This note is mainly for Christians. If you do not identify yourself as a Christian, this note is not specifically for you. You are welcomed to read it, but the thoughts and questions that are running through my mind are particular to my identity as a Christian, a Christian theologian even.
When I first heard the news that President Obama was going to be announcing that Osama Bin Laden had been killed--that he was dead--I felt like crying. I'm almost ashamed to say that my tears would have been tears of joy; Osama Bin Laden is the closest thing to evil incarnate in my lifetime, thus far. I felt relief that he was no longer living and would no longer be able to kill others or influence others to kill others.
Yet, as I watched the footage of US Americans cheering in the streets, waving flags, and chanting U-S-A, my feelings suddenly turned. Something was not right. These images were reminiscent of 9/11, yet with a twist. People were celebrating in the streets the death of a person, something that would have been (and has been) considered vile and inhumane if the tables were turned.
What should the response of Christians be? Depending where you look, you will find very different answers. Some Christians are celebrating the death of Bin Laden, along with a large majority of US Americans. Other Christians are denouncing the death of Bin Laden, emphasizing that death does not equal justice. Other Christians are somewhere in the middle, feeling conflicted, uncertain, and cautious to react. This is the camp in which I find myself.
When I look toward Christian scripture (aka the Bible), I find the following verses:
"Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble, or else the Lord will see it and be displeased and turn away his anger from them." (Proverbs 24:17-18)"For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live." (Ezekiel 18:32)"Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 33:11)"Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:17-21)"‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer...‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:38, 43-48)
These seem exceedingly clear to me that my response should not be to rejoice and to celebrate in the death of Osama Bin Laden. As a Christian, I am called to love. So, while I am grieve the lives lost at the hands of Bin Laden, I also grieve the loss of the life of one who never knew faith, hope, and love.
Was it wrong of the government and/or military to kill Bin Laden? I honestly do not know, and I think it is okay for me to sit with some uncertainty about it. Ultimately, the decision was not mine to make. If it were, I can't say I would have done it, but I can't say I would NOT have done it, either. I am reminded of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist, who signed on to a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. He did not think that, in doing so, he was doing what was good or righteous; he recognized the evil in his own actions, as well. However, he believed his actions were a necessary evil to stop one who had already killed millions. (The plot of Bonhoeffer and his cohorts ultimately failed)
Reinhold Niebuhr is the original author of the serenity prayer. The original text of the first stanza is as follows:
God, give us grace to accept with serenitythe things that cannot be changed,Courage to change the thingswhich should be changed,and the Wisdom to distinguishthe one from the other.
What has been done cannot be changed. However, how I react--how we react--to it can be changed.
God grant me the grace, not to celebrate or rejoice in death, but the courage to examine the evil within me and the world around me, so that your light will prevail. Amen.