Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden and the Many-Headed Hydra

As I read about the stunning raid that finally killed Osama bin Laden, nearly 10 years after bin Laden killed 3,000 Americans and others on U.S. soil, the image that keeps coming to my mind is the many-headed hydra from Greek mythology.  Hercules confronted the many-headed hydra, a great sea monster with numerous poisonous snake-like heads.  Every time Hercules chopped off one hydra head, two more grew to take its place.  Hercules finally triumphed by locating and lopping off the one head that was immortal, and as the immortal head died, the hydra finally died.

Greek mythology endures, of course, because it expresses truths about human existence.  Our human struggle against evil is like a fight against a many-headed hydra.  An evil head like bin Laden can be chopped off, and two more can grow to take its place.  It is probably true that Al Qaeda had a multi-pronged succession plan for the event of bin Laden's death (though this is not certain; if Al Qaeda was a cult of personality centered on bin Laden, it might not survive).  What is certain is that evil itself is not defeated.  This death of one human being may serve the cause of justice, in the sense that a murderer has been killed. It will not eradicate danger, terrorism, or evil from the earth.

So what does Christianity have to say about an event like this?  Certainly the Bible is clear in identifying evil and holding its devotees responsible for their actions.  But it is also clear that every human being is a beloved child of God.  The surge of elation that we feel when a longtime enemy is defeated is natural; but I think that the angels would rejoice if bin Laden had changed his ways instead.  The very fact that Al Qaeda exists, that terrorism persists, and that evil continually springs up anew, reflects the brokenness of our world.  The sin that infects us ensures that we humans can defeat evil only temporarily and conditionally.  The immortal head can only be chopped off by God.

Which is what Christ came to do.  Whatever Christ accomplished on the cross (and the theology of the atonement is complex and many-layered), it is clear that his self-giving love was a victory over the principalities and powers of evil and death that rule this world.  The kingdom of death did its worst to him, yet still "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).  In Christ's resurrection, God demonstrated divine power over death itself, and displayed to us the new creation, the resurrection life, that is the hope of every human who places her or his trust in God.  We live in a post-Easter world, and Easter, not Good Friday, is our hope.

And therefore, on a day when an enemy has died, we can be glad that that particular enemy can no longer threaten innocent people.  We can grieve the evil and corruption that caused that enemy to prosper.  We can believe that the actions taken were probably necessary in order to protect ourselves and others.  We can appreciate the intelligence, careful planning, courage, and skill that made the battle against bin Laden successful.  And we can hope that more poisonous heads do not grow to take his place.

What we cannot do is put our trust in death as a lasting weapon against evil, for death is the tool of a Good Friday world.  We are Easter people, and we place our hope in the Lord of Life.  God's new Creation in Christ is what will defeat the many-headed hydra of evil in our world.  Until that day comes, we Christians work, and pray, and love our neighbors, and yes, love our enemies, the best we can.  Our victories of love are temporary and conditional.  But God's Kingdom, when it comes at last in its fullness, will be eternal.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.


  1. Thanks Susan, rejoicing any death feels wrong. Still pondering all the ramifications. Love to hear your words of faith. Rebecca

  2. Very well spoken Susan. I was wondering how to explain the "good news" to my kids in the correct way. Thankyou!