Maine clergy speak carefully in wake of terrorist’s death

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FALMOUTH — The killing of Osama bin Laden last week provided many Americans with a sense of relief and closure.

But for members of the clergy in southern Maine, the news presented a challenge: guiding their congregations through a response to the episode.

In churches and synagogues around the region, leaders have been grappling with the proper response to the moral questions posed by bin Laden’s death. Many elected to address the issue in their sermons, while others had conversations with their congregants throughout the week.

“It’s obviously not right to celebrate the death of any person, of any human being,” said the Rev. Mac Ray, pastor at the West Falmouth Baptist Church. “Yet at the same time, you have to acknowledge the celebration that this constant threat is out from underneath us.”

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Ray said that he touched on bin Laden’s death in his sermon on Sunday, and on the al-Qaida leader’s “brokenness.” But along with other clergy members, he maintained that it was his job not to prescribe a specific response to the killing, but instead, to help church-goers make up their own minds.

“He lets us interpret scripture, he guides us,” said Deb Carson, who attended Ray’s service. “He’s not a pastor who’s going to tell us how we need to think.”

Since area congregations include members with diverse political views, condemning or endorsing bin Laden’s death unequivocally would be counterproductive, said the Rev. Deborah Davis-Johnson, pastor at Portland’s Immanuel Baptist Church.

“If I do that, people are less likely to think, and reflect, and pray. It will draw a line in the sand,” she said. “People will be on one side or the other.”

In an interview Saturday, Davis-Johnson said she was planning on addressing the issue indirectly in her remarks on Sunday, by pushing a continual commitment to “justice and peace, without violence.” She also said she would be praying for Portland’s Muslims, after a local community center was vandalized the morning following the news about bin Laden.

At Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh in Portland, Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld said he devoted time to bin Laden’s death during both a weekly Torah study, as well as a Saturday morning Sabbath worship.

Drawing on texts, and on more recent historical examples, Herzfeld said he discussed potential responses to the news, and ultimately concluded that “even if it’s appropriate, privately, to celebrate, publicly we want to draw a distinction” – noting that President Barack Obama’s decision not to release photographs of a slain bin Laden was sound.

Other local members of the clergy said they wouldn’t bring up the killing in their sermons, for a variety of reasons.

The Rev. Mark Wendorf, who works at the Blue Point Congregational Church in Scarborough, is an interim minister – the religious equivalent of a substitute teacher. For someone in his role, he said, it’s unwise to wade into divisive issues.

“If I was in any other kind of church, where I was actually the called minister, I would be preaching about this in a second,” he said. “It’s important that Christians talk about and understand how they see the world, and what goes on in the world, and where they see God working in the world.”

But for the Rev. Michael Ambler, of Bath’s Grace Episcopal Church, the bin Laden issue just wasn’t pressing enough to merit inclusion in his Sunday sermon. Instead, Ambler said he would focus on Habitat for Humanity, and Mother’s Day.

In the past, Ambler said he has paid more attention to current events – like when an earthquake last year leveled parts of Haiti, or after the tsunami in Asia in 2004. But in those cases, he said, there were ways in which his congregation could take action.

“Sometimes the news is so urgent, and our ability to do something about it is so pressing, that of course we put aside everything else to respond. But I don’t think that a church can, or should, allow the front-page news of the day, whatever it is, to necessarily set the agenda for any given Sunday,” he said. “The reason I’m not talking about it is it doesn’t reflect a decision that anybody has to make right now. … This particular issue isn’t an issue – it’s a piece of recent history.”

Still, bin Laden’s death was big enough news – and people’s feelings were strong enough – that it came up for Ambler informally, at a community dinner earlier in the week.

And just like Ray and Davis-Johnson, Ambler said he tries to guide reactions, not dictate them. In a church like Ambler’s, with what he called a “wide red streak” and a “wide blue streak,” opinions will inevitably vary.

“I know perfectly well that in one large slice of Christianity in this country, Sunday will be a day of exultation and victory. In another wide slice, it’s going to be a day of sorrow and repentance,” he said. “I’m not God, so I can’t be anybody’s specific conscience. I can just try to help them think about what the Gospel says, and what they believe, and that to remember that as they think their thoughts about the issues of the day, to remember that they’re Christians.”

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