The front page of the New York Times today bears a picture of Osama bin Laden with the headline: BIN LADEN KILLED BY US FORCES IN PAKISTAN, OBAMA SAYS, DECLARING JUSTICE HAS BEEN DONE.
The news touched off an extraordinary outpouring of emotion as crowds gathered outside the White House, in Times Square and at the Ground Zero site, waving American flags, cheering, shouting, laughing and chanting, “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” In New York City, crowds sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Throughout downtown Washington, drivers honked horns deep into the night.
I am always a little shocked by emotional displays of rejoicing at the demise or death of any human being, even an enemy. Leaving aside the question of whether or not bin Laden’s death was just, I want to briefly examine what reaction Christians ought to have to this news.
Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we ought to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). As a model of such agapic love, Christ prays for his persecutors on the cross “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). We see the emulation of this agapic love especially when Stephen is martyred, praying as he is stoned “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). I always like to think of the “Oh my Jesus” prayer, often said at the end of each decade of the rosary, as the Church’s attempt to habituate her members to follow in Stephen’s example:
Oh my Jesus,
forgive us our sins,
save us from the fires of Hell,
and lead all souls to heaven,
especially those most in need of thy mercy.
Aquinas, in his treatise on prayer, is clear in his position that we ought to pray for our enemies:
To pray for another is an act of charity, as stated above (Article 7). Wherefore we are bound to pray for our enemies in the same manner as we are bound to love them. Now it was explained above in the treatise on charity (25, 8,9), how we are bound to love our enemies, namely, that we must love in them their nature, not their sin. and that to love our enemies in general is a matter of precept, while to love them in the individual is not a matter of precept, except in the preparedness of the mind, so that a man must be prepared to love his enemy even in the individual and to help him in a case of necessity, or if his enemy should beg his forgiveness. But to love one’s enemies absolutely in the individual, and to assist them, is an act of perfection (II-II, Q. 83, art.8).
He concludes then that we ought to pray generally for enemies, that is, we ought to include them in our general intercessions, but to pray for them specifically is a matter of Christian perfection “except in certain cases.”
In which cases one ought to pray specifically for one’s enemy goes unmentioned by Aquinas. Thus, the question remains: Is this an instance in which Christians ought to offer up specific intentions for the happy repose of the soul of Osama bin Laden?
I suggest that is. First of all, in the above-cited article on prayer, Aquinas tells us that loving our enemy specifically is a matter of precept for the “preparedness of the mind.” In like manner, praying for Osama bin Laden this week is a practice which will help prepare Christians to grow in charity and docility to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, thus making them more amenable to act as Christ demands us to act in the Sermon on the Mount. Praying for Osama bin Laden is a means to becoming more habituated to God’s agapic love, and becoming in turn more loving.
Second, praying for Osama bin Laden publicly and specifically is a way of witnessing to the faith, of being a martyr in the same sense Stephen was. In light of the concerns about a possible backlash in Afghanistan and Pakistan to bin Laden’s death, it is important that the Church provide an alternative to the sort of public display of joy and jubilant dancing in the streets that we see below the fold in the Times this morning and all over the news. The message the Church needs to send now is that our enemies abroad are still our brothers and sisters in Christ, and while we rejoice in God’s justice, we still mourn their sin and our own which has led to the senseless death of so many since that fateful September morning.
Another front-page Times headline reads “An Emblem of Evil in the US, and Icon to the Cause of Terror.” Let us hope that the Church in these days may be an emblem to good and an icon to peace in these coming days. And let us pray that God may have mercy on us and lead all souls to heaven, especially Osama bin Laden, who is most in need of God’s mercy.