Reflecting on the Death of bin Laden

May 02, 2011

The news that terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden was killed yesterday has dominated news, Twitter, and discussions since last night. Almost immediately many Americans started celebrating, some even gathering publicly at Ground Zero in New York City, outside the White House, and at other sites across the nation. Such imagery sparks an important question--should we celebrate death, even the death of someone who brought so much death? The prophet Ezekiel wrote:

Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? ... For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:23, 32).
And again:
Say to them, 'As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!' (Ezekiel 33:11)
If God does not celebrate, should we? The Vatican's official response seemed to be along these lines. Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's spokesman, stated:
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 to this end. ... 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.
Although celebrating bin Laden's death seems like a natural reaction, I am not sure it is how we should respond. I am tempted to crank up Toby Keith's 9-11 response song, but it seems like the wrong note.

President Barack Obama's speech included a particularly odd line that has been among the most repeated: "Justice has been done." I am not sure that killing someone in a battle counts as justice, except in the 'Old West' (which is an image President George W. Bush invoked shortly after 9-11 when he said he said that like the old posters bin Laden was "Wanted: Dead or Alive"). bin Laden clearly received the death he sought in life. As Jesus warned, if we live by the sword we will die by the sword. bin Laden's death is a reminder of his life that tragically brought much death. But, justice seems to be something different. It is good that bin Laden will no longer be able to bring death, destruction, and pain. However, it still feels uncomfortable to watch many Christians celebrate that someone is now in Hell. Rather than celebrating bin Laden's death, it seems we should mourn his life.


UPDATE [5-5-11]: As more details emerge, Obama's line about "justice" deserves more questioning. The report now--although the story keeps changing--is that bin Laden was unarmed when killed. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reacted to that news:
I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling because it doesn't look as if justice is seen to be done. In those circumstances I think it's also true that the different versions of events that have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help.
He is right, and this raises more points for reflection, not celebration.

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