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.