By Ágúst Symeon Magnússon
At the time of this writing most of the world’s newspapers and television channels are reporting on the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden at the hands of a special-operations Navy Seal Team. After ten years on the run following his involvement in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Bin Laden was finally found in a high-security compound in Pakistan. Bin Laden had become a potent symbol for militant Islamic extremism and countless terrorist groups throughout the world. The news of his death met with mixed reaction in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda operatives threatened retaliation and vengeance, Hamas condemned the killing, calling it a “continuation of the United States policy of destruction,” while the reaction of other governments in the area ranged from hesitant to jubilant.
In the West, especially in the United States, the news was met with nothing less than festal enthusiasm. Great crowds took to the streets of many cities, especially Washington D.C. and New York – both targets of the horrors of September 11 – cheering and waving flags, chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as if at a sports event. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that “Justice has been done,” and newspapers reported on Bin Laden’s death with a range of journalistic flair, from the relatively understated “U.S. Forces Kill Osama Bin Laden” of The Wall Street Journal to the more robust “GOT HIM! Vengeance at last! U.S. nails the bastard!” in The New York Post and the words “ROT IN HELL!” superimposed over a picture of Bin Laden in The Daily News.
All of these reactions are perfectly understandable. Bin Laden was generally seen as leader of an organization whose terrorist activities have cost the lives of thousands of men, women and children in the past decade. The bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 killed almost three thousand. The bombings on the public transit systems of London and Madrid, in 2005 and 2004 respectively, resulted in 247 deaths. Aside from these attacks on European and American soil, al-Qaeda has terrorized and murdered countless Muslim men, women and children in the past decade all throughout the Middle East, denying people their basic human rights and dignity in order to promulgate a philosophy of hatred, religious fundamentalism and death.
Understandable as the jubilant reaction to Bin Laden’s death may be, it is nonetheless not a Christian one. Christianity demands of us an orientation towards a reality that is both supremely difficult and strange, a reality of mercy and love. This reality is the Life of God, the shared love of the Holy Trinity, and it stands in direct opposition to any worldly ideas we may have about justice, vengeance or retribution. We are told by the great seventh-century poet St. Isaac the Syrian that all the sins of the world are like a few grains of sand cast into the ocean of God’s infinite mercy. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we may be assimilated to this mystical reality, entering into it by forgiving each other our sins so that we may fully be able to experience the mystery of God’s forgiveness. And in the sixth chapter of the gospel of Luke, Christ tells us to love our enemies and to neither judge nor condemn but rather to forgive absolutely and unconditionally.
What then would a proper Christian response to Bin Laden’s death be? Do we forget the horrors he inspired? Is our God not a God of justice as well as mercy? In thinking about such questions and exploring the mystery that lies behind them, perhaps we will come to better understand the mystical reality of God’s mercy. If nothing else, this event may be a catalyst for examining what lies at the center of these mysteries of forgiveness, repentance and communion. To enter into such a questioning is to take up the challenge given to us by Christ in the gospels to reconsider our relationship to one another and our understanding of good and evil.
To begin with we must be absolutely clear on the fact that the teachings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church unequivocally state that evil is very real and that it permeates the very fabric of our existence due to the consequences of the Fall. The only way to reorient our lives towards God and to accept the salvation that He so freely offers us in and through his Son, the divine Logos who became incarnate as Jesus Christ. God does not force his mercy upon anyone. If he did, his mercy would no longer be love. This means that the salvation of our souls is in fact dependent upon our own free will and to what extent we choose to orient our lives towards the Good. And this is exactly why it is more 1 than likely that someone like Osama Bin Laden would find himself in a place that is the metaphysical realization of the life he lived on this earth, a life that was defined by suffering and pain and the inability to love one’s fellow human beings, irrespective of their religion, nationality or past sins. Yet in accepting the reality of evil, we, as Christians, also believe in its ultimate defeat. Christ frees us from violence, hatred and death, opening a door towards a way of life (a Tao/Logos) that we can appropriate and assimilate ourselves to through the grace of God that He so mercifully grants to us. The question then becomes how we enter upon this path and become conduits for God’s love and mercy instead of proliferating yet more suffering for both ourselves and our brothers and sisters. The answer, mysterious and indefinable as it must be, seems to always center on the mystery of repentance. Repentance is among the most difficult and complex spiritual and philosophical realities in the entire Christian tradition. It is the beginning of the spiritual life, the first commandment of both John the Baptist and Christ in the gospels, our entrance into the Kingdom that is “at hand” (i.e. among us – present in the here and now). To begin our treatment of this difficult subject we might examine a prayer that is both beautiful and bizarre in its implications. It is a prayer said by Eastern Orthodox Christians moments before they receive the body and blood of Christ in the mystery of Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy:
I believe O Lord and I confess, that you are truly the Christ, the living God who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am first. Moreover I believe that this is truly your most pure body and that this is truly your own precious blood.
“To save sinners of whom I am first.” What astoundingly strange words. Surely there have been worse people than I – murderers, rapists, dictators and despots. People like Osama Bin Laden. Even though I fully acknowledge that I am sinful and that I struggle with a great many passions in deed, word and thought, I nonetheless have a hard time thinking of myself as the chief of sinners, as the worst of the worst. Is this perhaps a kind of psychological flagellation, a “woe is me a sinner” attitude so that we may feel our unworthiness in the face of the holy sacraments?
Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to begin to understand these strange words, we need to break down our preconceived notions regarding repentance and communion. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, repentance, confession and sin were never thought of in legalistic terms, nor was juridical language ever applied to these realities, which was a tendency that sometimes tended to dominate Latin thinking on these matters. Rather, these spiritual realities were – and still are – understood in terms of a kind of spiritual anthropology, a language grounded in the language of medicine and healing as opposed to rules and regulations. Sin is understood as a spiritual sickness from which all of us suffer, a metaphysical condition that permeates the entire cosmos and from which God in his infinite mercy has freed us through the loving grace of his only begotten Son and his Holy Spirit. Repentance, in turn, becomes not a matter of psychological guilt, nor of feeling as if one is unworthy or tainted. Rather, it is a matter of a spiritual reorientation. The Greek word is metanoia, literally a “change of mind” or a “turning around” of the soul. As Metropolitan Kallistos writes in The Orthodox Way:
Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is to open our eyes to the light.
When Plato in the Cave Allegory in the Republic describes the freeing of the prisoner in the cave who then turns away from illusion and suffering towards the light of truth and beauty he uses this very word metanoia. There is a turning around of the soul from the realm of shadows towards the divine. Such is repentance of the Christian who now sees him or herself in the light of the Resurrection and the mercy of God. This opening of the spiritual eyes, the cleansing of the nous – as it was known to both the Greek philosophers and Church Fathers – lies at the center of the mystery of repentance. It not only changes our perception of ourselves but of every living thing, the entire cosmos, but primarily it affects how we view our brothers and sisters. No longer are we subject to the individualism and egotism that ensconce us ever deeper in the mires of sin where we constantly measure ourselves against each other, whether materially or spiritually. Instead, our eyes are opened to the love that is the very being of God, a reality where humility, sacrifice and compassion direct the course of our lives rather than our desires and passions.
What is paradoxical about this reorientation is that in opening our eyes to the beauty and goodness of God that permeate this world we also become ever more aware of the reality of suffering and pain and all the repercussions of the Fall. In repenting of our own sins, especially through the sacrament of confession, we become ever more cognizant of the spiritual sickness that permeates the very fabric of our world, the alienation, separation, violence, disease, hunger and pain.
Repentance is a softening of the heart and an opening up of the human being, a path that makes us more sensitive and humane, more aware of the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Through this mystery we break down the illusion of individualism where we view ourselves as separate atoms, each pursuing our individual gain apart from one another. Instead we enter into the life of God where love and communion become the very essence of our life, just as they do for the persons of the Trinity. To repent is to begin to understand our very being as communion, to borrow a phrase from the Orthodox philosopher and theologian John Zizioulas.
Through repentance we begin to experience God’s mercy, the healing salve that cures the world of violence and hate. (The Greek word eleos, usually translated in English as “mercy,” has the same root as the word for olive oil, one of the most common medicinal balms of the ancient Greek world.) Hatred, in fact, makes true repentance impossible. It turns us away from the reality of God’s love towards a reality that is entirely our own construct, a reality characterized by discord and separation. This is why we are told not to approach the Holy Eucharist unless we have purged our hearts of hate. The reality made manifest in the Gifts is entirely antithetical to hatred and to being controlled by fear, for it is primarily through fear that we begin to hate.
The response to Bin Laden’s death is one that is primarily characterized by fear. In many ways it is a justifiable fear, one based on the immense pain and suffering that this man had wrought upon the world. Yet fear, in all its forms, is a passion, something that separates us from God. If left unchecked, like all passions, it can lead towards an ever-deepening cycle of suffering, both for ourselves and those around us. Hatred begets only hate. Violence begets more violence. It is a cycle as old as humanity itself. Al-Qaeda has already promised revenge for the slaying of Bin Laden. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on. The jubilant response to Bin Laden’s death, even though it is understandable to an extent, is nonetheless primarily symbolic of the anger and hatred that feeds this cycle of violence and despair.
Repentance is the way out of this cycle. Repentance is to not only look at our individual sins and shortcomings, but to open ourselves up to the mercy of God. It is then up to us to extend that mercy to others. By telling us to love our enemies, Christ obviously did not mean for us to “like” them nor did He mean we should overlook the evil they have done. Rather, in loving them we are to manifest the Kingdom of God where our primary concern is not retribution or “justice,” but rather mercy as healing.
In realizing our own sins, our own entanglement in the web of suffering and pain, we free ourselves of the bonds of our sins through God’s mercy and in turn become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us. It is only at that point that we can begin to extend the healing of God to others, first and last through prayer but also through direct involvement and actions.
It is then that we can begin to address the injustice of this world, the innocent victims of terrorists such as Bin Laden as well as those who suffer because of the political machinations of foreign powers. Bin Laden’s death, instead of being an opportunity for revelry and glee, could have been one of quiet contemplation and prayer and a call to action for Christians that we do everything in our power to help those who suffer and to put an end to war, violence and economic oppression.
Among the revelry following news of Bin Laden’s death, there were also images of a very different kind – photos of people who came together to pray for the victims of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Perhaps some were also praying for Bin Laden himself. Images of people at peace, of candles being lit, heads bowed, orienting their minds towards God and their brothers and sisters, mindful of their suffering and the healing that is so desperately needed in this world. In the faces of people at prayer and in the silence that surrounded them one could see an alternative path to that of fear and hate– a Way given to us by the God of mercy and love.
Ágúst Symeon Magnússon is a philosopher, teacher, writer, husband and father who currently resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he works and studies at Marquette University. A native of Reykjavik, Iceland, he joined the Orthodox Church in 2005. His favorite pastimes are reading, drinking coffee and playing on the floor with his son Jóakim.
1. The details surrounding the theological debate on universal salvation and to what extent the Orthodox Church has advocated such a position (at least as favoring a certain kind of theologoumenon) falls outside the boundaries of this text. There are various scholarly expositions on the matter, but Orthodox works of the catechetical sort usually address the issue in a succinct and intelligent manner. In The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes: “Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have nonetheless believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God.... We must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for humans, for birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures.’ Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the devil.” (The Orthodox Church, new edition., p. 262).❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011