Scores of churches around Australia this week are displaying large posters with the words, “Jesus loves Osama.” The poster is part of a series of advertisements designed by Outreach Media to promote what it sees as “the heart of the gospel.”
But the notion that the Son of God would demonstrate affection for the world’s most wanted man, and that Christian churches might want to point out this gospel truth to commuters and pedestrians, is news to Australia’s news media.
Sydney tabloid journalist Luke McIlveen broke the story in Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph, and various news media have followed his lead. To my knowledge, McIlveen has not spoken to a spokesperson of the Baptist Union of NSW, and incorrectly assumed from a conversation he apparently had with an administrative support person that the Baptist Union of NSW distances itself from the signage. In fact it does not; to do so would be an implicit denial of the validity and significance of the teaching and example of Jesus.
Fellow journalist Andrew Bolt’s blog features a photograph of the sign on the wall outside Sydney’s Central Baptist Church, along with the comment that the church has “chosen from among all the people to remember in its prayers the one who’d most want them dead.” Bolt also makes a connection between the sign and Michael Leunig’s distasteful image, from Christmas 2006, of a blood-spattered Prime Minister and Foreign Minister above the caption, “Celebrating another successful year in Iraq.”
Apart from the fact that there is no credible evidence of a link between Osama bin Laden’s terrorist activities and Saddam Hussein’s regime, the sign outside Australian churches this week has nothing to do with the war in Iraq or the activities of al-Qaeda. Nor has it anything to do with the moral character or evil actions of Osama. The sign has everything to do with what God is like, how wide God’s love is, and what is distinctive about the Christian gospel.
Through propositions and narratives, the Bible teaches that God is love, and that God loves all people without reserve (e.g. 1 John 4:8; John 3:16; Luke 15). Jesus Christ perfectly reflects the loving nature and actions of God. So it is true to say that Jesus loved Judas Iscariot, Pilate and Nero as well as Peter, James and John. It is equally true to say that Jesus loves Stalin, Hitler, Pinochet and Pol Pot just as he loves you and me. Yes, Jesus even loves George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard.
I am not suggesting that we are irresponsible or unaccountable for unjust and selfish actions we may choose to take. The point is that the love of God is as boundless as the justice of God is universal.
Assertions like this may be offensive to some, particularly those who have personally suffered, or whose loved ones have suffered or died, under the regimes of monstrous tyrants such as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot. It may well seem impossible for family members of the innocent victims of 9/11 to love and forgive those who were responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the terrorist attacks in 2001.
But that sentiment, while understandable, does not change the Bible’s teaching, or the nature of God, or the mission of God in the world. We do well to reflect on those profound and radical words of Jesus:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:43-45a).”
It was this extract from the Sermon on the Mount that led many churches this week to post the sign that “Jesus loves Osama.” Of course he does! And so should those who follow Jesus. As Alan Soden, Secretary of the Baptist Union of NSW, observed in a recorded interview on ABC radio:
“It’s not about Osama and what he has done or may have done. We are all sinners and [God] loves us all no matter who we are or what we have done. Hopefully it might cause some people to think about Jesus’ teachings. The idea that we should pray for someone and even love them when we disagree with them or may even be opposed to them and their actions is radical. But many of Jesus’ ideas were radical.”
Yes, Jesus loves Osama bin Laden. Jesus may hate what Osama has done (whatever that is), but he loves the person who did those things. In fact, I can say on biblical authority that Jesus died for Osama, and desires that he and others like him (even worse than him) should share the pleasures and joys of heaven forever. Now that’s something to shout about, both inside and outside our churches.
John Laws, speaking this morning on Sydney’s 2UE, took a different line. He wondered aloud what all the publicity will do to “dwindling numbers at Baptist churches.” Presumably he was referring to the latest church posters, but their purpose is, of course, to generate publicity and encourage conversation and reflection. I attend many NSW Baptist churches in the course of my work, and I can assure John that numbers are not dwindling. In fact, according to national figures released last year, Baptists and Pentecostals are virtually the only Christian denominations in Australia experiencing sustained numerical growth.
John Laws raised another important issue. If Jesus loves Osama, where does that leave all those who hate Osama? The answer is obvious: they are unlike God in nature and character, attitudes and actions. But God understands the reasons for this and continues to offer them unconditional love and free forgiveness. That’s what Christians mean when they talk about the grace of God. That’s what the gospel is all about.
I think a more interesting question is: “Does Osama love Jesus and, if not, why?” That would surely get the phones ringing. It might also get the Christians thinking.
Which reminds me that Outreach Media’s next poster, so I’m told, will simply say, “Forgiveness: One size fits all.”
Rod Benson is founding Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at MorlingCollege in Sydney, Australia.