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Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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May 4th, 2011

What Works: “In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices”

A look at the responses to bin Laden's death



I was going to stay quiet on the whole issue of the public reaction to bin Laden’s killing, but after an hour or so of Facebook chatter on Sunday night, I put up a post on my wall expressing my frustration that people were gloating and cheering, reminding them that the issue is not whether he deserved punishment — I had no doubt that he was an evil man who had done unspeakable harm to the world; I lived in lower Manhattan on 9/11 and saw the attack and inhaled the smoke for weeks and lived with its aftermath — I just asked people to reconsider cheering over a death, any death. I had intended that this brief remark be my only statement on the issue. But the reaction to my post and those of other friends caught me by surprise. We were immediately jumped on for being unsympathetic toward the victims of 9/11, or, as one commenter put it, “whiny liberals.”

A common argument in various forms, recounting the harm done by bin Laden or pulling in Hitler analogies, was that he had it coming. One commenter said, “Live by the sword…” expecting the reader to finish in their mind with “die by the sword.” (This is perverse in two ways. First, we are the sword, apparently? And second, this is a corruption of Matthew 26:52 which is a call for nonviolence.) But these people were arguing over something the posts never said: the question of whether bin Laden deserved to be punished. They missed the distinction between whether someone deserves punishment and whether you personally perform and/or enjoy the execution of that punishment.

The thing is, if you take scripture seriously at all, what we are called to as Christians in a situation like this is clear. The most blatantly applicable line, quoted often these last few days, is this:

Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble. (Proverbs 24:17)

To expand and strengthen that, we need look no further than the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

As Deacon Greg Kandra said Monday, “What part of that don’t we understand?”

In applying the Christian view to this specific event, for me, the Vatican statement delivered within hours of the news of Bin Laden’s death says it best:

Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions for this purpose.

In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.

But why does this need to be said again and again? And why, in this instance, are so many moral and good people saying “Yeah, but this is different”?

Back in October, I wrote this in my column, “Revenge is not sweet“:

Revenge will not undo [the original wrong]. So then, why do people want revenge? As best I can tell, revenge is an attempt to fix the fact that the material world is sometimes unfair. People feel wronged by someone and see them seem to get away with it, and they want to bring what they think is God’s vengeance down on the person in order to restore balance.

Jesus is saying… Let it go. Return to Love. Because if you get yourself caught up in being hateful towards another person, no matter how seemingly justified you may be, you are shutting yourself off from God. And that’s hell.

Whether we can always live up to the ideal is another matter, of course. An old spiritual advisor of mine was fond of saying: forget turn the other cheek, ideally if a person punched you in the face your reaction would be compassion for how broken they are that they would do such a thing. This is the level of spiritual groundedness, of elevated thinking, that we are called to. Jesus said we should aim to be “perfect.” We will fall short, and that’s OK. But this goal is not to be mocked or dismissed as impractical, or only for the likes of saints.

Fr. James Martin, in the post “What is a Christian Response to Bin Laden’s Death?” lays it out bluntly and beautifully:

… as with other “life” issues, we cannot overlook what Jesus asks of us, hard as it is to comprehend. Or to do.

For this is a “life” issue as surely as any other. The Christian is not simply in favor of life for the unborn, for the innocent, for those we care for, for our families and friends, for our fellow citizens, for our fellow church members or even for those whom we consider good, but for all. All life is sacred because God created all life. This is what lies behind Jesus’s most difficult command: “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

He goes on to say:

I am glad he has left the world. And I pray that his departure may lead to peace. But as a Christian, I am asked to pray for him and, at some point, forgive him.

Fr. Jim in the same piece reminds us that Blessed John Paul II forgave and met with the man who had shot him in an assassination attempt. Mike Hayes wrote a piece in Busted Halo about this several years ago, “Radical Forgiveness,” which we had just rerun on Sunday morning related to his beatification. On Sunday night, Mike wrote a touching post in his blog, recalling his direct connections to 9/11 through people he knew who’d been lost that day. Despite his conflicted feelings, Mike does not flinch from the Christian challenge to love his enemy. He admits,

I guess I’m not exactly able to offer the forgiveness that I know God offers Bin Laden without reservation today, the same forgiveness that is offered to each one of us for our sins,

but concludes saying,

We will have defeated the spirit of terrorism when we begin to stop hating these enemies, even under the disguise of cheap justice. We can rejoice only when peace reigns instead of vengeance.

In a 1958 speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. said the famous line, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness.” Later in the same speech, he said that “Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate” the opponent but to win them over. We may fail to do so, but that must be our aim. If our goal, as a nation and as individuals, is not to win over our enemies but to defeat and humiliate them, the cycle of violence will never end.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • ronnie

    I am not a Christian as usually defined – but I certainly agree with all on this thread and with this article – really comforting to find others who are confused and appalled with everyone cheering over a person’s death.

  • Jasmin

    I am not a Christian but I am a spiritual person. Regardless of my beliefs, I think that the behavior of people is alarming. To celebrate and cheer over the death of another human is very upsetting to watch. Good article.

  • Sierra McConnell

    I’m glad that I keep finding columns and articles like this. It makes me glad that I’m not the only person who feels this way. People get so upset when I “defend the bad guy”. I’m not defending what they did, but they were just another person, too. Just a kid that grew up into a person who made some bad decisions. At our core we are not good or bad, we’re just people. People who may make stupid choices. And those stupid choices end up causing harm to others. It’s sad that people can’t see that he wasn’t the culmination of all evil, and that to others, we’re just as “bad” as he was. People are just people. We have to start accepting that.

  • Archbishop +Sergius

    The action taken was an assassination, endorsed by a Head of State who considers himself a Christian. It should not pass without notice that Obama was under the tutelage of a minister for 30 years, the latter often pronouncing, “God damn America!” Clearly, both acts were ones of egregious apostasy. “Sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind!”

  • Suzanne

    When I heard of Bin Laden’s death, my first reaction was sadness that my country continues to value revenge over justice. Then I prayed for Bin Laden’s soul. Then I prayed for my own because I’m having a hard time loving my country right now. I’m having a hard time loving my brothers and sisters who cheer about state-sanctioned murder. But I’m determined to love everyone as a fellow child of God — even if I can’t like everyone all the time. And I’m asking Our Lord to strengthen me in my pacifism and show me how best to devote my life to the search for peace.

  • amiehartnett

    I found that I reacted with a little fist pump during the President’s announcement and guess what? It was totally cathartic. I make no apologies for it and I’m glad he’s gone.

    And, this just in on the news feeds: An Al Quaeda biggie, Khaled Hathal Abdullah al-Atifi al-Qahtani, just gave himself up to Saudi authorities. This mission was not not just the killing of a man; its the dismantling of a cult-like system of violence, terror and abomination. Which, to me, is totally PRO LIFE.

  • Jason Dale

    @ Helen

    Let me just say that if Osama were in prison, I too would be against his captital punishment. He would no longer be a threat and should be given the dignitiy rightly afforded all human beings. But he was still at large and very much a threat to humankind. He was an international outlaw and as such falls under “universal jurisdiction”. U.S. action was both just and legal. That doesn’t mean we revel in his death, but it is acceptable to be happy with the outcome.

  • Adam

    Beautifully said Phil. If you are going to be pro-life I think you have to be pro-every life, not just the cute or easy ones.

  • Jason Dale

    Thanks for clarifying, Phil – I suppose that many people celebrating the events really are experiencing the disordered feelings (I confess, I haven’t been around anyone in the streets celebrating so only hear comments made by the news reporters.) I just think (and pray & hope) that what lies under the elation is a sense that the world is a bit safer, not that an enemy was slain per se. Our language just happens to make “ding dong the witch is dead” easier to say, express and comprehend than, “whew, we can all breathe a little easier now that our leaders have decided to eliminate a threat to society. It would’ve been better to take him alive, but it might not have been possible in this instance. We are comfortable that in the course of preserving the lives of countless innocents, the double effect of killing a human life resulted.” Its a more difficult idea to convey.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    And let me jump in to point out, Jason, that again, the question in my column is not whether we should have contained him or even killed him in order to limit future harm to others. The challenge (at least the challenge I’m raising) is dealing with ideas of revenge, “justice,” celebrating the suffering of enemies, and dehumanizing foes so that can justify not treating them with human dignity.

  • Helen Lee


    I agree that Osama should have been prevented from causing anymore harm. Perhaps the best way to go about ensuring this was by legal means. That was not the case here. Osama was unilaterally assassinated in another sovereign nation, which is unjust if not illegal. When America chose to use illegal or unjust means to carry out this operation, it forfeited any right to claim justice in the form of the ends that were achieved.

    It could be that celebrations are about relief, but as far as I can tell the sentiment can be more closely approximated by “we got the bastard” (if you’ll pardon my french).

  • Jason

    I agree that we shouldn’t be vengeful and should be forgiving; however, isn’t it immoral to allow a hateful person to continue to kill innocent life? It seems that the just war doctrine applies here. “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility” CCC 2265. I suspect that many of the “celebrations” over OBL’s death are really celebrations that a major threat was eliminated.

  • Helen Lee

    Excellent as always Phil!

    My initial reaction to Osama’s death wasn’t particularly strong, although I definitely did not feel joy or relief. It didn’t seem to matter to me one way or the other (and I was affected by 9/11). As I started to see the jubilant reactions of the nation and those around me, my stomach turned. Not only is this nothing but a symbolic victory, but it is encouraging people to celebrate death, which is spiritually devastating.

    As difficult as it is, we are called to see Christ in Osama Bin Laden. We are called to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, and our perfect mysterious God loves Osama Bin Laden. In a class yesterday this debate came up. Most of the students either felt happy or relieved, but my argument was that justice does not equal revenge (also, justice is God’s to do, not ours). A fellow student pointed out that true justice would be eliminating the circumstances that lead to and perpetuate terrorism. I could not have put it better. In our attempt to forgive OBL (how fitting that his death took place on Divine Mercy Sunday), we must be careful not to remove his objectively evil actions from the context in which they are rooted. The terrorism of OBL did not emerge in a vacuum. America is far from innocent here. That’s important to think about, especially in the event of another terrorist attack.

    God’s mercy endures forever.

  • Andria

    Well said. Thank you.

  • Kay Wosz

    Beautiful post, thank you. For the commenters reposting MLK’s quote, it might be interesting to know it’s first sentence is fictive–however well put the sentiment may be: link. In the name of truth, you know ;)

  • Laura

    i’m so glad to read your words. thank you. this has been heavy in my heart for the past few days.

    here is a really wonderful blog post (along with thoughtful comments) that has helped me deal with the tension i’m feeling.


    blessings to you and all…


  • Ellen

    Wise words from a friend of mine, “”I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Ann W. Turner

    Amen, Phil, this is beautifully said and thoughtfully laid out. This is what we are called to do (and to be)–to try and partake of God’s forgiveness, in our own, small and imperfect way.

  • joe

    great post and a great reminder of how we should love our enemies. because, thats truly what Christianity is about, eh? for whatever reason i find it so much easier to forgive bin laden than I do those in my own life who have done far, far less evil things against me. thanks for writing this.

  • James Leo Oliver

    Thanks for taking a stand.On the Sunday after September 11, 2001 our priest said justice would be extracted but reminded us to take no joy in it. It is sad that Divine Mercy Sunday and the beatification process of Blessed Pope John Paul II was over-shadowed by this event. “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” ~Martin Luther King Jr.

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