No. 47, 7 February 2007
by Kristine Morrison
As signs proclaiming that Jesus loves Osama adorned mainstream protestant churches this week, the deluge of media interest appeared to require some explanation. Baptist spokesperson and Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Rod Benson, fleshed out some or the detail in Soundings no. 45 (1 February), assuring enquirers that Jesus did in fact love Osama bin Laden and many other evildoers of our planet and our time.
It appears that it wasn’t such a serious question after all. The answer was so simple. There is a seamless and uncontroversial Christian approach that claims that any human being, no matter how reprobate, has claims upon the love of God.
What then was the point of the question? I’m a sufficiently conversant participant in evangelical culture to be very clear on the point of the question. The point was to assure non-believers – the unchurched, those who are “not-yet-Christian” – that in their reflective moments they ought to banish any thoughts that they are beyond the reach of God’s love because, if God can love Osama, then God can love them.
Did the poster succeed in conveying that message of unconditional love? Well, yes, the poster was technically correct but it fell well short of answering some important human questions.
I’m glad for several reasons that the infamous poster was not displayed on the front wall of the local church I attend. First, because the question betrays an ignorance of the kinds of questions that non-believers ask themselves. Current evangelical practice relies on persuading people that they are sinners.
It is true that many modern people possess an inner anxiety. The anxiety, however, is not so much about the magnitude of evil they have committed. Society could not function if it were populated with multiple Osamas. People’s consciences are much more likely to be troubled by the way they do things rather than what they do. They wake in the night not because they didn’t pay their bus fare but because they were impatient or dismissive of the bus driver. They didn’t necessarily do anything bad; rather, they could have done better.
Most people do not consider themselves anywhere near as bad as Osama bin Laden. This is not to say that they cannot appreciate the fact that they fall short of ideal human behaviour. The common everyday experience of human failure lies more in the realm of character than actions. The Osama question does not arise for most people, and it is therefore not an effective evangelistic approach.
The second reason I am glad this poster did not appear on our church wall is that it pays far too much attention to the perpetrator of evil and fails to appreciate the hurt of the victim. It is a pastoral faux pas on an all too public scale. When people who have been victims of abuse witness the church proclaiming happy days for the perpetrators of evil it is as though they are wounded again.
The question most likely to be occupying the minds of passers-by is, “Does Jesus love the victims of Osama?” Human suffering, whether personal or that which we see in others, is a profound stumbling block to the acceptance of Christianity. Christianity offers serious answers to the problem of human suffering but there were no pointers to these answers in this poster. The poster raised the problem of human suffering but provided no answer and gave the impression of being more interested in reconciling with the perpetrators of injustice than supporting the victims.
Third, perhaps the answer to the question of God’s love for Osama is more ambiguous than it seems. We may agree that all humans are loved by God but is it possible to engage in such widespread and systematic practices of evil that a person can disqualify him or herself from being human?
Can we degrade ourselves so completely that we are no longer recognisable as humans? If a person is no longer human then is that person outside the orbit of God’s love? In ordinary conversation behaviour that is good, generous and kind is described as humane, while practices that are deliberately and systematically cruel are described as beastly, animalistic or inhuman.
A modern rendition of the animalistic human is the human as machine. We describe people as machines when they appear to have lost any human feeling and they have become totally functionary beings. The idea that human beings can lose their humanity is not a totally foreign one and therefore makes the issue of God’s love for bin Laden less of an open and shut case than has perhaps been demonstrated.
Poster Christianity is perilous witness. Simple truths, simply stated can be less than helpful to those with whom we desire to communicate, notwithstanding the goodwill of those who develop these posters. We can be encouraged, within our churches, that people do read our advertising signs. But we can also be challenged to consider the pastoral implication and the wisdom of using some of our available promotional material.
Not all publicity is good publicity.
Kristine Morrison is a midwife at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and a member of the Social Issues Committee of the Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of up to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.