Bin Laden explains Robinson, there are now, “…no red states or blue states, just United States; no MoveOn progressives or Tea Party conservatives, just Americans.”(1) A new national myth is being forged: Through his death, Bin Laden has united us. We are all one in his death. This is the blood atonement of Osama Bin Laden.

Clearly, this is a monstrous falsehood.

Where is the Church of Jesus Christ in all of this? Where is the Body of Christ in the United States? How did Osama Bin Laden become our savior, cleansing us with his blood? How did we come to substitute our own violence for the saving power of God? How is it that we now find ourselves standing in the place of Pilate, nailing Bin Laden to a cross of our own devising and engineering a manmade atonement?

Bin Laden was no Jesus, but we are acting like Romans.

Far from being a day of national celebration, this should be day for repentance. Like the people of Nineveh long ago(2), far from gloating and cheering the death of our enemy, we should put on sackcloth and ashes. We should mourn the horror and destruction that comes from human greed, fear and lust for domination. This is a time for us, the Church, to repent of our involvement in Empire and to call our fellow citizens out of it as well. We must not swallow the lies of nationalism and militarism that have replaced the cross with an American flag. Lord Jesus, have mercy on us – we know not what we do.

  • I’m not American but I was apalled by scenes of the West celebrating Bin Laden’s death. When they did it to us we were apalled, horrified, sickened but when we do it…? There is nothing to gloat about a man who may indeed be literally rotting in Hell. I understand *Christians* less & less & Ghandi more: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians”. How Christ must weep at the hardness of our hearts.

  • I literally had my breath catch in my throat when I read the words “blood atonement.” What cruel god demanded this sacrifice? Yes, acting like Romans, not like Christians. “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.” (N.T. Wright)

  • so totally agree with you. instead of celebrating we should be weeping at the thought that another soul will spend eternity without God.

  • Micah, from the standpoint of a non american like me and living in Europe, I do not understand quite well what you say. Ben Laden murdered near 3000 people only in the USA and many others in different parts of the world (in my own Country is not clear so far if he had something to do with March, 11 attacks in Madrid). I have to honestly say that I am not sad neither for his passing away nor for the american people’s joy. This celebration of joy is comprensible if one thinks of the victims. That said, I realize that you can tell me how is it possible a Quaker can think in such a way? If I told you I think otherwise, I would be lying.

    On the other hand, I read with a huge dose of envy the words by Eugene Robinson, from The Washington Post, that you quote: “[In Bin Laden’s death there are] …no red states or blue states, just United States; no MoveOn progressives or Tea Party conservatives, JUST AMERICANS”. (Capital letters mine) . Few people here in Europe have questioned or criticized Obama’s operation to kill Ben Laden. I do not dare to imagine what would have happened in many European countries if George Bush would have been who gave the order. I guess people would be burning USA embassies in the main european cities.

    Maybe we should not celebrate anybody’s death, but in this case a genocidal monster has been killed, and all the people in the world are now safer. I guess you do not agree with me, but please, tell me what you think of my words, that I tell you in a very heartfelt way.

  • Anonymous


    I think we all probably feel a little safer now that we know Bin Laden is dead. I think that comes from our human nature – to celebrate a victory for our country (as I am from the USA) and for the world. We rejoice that evil is over taken. However, I think we have to look at such things as war and national and personal securtity from the standpoint of our relationship with Jesus Christ. We are to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, etc. This is not easy and I do not presume to practice this very well. From a traditional Quaker viewpoint, nationalism is not celebrated or encouraged neither is killing of others no matter what. Having grown up with this viewpoint taught to me, my celebration is held strongly in check. Personally, my thoughts turn to Bin Laden’s followers and all of those who are not following Jesus Christ in the Middle East and I long for the saving and redeeming power of Jesus Christ to transform their lives. I remember that with man things are impossible but with God all things are possible – even that of changing a genocidal monster. Finally, I believe that Bin Laden suffered the consequences of his earthly actions and I am not sure I am sorry for his death.

    I don’t know if this has made any sense to you or anyone else nor am I sure it has helped answer any of your questions regarding what Micah has written, but I hope so.

  • Luis, Here in England I don’t recognise your perception that few people in Europe have questioned the operation to kill Bin Laden. It has been much debated in the media with many people expressing unease about his asassination and the celebrations over his death. As Quakers I hope we are able to stand against any celebration of killing and (along with the victims of Al Quaida attacks) to remember the many hundreds of thousands that have been killed by our nations armed forces in the ten year “war on terror”. They are mostly not American or European and hardly any of their names are known to us but their lives are as precious to their friends and families and to God as those of the victims of 9/11. At a political level I think we also need to look beyond the way the demonisation of particular individuals is used to mobilise our capacity for fear and hatred and hence our willingness to kill and/or celebrate killing. This is happening on both sides and cannot possibly make the world safer..

    Unlike “Anonymous” who also replied to you, I feel unable to “rejoice that evil is over taken” by the killing of Bin Laden or to accept this as “human nature” because my understanding is that the capacity for evil is in all of us but can be over taken by that of God if we are willing to seek it in ourselves and each other, even (and most important here) in our ‘enemies’. This I take to be the teaching of Jesus and the meaning of his life for us however radical or impossible it may seem to follow…

  • As an USAmerican Quaker, I felt conflicting emotions. Can we feel relief and grief at the same time?

    I feel relief that one who encouraged death to Americans, Europeans and Muslims has been silenced.

    I feel grief that we saw no other way to combat violence except by using violence ourselves.

  • At Anonymous and Simon:

    Thank you very much for your insightful comments, both made with kindness. I deeply appreciate that. I recognize that regarding terrorism and terrorists I have a very radical standview. That is because my own Country suffers since lots of years a form of cruel terrorism that have murdered lots of children, women, men, old and young people. What is beyond my understanding is that the Government of my Country gives money to terrorists of ETA and those who support them. Alongside, the Spanish Government has allowed terrorist of ETA to be present at next May, 22 Elections.

    When I think all of these facts, how can you be surprised I deeply envy the United States? Can you imagine the Government of the United States allowing Al Quaeda to be present at Elections and giving them money to support them?

    I renounce my nationality and ask for political asylum in the United States!

    What I am about to say can produce my disown as a Quaker, but honestly I tell you that I wish a SEAL command vanishes ETA terrorist from my Country!

  • Ganeida, I tell you with love that exactly the same thing could be said to Gandhi: “I like your Krishna; I do not like your your Hindus”.

  • Micah, please, could you delete all my comments to this entry? I have been very unfortunate. Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    Dear Micah,

    I was born and raised quaker and was an active member in both my meeting as well as FGC.

    While I can empathize with you for not wanting to celebrate a violent act, somehow, as both an American and a Quaker, your last comments made me extremely uncomfortable.

    “We must not swallow the lies of nationalism and militarism that have replaced the cross with an American flag.”

    I understand the parallel that you are making between Jesus and Osama bin Laden, however, you make it to seem like everyone in the United States prays to your God, and to your Jesus Christ. I have many friends of other faiths, and they were just as celebratory as I am. They do not see this as a ‘Jesus-like’ moment in the least.

    I also think that comparing the effects of Bin Laden’s death to that of Jesus puts a very negative taint on what happened. Jesus was a good man. He did good in the world, and was killed because of those good things. Bin Laden was the opposite. He was an evil man. Ask anyone, and I think that they will agree. Bin Laden was killed because of the evil things that he did, not because of the good in the world.

    Also, it seems that this complaint could be made with the death of any tyrant…the death of Hitler…of Pol Pot…of Stalin…of Saddam Hussein…Each time, we have seen the absolution of many evils with the death of one person.

    I dunno…maybe putting the cross and the flag in the same sentence just makes me uncomfortable because they are incomparable. The American Flag brings people of ALL faiths together…and while the cross purports to bring people together…it does not allow for other people’s faiths.