Shock and Agape

Banners currently hanging from several Australian churches feature the words “Jesus Loves Osama” against a camouflage background. These splashy “advertisements” have been generating headlines, stirring the public, and drawing comment from political and religious leaders. Prime Minister John Howard claimed to “understand the Christian motivation” of churches hanging this banner, but urged parishes to “understand that a lot of Australians, including many Australian Christians, will think that the prayer priority of the church on this occasion could have been elsewhere.”

Presumably this priority should be with the neighbor and the stranger — two other categories of people Christians are called upon to love and serve — and not with the enemy. But these banners market one of the gospels’ most radical theological claims, Christ’s love for all humans, and they call on viewers to follow suit. Beneath the emblazoned words, the banners feature a proof text from Matthew 5:44, where Jesus speaks in the imperative: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Terrorism, like these banners, functions as advertising, a jolting spectacle to publicize the specific message or point of view of its perpetrators. The burning cross or bombed clinic shares this purpose with Super Bowl ads or Burma Shave signs. A witty hook, a catchy jingle – these are meant to surprise and to lodge themselves in the memories of those who witness them. But in both forms of discourse, the medium surpasses the message. These Australian church banners have gotten attention, but what have they actually communicated?

Peter Jensen, the Anglican archbishop of Sydney/New South Wales, feels the signs are “misleading.” The basic theology is correct, but without some nuanced explanation, the statement itself can be read as implying approval for terrorism. “What we’ve got to say is, ‘Jesus doesn’t approve of Osama.’ It makes it sounds like, ‘Oh, Osama’s doing the right thing.'”

The banners, linking the terse contemporary theological mandate, the scriptural imperative, and the colors associated with desert conflict, certainly can be seen as direct, if ambiguous, commentary on the current wars. How one is to interpret the relation between loving one’s enemies and war is unclear, though surely some will read the signs as denunciations of war in general, while others will associate them with specific critiques of the situation in Afghanistan or Iraq. Moreover, linking the words of Jesus with military symbolism may spur readers to consider the situations of subjugation out of which many of Osama’s supporters emerge. While it is outrageous to see these signs as condoning acts of violence, they could certainly suggest zealous resistance to oppressive political forces.

“If I were a relative of one of the victims of Osama’s activities, I might take affront at this,” said Archbishop Jensen. Indeed, relatives and surviving victims of the 2002 Bali bombing have been among the most widely heard critical voices. David Stewart, who lost his son Anthony in the attack, asked, “What is the world coming to? That bastard killed 202 people, and hundreds and hundreds more and now we’re going to forgive him? That is ridiculous.”

Yet according to the logic of these signs, “Osama” is merely an extreme stand-in for any of us. While New South Wales Baptist Union spokesman Alan Soden paraphrases the sign’s message as “Jesus loves us all, no matter who we are or what we may’ve done,” Melbourne’s Anglican Archbishop, Dr. Philip Freier, takes things further, claiming that no matter the body count or publicity on Osama’s sins, the daily, ubiquitous sins of society matter just as much in the eyes of God. While “we are all loved by Jesus,” says Freier, “Jesus does not love terrorism, acts of violence, sexual abuse, stealing, lying, greed or any other selfish acts.” Jesus, this suggests, doesn’t approve of Osama’s actions, but Jesus doesn’t approve of many of our actions, either.

This shock-advert tactic, by hijacking headlines, has provided broad media platforms for voices which would otherwise be — literally — preaching to the choir, and has, through its discomforting juxtaposition of the worldly and the divine, forwarded the gospel message as an indictment of, and a challenge to, all people. Reverend Neil Harvey of Wangaratta had some reservations about hanging the banner, because “Osama is a very provocative name to put there, but the message of the Christian gospel is that Jesus does love us even though we don’t deserve it.” Ultimately, such believers suggest, the gospel message is that repentance and redemption are universal options, “even for you and for me and Osama.”

Good news? Certainly a radical alternative to this “ridiculous” world. As Archbishop Freier says, if people were to take on the words of Matthew 5:44, “the world would be a different place. It would be a place of tolerance, not terrorism.” And shouldn’t that be everyone’s priority?

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.