Should We Forgive Osama bin Laden?
Dr. Jim Denison
Will you ever forget where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001?
Some three thousand were murdered that day. By some estimates, as many as 10,000 children are left without one or both parents. We have been at war with terrorism ever since.
To prepare for this message, I read over the list of the victims of 9-11. The number shocked me. Each name grieved me. They range from Gordon Aamoth, age 32, to Igor Zukelman, age 29. I looked at some of their pictures, and was grieved even more.
Then I thought about Osama bin Laden. When you see his picture, how do you feel? How should we feel? Should we forgive him? What does Jesus say?
Is there an Osama bin Laden closer to your life today? Who has hurt you most recently or most deeply? Where is there bitterness in your soul toward another human being this morning? Let’s ask Jesus for help and healing together.
Love on purpose
Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy'” (v. 43).
“Love your neighbor” is a familiar biblical injunction. We find it as early as Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” “Neighbor” comes from “nigh-bor,” one who is “nigh” or near. Loving our neighbor is a basic and familiar Christian ethic.
But were Jesus’ hearers really taught, “hate your enemy?” In fact, they were. The Jewish rabbis considered fellow Jews their neighbor. Everyone else, the Gentile world, was not, and was in fact their spiritual enemy. The Gentile world would corrupt them with its defiled food, customs, and paganism.
Here we find basic humanity exposed. It’s easy to love those who like us and are like us. It’s hard to like those who are not like us and do not like us. It’s human nature to love our neighbor and hate our enemy.
Now Jesus takes his stand: “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44).This statement has no parallel in the Jewish tradition or literature. No religious teacher in world history ever defended such an ethic.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred while practicing these very words, said about them, “The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus; it has only one source, and that is the will of Jesus” (The Cost of Discipleship, 164).
This is the action which makes our love both real and possible.
Jesus expanded these words by saying, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).
When we pray for our enemies, our love becomes real. It moves from sentiment to substance, from feeling to action. It takes wings and grows feet. It becomes practical and tangible. And when we pray for those who persecute us, our actions produce feelings. We act out love, and eventually feel love. It’s a process which takes time, but it works.
Such forgiving love in action reveals our spiritual genetics: “…that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (v. 45). God blesses both the evil and the good. Sun shines and rain falls on the unrighteous and the righteous. And we’re glad, for we’ve all been evil and unrighteous.
A father should love his children, whether or not they love him; and so God loves us. A sibling should love his sister or brother, whether or not they love him; and so should we. Such love shows us to be our Father’s children.
Otherwise we are no different from the children of the world. The tax-collectors, the most despised people in Israel, love those who love them. The pagans destined for hell greet those who greet them. It is human nature to love those who love us. It is divine nature to love those who do not.
Such selfless, forgiving love fulfills the purpose for which we were created: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).
“Perfect” is the word teleios. In this context it means to achieve the purpose for which we were intended. In this sense a screwdriver is “perfect” if it does its job. It is not “sinless”—it may have nicks on the handle and paint on the blade. But if it turns the screw it was meant to turn, it is teleios.
What is our intended purpose? Jesus made it clear: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. God is love (1 John 4.8), and he has created us to love as he does, to forgive as he does, to love our neighbor because we love our Father and to prove we love our Father by loving our neighbor.
And so selfless, forgiving love is the purpose for which we exist. Now, how do we learn to give it?
Love in practice
Dr. Everett Worthington has written the defining book on forgiveness, titled Dimensions of Forgiveness: Psychological research and theological perspectives. When he began his research, he had no idea how much he would need its results personally. On New Year’s morning of 1996, his elderly mother was found beaten to death with a crowbar and a baseball bat. His advice is both professionally informed and personally compelling.
Dr. Worthington suggests five steps towards forgiveness. In examining them while preparing this message, I was amazed by their parallel to Jesus’ words in our text. They form the acronym REACH.
“R” stands for recall. Recall the hurt, as objectively as you can. Admit the reality of the pain you have experienced. Do not deny it, pretend it doesn’t exist, or excuse the person who caused it. Think about your Osama bin Laden, the person who hurt you most, as realistically as possible.