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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Should Christians Celebrate bin Laden's Death?

Shortly after news leaked that Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden, people spontaneously began to appear outside the White House and at Ground Zero in NY to celebrate the death of a man who has been behind the death of thousands of people (and as more information comes to light, if given the opportunity he was hoping to kill thousands more). President Obama was clearly pleased with the outcome (click on this link to see his address to the nation, "Osama bin Laden is dead, Obama Speech at White House"), and subsequent polls indicate overwhelming support for the government's action ("AP-GfK Poll: Bin Laden killing was justified").

In the midst of the celebrations, a handful of dissenting voices could be heard, however. For example, the day after bin Laden's death, Pastor Peter Ilgenfritz of the University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle, WA, posted a reflection entitled ("I Do Not Rejoice at the Death of a Man") that drew on Matthew 5:44 (“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.”) to argue that Christians shouldn't celebrate the death of any man, no matter how evil. Instead, we should feel sadness that our world is so broken that some of our young men grow up to be like Osama bin Laden (see the picture of bin Laden at age 15 below).  Similar sentiments have been echoed by the Baptist theologian, David Gushee ("Do Not Rejoice When Your Enemies Fall"), the evangelical leader of the Sojourners Community, Jim Wallis ("How Should We Respond to the Death of Osama bin Laden") and the Roman Catholic Church ("Vatican says bin Laden's death cause for reflection, not rejoicing"):
"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."
I would be lying if I said that I wasn't glad when I heard that bin Laden was dead. I was. I hurried home to watch the news and hear the President's address to the nation. A part of me wanted to be at Ground Zero or at the White House so that I could wave the Stars and Stripes and celebrate with others.

Nevertheless, I understand where Pastor Ilgenfritz, Jim Wallis, David Gushee and the Vatican are coming from. I often cringe at the glee with which some Christians greet the death of our enemies. As the just war tradition teaches us, the death of an enemy combatant is, at best, the lesser of two evils and is only justified if it, in fact, prevents a greater evil. Indeed, I think that in terms of the just war tradition bin Laden's death is justified given all that he had done and pledged to do in the future.

A helpful distinction in this regard is the difference between revenge and justice. It is inappropriate, I believe, for Christians to celebrate bin Laden's death out of feelings of revenge, but I do believe that just war Christians (as opposed to Christians who are pacifists) can, in good conscience, breath a sigh of relief and feel a sense of tempered joy that someone who was responsible for the deaths of so many people is no longer in a position to do so again.

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