Bin Laden's Death Challenges Pastors


7:00 A.M. EST May 6, 2011

Following Jesus’ admonition to pray for your enemies and those who persecute you is one way United Methodist pastors are dealing with a range of emotions following the killing of Osama bin Laden. UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
Following Jesus’ admonition to “pray for your enemies and those who persecute you” is one way United Methodist pastors are dealing with a range of emotions following the killing of Osama bin Laden. UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
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Within minutes of learning that Osama Bin Laden was dead, the Rev. Andy James knew he would address the killing in worship this Sunday.

Late on May 1, his Facebook post said, “President announces that OBL is killed one week before I start a sermon series on forgiveness. A poignant, unexpected turn.”

In the days since, James, pastor of Tuttle United Methodist Church in Oklahoma, has struggled with what he will say. He may simply acknowledge the tension between being “an American citizen who, as the news unfolded Sunday night, just exhaled … (and) being a citizen in the Kingdom and having a sense that this was not an occasion that God was rejoicing.“

“I can’t address fully the topic to the degree that I intend without going there somehow,” he says. “I start and keep coming back (to that idea) that I’m in need of forgiveness, and that’s what I’ve got to work out before I start making statements about Osama Bin Laden or anyone else for that matter.”

Prayer for Bin Laden’s family

The Rev. Marjorie Nunes serves Summerfield United Methodist Church in Bridgeport, Conn. “Most of my congregation is happy that he is dead,” she says. “There are a lot of folks from Connecticut that died in 9/11, so the sentiment is that he was an evil man and, as one person said to me, ‘You live by the sword, and you die by the sword.’”

She will discuss the killing with a Bible study group and use a prayer or litany printed on a worship bulletin insert, asking for God’s grace to surround survivors who lost loved ones in 9/11. It will also lift up “the family left behind of the man who has been executed,” she says. “He has done terrible things in the world, but he has wives and children.” Lifting Bin Laden’s family in prayer is “tricky, but as Christians we are to be bold when talking about love.”

At Minnetonka (Minn.) United Methodist Church, the Rev. Ken Ehrman is considering how to follow up a May 2 gathering of 21 people who met to talk about the killing.

The group used the circle process in which only the person holding the “talking object” speaks. Ehrman selected a small world globe “so we would be mindful that what we are talking about has implications far beyond ourselves.”

“A common theme was relief, but also concern, a lot of dualism,” he said. “I don’t think anybody suggested there should be this celebration. People were struggling a lot with what does mean to take a human life balanced against what they do, what Osama Bin Laden had been involved in and the lives lost, especially in 9/11 and other instances.”

The closing prayer asked “for a sense of God’s presence in the midst of a confusing situation, that we could find a sense of what it means to be people of reconciliation, justice and forgiveness as opposed to people of hatred or vindictiveness.”

Reactions illustrate tension

Midweek, other United Methodist clergy across the United States were still considering whether to mention the killing.

Some have special Mother’s Day services planned. Some have been reading about just war. They see and hear parishioners struggle with the tension between relief, even joy,  that the leader of al-Qaida is dead and what it means to be Christians who are to love their enemies and “not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.” (Proverbs 24:17)

Some may use hymns, prayers and other worship resources produced this week by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

“I’ve talked with people who say ‘I’m happy about this, but I’m distressed in myself that I’m so happy.’ It’s not knowing what to do with the emotions they are feeling,” said the Rev. Jason Radmacher, senior pastor at John Street United Methodist Church, which sits next to Ground Zero in New York City.

In coming weeks, he says, “My response as a pastor will be to name that tension we feel and then continue with our worship life, our liturgy, continue to pray for our enemies, continue to pray for those in harm’s way and let God through the Holy Spirit continue to work with us and shape us.” 

At Galt United Methodist Church in California, the Rev. Helen Mansfield says, “I deal with it almost every Sunday in the sense of being a disciple of Christ is not an easy path to walk in this culture that is focused on revenge. I know that people will think I’m not remembering the folks that lost their lives on 9/11. That’s the last thing I’d do, I would not want to add hurt. Still the death of any human being is nothing to celebrate. Scripture is clear on that.”

No time for celebration

As they talked and counseled, several of the pastors experienced the mixed emotions they saw in their parishioners. Distressing to all were scenes of celebration.

In Denver, the Rev. Kerry Greenhill, associate pastor at Highlands United Methodist Church, says, “I certainly understand the value from a political perspective of finding and killing him. My heart was greatly saddened by images of people celebrating, that people would respond that way.”

“I have to think that God was grieved that God’s children were rejoicing over the death of someone,” says James. “I’ve been stuck in that tension all week, the ironies, the timing of one week.

“A week before we were celebrating the Resurrection of one who was dead, and a week later, the rejoicing over the killing of one who was alive.”

*Noble is editor of Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine.

News media contact: Kathy Noble, (615) 742-5470 or