The announcement that American military forces killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday has prompted some interesting Internet discussions. One involves the issue, “Should a Christian celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden”? That’s the issue that I consider in this post. (In doing so, I mean no slight to those of other faiths, nor do I make any implications about other faiths or their stances on bin Laden’s death.)
It’s easy to see how the question comes up. Within minutes after the death of bin Laden was announced, crowds assembled before the White House in great celebration; the crowd at a Phillies baseball game shouted U-S-A! U-S-A!; here in New York City, a crowd gathered and sang patriotic songs at what we call Ground Zero—the site of the attacks on the World Trade Center that killed thousands on September 11, 2001, attacks that were engineered and celebrated by Osama bin Laden. In the midst of all this celebration, some people reflected, “hey, wait a minute—what we’re cheering about is somebody’s death. How okay is that?” Within a Christian context, it’s a good question.
I’m a native New Yorker, born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As a student in elementary and high school, I watched the World Trade Center go up, and later I visited a friend’s father’s office in one of the Towers. As an adult, I knew former classmates and other friends who worked in the Towers. Although I moved out of town a little over a year before 9/11 (I’m back now), watching the television coverage of the 9/11 attacks put me into shock: this was an attack on my home town. Then I saw TV coverage of celebrations in some parts of the Muslim world right after the destruction of the Towers and the assassination of thousands of American civilians. That made me very, very angry.
I am not from a part of the world that is big on either Forgive or Forget. The Lower East Side (LES), as the T-shirt mottos go, is a place where “the weak are killed and eaten,” and “only the strong survive.” The ethic one learned growing up on LES is that, if someone does something to you or yours, your duty is to turn the offenders into something resembling Beefy Chunks dog food.
Given that background, there is a part of me that wanted revenge on bin Laden. Big time revenge. Find bin Laden, strap him and his family—yes, especially the wives and all the little children—to chairs on top of a tall, abandoned building, and bring the whole thing down with them on top; save them at the last second and then do it again on a taller building. End up with them each on individual skyscrapers, watching each other as the buildings fall—but this time with no rescue. Do Osama last. This is the sort of thing that we would think up on the Lower East Side. Back in the day, it was the sort of place that encouraged one to raise revenge fantasy to the level of art form.
But I am also a Christian.
Yes, an exceptionally imperfect Christian, but a Christian nonetheless, and that brings a different kind of perspective into play here. Am I not supposed to forgive my enemies? To turn the other cheek? To love those who hate me, and despitefully use me? Jesus was not joking. So how do I make sense out of all this? Here are my reflections. (I am indebted to the GodDiscussion website for the contributions of some of their readers.)
Vengeance is the Lord’s
The scriptures are very clear about vengeance. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35). And this message is repeated, not once, but many places throughout the scriptures.
The implication here is clear. Whatever I celebrate, it should not be the achievement of vengeance. Quite frankly, this goes against everything in my upbringing. But being a Christian is not easy.
There are different ways to look upon what a Christian is supposed to be, but an off-the-shelf human being—what Paul calls “the natural man”—is not one of them. Christians are called to go beyond the merely human in a number of ways; the following teaching of Jesus is a particularly difficult one for me, especially in relation to bin Laden:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. ...
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-45, 48)
Difficult or not, this is the job of a Christian. I have failed magnificently at this. But I recognize that this is a problem of mine. As a Christian, I am not allowed to hate bin Laden.
Rejoicing at the Death of an Evil Man
So how about just being happy that this rotten excuse for human waste is dead? The counsel of God doesn’t support this, either:
Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? (Ezekiel 18:23)
Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth (Proverbs 24:17)
What About Forgiveness?
Many have commented on the Internet in recent days that the duty of the Christian is forgiveness. The Roman Catholic priest, James Martin, S.J., had this to say about this issue on The Huffington Post:
Christians are in the midst of the Easter Season, when Jesus, the innocent one, not only triumphantly rose from the dead but, in his earthly life, forgave his executioners from the cross, in the midst of excruciating pain [Luke 23:34]. Forgiveness is the hardest of all Christian acts. (Love, by comparison, is easier.) It is also, according to Jesus, something that is meant to have no limit. No boundaries. Peter once asked him how often he was supposed to forgive. Seven times? “Not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” [Matthew 18:21-22]. In other words, times without number.
In light of all this, am I required to forgive Osama bin Laden?
I think that this esteemed commentator at HuffPost has overlooked a couple of crucial details. Jesus forgave his executioners because they were ignorant of the nature of whom they were executing, and of his innocence. As he put it, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (emphasis added). Certainly no sane person would claim that Osama bin Laden was ignorant of what he was doing; this was, after all, the man who clearly claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, specifically the ones on the World Trade Center towers, as an act of war. Osama bin Laden had no claim to forgiveness on the grounds of ignorance.
Peter’s question presumed that the one who had offended him came to Peter as a penitent, someone who had repented of the offence. No luck for bin Laden here, either. As a recent Associated Press timeline (click the “bin Laden’s Life” tab) shows, bin Laden repeatedly was involved in attacks that each killed hundreds, and there is not the slightest indication that he was penitent. Osama bin Laden had no claim to forgiveness on the basis of repentance.
What is Christian forgiveness, anyway? As I understand it, "forgiveness is to pardon or excuse someone for blame for an offense or misdeed." But surely that forgiveness cannot be unconditional. At the very least, so far as forgiveness between people is concerned, forgiveness must be conditional upon some outward demonstration of repentance. Even the universal atonement of Jesus Christ, in terms of its full effects, is dependent upon repentance. Osama bin Laden showed none of that, in the slightest, not the least bit of remorse. Forgiveness simply does not apply to him.
So Where Does This All Leave Us?
On the one hand, as a Christian, I am commanded not to hate bin Laden; rather, I am to love that tiny spark of divinity that was within bin Laden, no matter how small that spark had become during his descent into evil; and I am not to seek vengeance on bin Laden. I do not have to forgive him, because he was neither penitent nor ignorant, but I am not to rejoice at his death itself.
But I can feel grateful, and I surely am: grateful that he will not send out more mass murderers. One can surely hope that his successors will think twice about sending out terrorists, given that the United States showed some persistence and determination here. I have no illusions that bin Laden’s death will end the threat of terrorism. But, at the very least, this is one less terrorist. Gratitude for this is something a Christian can get behind.
Gratitude for at least the possibility of a little more safety is surely On The Mark.
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[The photo of the replica of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christus statue, in the North Latter-day Saint Visitor’s Center of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, was taken by Ricardo630, who released the photo into the public domain. It was obtained from Wikimedia Commons.]
(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)