The news, and Facebook, chatter is filled with references to the death of Osama bin Laden. Not surprising. He, if anyone, personified the enemy of America, of Western Civilization, of who we are as a people. He was an enemy because he despised our power, and he was an enemy because he despised us and what we stand for. That’s not to enter into a moment of patriotic fervor (though I’m not opposed to that on occasion). Rather, it is, in this case literally true. What we stand for is not always caught up in the right and the good and the noble, rather it is who we are in the good and the bad. And he hated the good and he hated the bad, because we had power. He sought power and in seeking this power he sought death, death to us, death to those who stand with us, death even to those who stood with him, pawns in his great search for his own authority and his own control. So often we adopt figures who oppose what we oppose as being on our side, taking up our causes as the reason for their causes. Some try to explain bin Laden by explaining America’s poor choices in use of power, or its arrogance, or its imperial tendencies to abuse other peoples for the sake of adding more wealth to the already wealthy. They denounce his methods but justify his rage.
Only his rage was never their rage. His cause to shame America was not one in the pursuit of peace, but one in the pursuit of chaos. He sought death, and he used death to expand his reach, to terrorize both those in power and those who suffer. He sought his own power in order to subjugate others under his whims and his desires. He sought to stamp his identity upon everyone else, so that in bowing to him, they would be reshaped into resonating his image in this world. He was a messiah to his cause, a voice crying out in the wilderness calling men and women, but he did not care about the men or the women. They were tools and pawns. Their deaths gave him power. He fed on their loss and exulted in those who died with them.
The issue is not whether he was a good man, for he was not. The issue, bandied about through indirect conversations on Facebook and on Twitter and elsewhere, is the emotions we should have with his death. And, honestly, I have some conflicted emotions. Because I am glad Osama is dead. If left to my own instincts I am much closer to those who are celebrating his death than those who are attempting to correct those who celebrate. In this way I’m closer to the Evangelicals, who celebrate, than I am to the Progressive Christians, who make sure everyone knows they’re not ones to celebrate a death.
The natural reaction, I think, is to cheer and celebrate. The ending of an evil presence gives that much more hope for real peace and progress. Right? Well, not according to many I’ve been reading. The widespread bursts of celebration have been slowly followed by an increasing trickle of moral corrections. Who said moral pedantry is limited to fundamentalists? It abounds from all directions.
I read verses like Proverbs 24:17 says “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.” Which is, like all of the Proverbs, good advice. Only, like much of the Proverbs, it seems other parts of the Bible don’t entirely agree. “Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.” Miriam danced and sang when the Israelites were saved from the armies of Egypt. David exulted in his victory over Goliath. “So David triumphed over the Philistine,” we read in 1 Samuel. Then the people celebrated. “Saul has slain his thousands,” the people sang, “and David his tens of thousands.” This made Saul mad. But curiously we find that the Spirit of the Lord was with David, and an evil spirit from God comes upon Saul. David’s violence wasn’t considered his moral crime, rather his moral problems came as result of his sexuality.
Then, of course, there’s the unabashed celebrations in the apocalyptic books. Triumph over the enemy is at the heart of Christian eschatology. Which causes some problems for people, so they dismiss a lot of eschatology as being triumphalist. Which of course it is, and oftentimes not in theologically correct ways. But, at the core of God’s testimony of the future there is this triumph, and we celebrate the victory over evil. David was made king because of his courage to kill, not making killing itself a good, rather saying that there is a way of God which involves the ultimate stopping of those who would oppose God’s work. And the people of God, in the OT, celebrated when this occurred. That is complicated, to be sure, in our assumptions of moral advancement. We, people of peace, people of the New Testament, don’t particularly like that, and many of us don’t particularly like that God. Some in the early church even suggested that God is not our God, the Demiurge they called that God. We have Jesus. Who preached nonviolence. For the most part. Yet, David is never condemned and is featured as a continuing symbol of God’s work and faithfulness. David, the man of war, is a friend of God. That’s complicated, to be sure. More complicated than can be dealt with in this post.
So where does that put us on this day, with this death? The first thought that came to my mind, in my own initial burst of moral pretentiousness, is what I’ve absorbed from my reading of Moltmann and Volf. I may not like bin Laden, but Jesus died even for him. If my theology of the cross does not include the sins of Osama, then my theology of Christ’s work is deficient. Jesus died so that Osama might live. Jesus extended the offer of forgiveness even to the architect of September 11. Absurd? Yes, of course. But so too is the great persecutor of early Christians becoming the great missionary of early Christianity. If God forgives even a great debt, who am I to complain? The moment I complain my own debts become due, according to the words of Jesus. I’m not suggesting, here, that everyone is saved by God no matter what they do, or that Osama has found salvation in Christ. I personally think that the doctrine of hell makes sense, if it ever makes sense, in the context of men like Osama or Hitler or Stalin. But, at the same time, I am not, you’ll be happy to learn, God. I am a witness to the sacrifice and the resurrection of Jesus. I am not the judge, even if I have my opinions. But my not being the judge puts me into an attitude of humility. Moreover, even and especially if Osama is judged, should I celebrate the eternal misery of another?
Should I not weep for the death of even one who caused so many deaths, not because he was good, but because he never will taste of the good? If I weep for the crimes, I also, maybe, should weep for the ravages of those crimes on the souls of the ones who commit them? The death of the soul preceded, it seems, the death of the man, and in the face of that death of what God created, maybe the right response is always to mourn. In this mourning I mourn still with the victims, because I mourn the terror they experience by mourning the corruption of the one who terrorizes. I do not wish for Osama bin Laden to continue to live, I wish for Osama the man to have never become Osama bin Laden, the terrorizer of the world. I mourn for the loss of his soul that preceded his death, that initiated his kinetic hate, and thus mourn for the death that can, it seems, never find redemption. But that too is a matter for God.
Yet, I’m not entirely convinced. I still feel it is a matter to celebrate because I do not celebrate the death or the loss of this man as much as I celebrate the ending of a particular instance of evil. Osama was an evangelist of hate and a preacher of death. He did not seek to gather people in order to help them find more life, he gathered people to spread destruction. Through death, he lived his life. He was a crucifier, using means of death as a way of spreading terror and subjugation. He fomented hate, and it is this end of influence that I celebrate. He drew others into his web. He turned their frustrations into rage, and turned their rage into violence. He was a charismatic man who led people into destruction.
There was no peace with Osama, and he would never allow others to take up the mantle of peace. He was an enemy of peace. He was not going to be convinced because his very being, his power and his identity, were caught up in terror and violence and death. Not only in killing, but in controlling, in managing, in attempts to subjugate and put into place laws that treated others with derision. His vision of the world was one in which other faiths were crimes, in which women were not to be seen or heard — objects for man’s use, where freedom meant only freedom to him and those who aligned with his every whim.
I’m also reading Bonhoeffer these days. Bonhoeffer wrote that sometimes the death of one who spreads only death is a necessary good. This wasn’t just something he wrote. His death came from the involvement in putting this into practice, as he joined with those who sought to kill Hitler. Many who value Bonhoeffer’s vision of the church call him martyr by many who value his vision of the church, his renewal of theology, his courage in returning to a Germany he knew would persecute him. But, he was not a martyr because he testified for life. He was a martyr, curiously, in his testimony of death. If he was a martyr, the only way we can call him a martyr, is if we see his death in the assassination plot of Hitler as being part of his calling as a Christian. Bonhoeffer did not see death as a good thing, but as a necessary thing. He saw his calling as a Christian leader to be a calling that led him to aid in the killing of another, the killing of man whose life spread only death. There was a responsibility to take the life of Hitler for the sake of those suffering under Hitler’s influence — which included not only those being killed, but those who were becoming killers.
I celebrate the end of this vision of the world, I celebrate the end of its chief evangelists. I celebrate the loss that those who would seek this vision now experience. I celebrate when evil, even a small and particular instance of it, is no longer able to exercise influence. In stopping evil, in ending its reign, new roots can begin to grow. Just as the stopping of Hitler, stopped the expression of evil by the people of Germany. In death, there really was the possibility of new life. Only in death, it seems, was this new life able to come into being. Because there’s death no matter what. And if you stand with Gandhi in suggesting that the death of Jews is allowable so that Hitler might continue to live, that may lead to a form of peace. But I don’t think it is God’s peace. Only with the death of Hitler was real peace able to come to Europe. The theology of Moltmann arises from the peace and freedom found in a Germany that no longer suffered under the necrophilic influences of Hitler.
I mourn for the loss of men who became monsters, not in spite of their being monsters but because they no longer were men. I mourn for death, for what is is and for what causes it, because all that is death gathers together the brokenness of this fallen world, its loss, its frustrations, its terrors. Death is the ultimate enemy. I mourn death, even those who deserve it. But, I celebrate those who stop purveyors of death. I celebrate when evangelists of death are told, “no more.” Because when such influences are stopped, when they are silenced, there is a renewed hope for those who can begin to hear other voices, voices of life, voices of peace, who offer a hand of reconciliation.
Death is evil, and I despise it. Yet, I still, I think, stand with Bonhoeffer, because in this broken world, where death exists, we come to the reality where some are so caught up in the spreading of death that only their death can open the door to new life. Just like with Germany. The death of Hitler was the only way his people could find life, and while his message of hate spread through the early decades of the 20th century, there was an increase of death. It was only with his death that people began to hear new songs of hope, were able to find friendship with former enemies, were able to share with those they once stole from. I celebrate this renewal of life. I celebrate the possibilities of hope that bring new vision and new experiences and new camaraderie.
This is what I celebrate when I celebrate the end of evil. And that’s why I celebrate today. I don’t celebrate death. I mourn death and I mourn the need of death that stops evil from persisting. I celebrate the overcoming of sin in my own life, because in doing that I find new freedom. This too I celebrate when the overcoming is not my inner temptations but pernicious global influences that leads many others into sins. I celebrate because of the lives that can and will be lived because a lover of death can no longer rob or steal or corrupt. I celebrate the ending of bad influences and I celebrate the awakening of new possibilities.
And I’m bold enough to think that when I celebrate this, I celebrate with God.
I’m humble enough, however, to know others might think differently. May the Lord instruct us all.