Like many of you, Sunday evening found me watching the President’s announcement on TV. Osama bin Laden was dead. After so many years of seemingly fruitless effort, this tireless promoter of terror—a mass murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands—had been located and killed. The news was stunning. And it brought very different emotions: relief that they had finally tracked him down; satisfaction that justice had been served; pride in our nation’s intelligence community and military; hope that this loss would be a debilitating blow to Al Qaeda. But the more I watched the jubilant reactions from people in front of the White House and in Times Square, the more I became disturbed. Should we, as Christians, share in joyfully cheering and celebrating the death of our enemy?
While there are differing views among followers of Christ, most Christians, drawing from passages such as Romans 13, believe that God intends for the state to “bear the sword.” This means that it is both necessary and appropriate for governments to defend their citizens through law enforcement and military action. There may be questions concerning whether our government should have intentionally killed bin Laden rather than seeking to capture him alive. I’m sure that we’ll hear this question debated over the coming days and weeks. But, for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that the government’s actions were completely justified. How do we now respond? Should we be cheering along with the rest?
Some might remind us what a monster this man was, of the blood on his hands. They might replay the horror of 9/11, and describe the incredible effort it’s taken to hunt down this terrorist. This is war, after all; it brings out our passionate feelings. And this is the way people react to the death of their sworn enemies. We can find many examples of people winning a hard-fought victory and celebrating by symbolically dancing on the grave of their tormentor.
Still, are we supposed to be just like everyone else? Shouldn’t there be a difference? From what, or whom, do we draw our cues? Can we imagine Peter or Paul (let alone Jesus) joining in the chant: “O.B.L., burn in hell!”? Is our first thought to respond as Americans . . . or as citizens of the Kingdom of God?
We don’t have to look very far before we find Scriptures that caution us and restrain us in our reaction to the suffering and death of an enemy. Ezekiel 18:23 tells us that God does not delight in the death of the wicked. This should give us pause. If even God doesn’t delight in the death of the wicked, but desires that they turn from their wicked ways and live, what business do we have jubilantly exulting in the death of an enemy? Proverbs 24:17-18 instructs us: “Don’t rejoice when your enemies fall; don’t be happy when they stumble. For the Lord will be displeased with you and will turn his anger away from them.” And notice that these two examples come from the Old Testament, before we even get to the New Covenant teachings of Christ.
Jesus, of course, taught us to not hate our enemies, but to love them (Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-36). In fact, this extreme, unnatural love is to be the sine qua non of the follower of Christ, the characteristic that distinguishes us from all others and shows that we are truly his. Jesus demonstrated this love when he prayed for the forgiveness of the very people who were nailing him to the cross. We are to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who seek to hurt us. Let’s see . . . someone who is our enemy, who hates us, who curses us, who seeks to hurt us—this sounds like a fairly good description of Osama bin Laden. So, how should we love this enemy? Even in the midst of necessary and appropriate justice, how do we demonstrate a loving, Christlike attitude? By rejoicing in the streets that he’s dead?
We’re also warned to not seek revenge (Romans 12:19), that vengeance belongs to God alone. How much of the celebration over the death of bin Laden is motivated by feelings of vengeance accomplished? This is inappropriate for us as believers.
Most of us have heard the familiar expression, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.” What few know is that John Bradford originally spoke these words while watching a man walk toward his execution. When we exult over the death of an enemy, we forget that—on our own—we are no more righteous in God’s sight than Osama bin Laden. We forget that no one deserves God’s grace; that’s why it’s grace. And since God loves us even though we don’t deserve it, we also are called to love those who are seemingly unlovable. We forget that even Osama bin Laden was created in the image of God. We forget that this is one for whom Christ willingly laid down his life, that this is a lost sheep for whom he would leave the ninety-nine and earnestly seek. If Osama bin Laden is eternally lost (and I don’t presume to know the state of his heart when he died), then does Christ laugh and cheer at the fate of this man? Or does he weep as for a lost child?
I’m encouraged to see that more than a few Christian leaders and thinkers share my concerns. We realize that the United States is not the church, and we aren’t surprised when the actions of Americans are incongruous with the principles of the Kingdom of God. When it’s all said and done, the US is, after all, part of a fallen world. And most Christian voices are not denying the need to strongly oppose bin Laden and bring him to justice. We share in the satisfaction of justice enforced, and we are proud of our nation. But we aren’t Americans first, and then Christians. We are first—and eternally—followers of Christ, children of God, and citizens of his lasting Kingdom. The principles of the Kingdom are what define us, not the temporal victories of a nation we love, but which will have its place in history and then be no more.
If we intend to follow Christ as his disciples, then we are called to be distinct from our fellow Americans. We have a higher standard. How do we respond to the death of Osama bin Laden with the love of Christ? the love of Christ for our enemy, Osama bin Laden? And if we don’t respond in love—but giddily rejoice at his death—how are we Christians any different from everyone else?