Strong emotions can surprise us, and the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of American Navy SEALs stirred immediate emotions in American hearts, and Christian hearts were no exception. But Christians are more introspective than most and have more easily troubled consciences. Our religion is not one of merely outward rituals but of the changed and redirected heart.
So people have been in angst over whether we should rejoice over bin Laden’s death.
John Piper explores the complexity of God’s emotions and attempts to reconcile various seemingly conflicting passages. He writes:
“In one sense, human death is not God’s pleasure:
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? . . . For I do not pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live. (Ezekiel 18:23, 32).
In another sense, the death and judgment of the unrepentant is God’s pleasure:
Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself. (Ezekiel 5:13] [Wisdom calls out:] Because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you. (Proverbs 1:25–26)
Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her! (Revelation 18:20)
As the Lord took delight in doing you good . . . so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. (Deuteronomy 28:63)
We should not cancel out any of these passages but think our way through to how they can all be true.”
Bottom line for Piper: “[W]hen a rebellious, wicked, unbelieving person is judged, what God has pleasure in is the exaltation of truth and righteousness, and the vindication of his own honor and glory.” (His reflections are adapted from The Pleasures of God, pp. 66-74.)
Albert Mohler has some sober and welcome words about “sober justice.”
“While we should all be glad that this significant threat is now removed, death in itself is never to be celebrated. Such celebration points to the danger of revenge as a powerful human emotion. Revenge has no place among those who honor justice. Retributive justice is sober justice. The reason for this is simple — God is capable of vengeance, which is perfectly true to his own righteousness and perfection — but human beings are not. We tend toward the mismeasure of justice when it comes to settling our own claims. All people of good will should be pleased that bin Laden is no longer a personal threat, and that his death may further weaken terrorist plans and aspirations. But revenge is not a worthy motivation for justice, and celebration in the streets is not a worthy response.”
Warren Cole Smith at WORLDmag.com is more dare-ye-cast-the-first-stone. “I certainly think we can and should celebrate the excellence, professionalism, and courage of the Navy SEALs who accomplished their mission. I think we should be grateful that an evildoer is now no longer able to do his evil in the world. But I also think we should be careful not to gloat. We should guard against triumphalism and pride. As a young man, Osama bin Laden drove fast cars and played soccer. There was a time when he was not so different from you and me.”
I am going to be less transpolitical about it. Here’s my take:
There is a buzz of debate among students at The King’s College where I teach. I don’t think anyone regrets that our Navy SEALs caught up with Osama bin Laden and plugged him. But not everyone is comfortable actually celebrating the fact.
It’s good, but are high fives in order? Should we party at Ground Zero? A man is dead. An evil man, to be sure. But a life that God made in his image has come to its earthly end, and a soul has been sent to judgment. Isn’t this an occasion for awful silence?
I think that such reserve is unwarranted because it fails to give proper weight to the central fact of the killing in question, namely, justice. Osama bin Laden ordered the murder of what turned out to be almost 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, and of 17 sailors on the U.S.S. Cole the previous year. He’s a mass murderer.
Regardless of what you think the role of government should be, it is indisputably to protect those under its care from murderous assault. And where someone has unjustly taken a life, it is government’s proper role to punish that injustice.
Osama bin Laden’s offense was even more serious in that it was an assault not only on private individuals, but upon the nation as a whole. It was an act of war by a foreign, sub-national organization. New York City and Washington DC were paralyzed. The nation was terrorized. And this was precisely what the al Qaeda leader hoped to accomplish.
When our special forces—arms of the American government—finally caught up with bin Laden in his Pakistani bunker-estate and popped him between the eyes, they not only secured the nation. They did justice. More specifically, the American civil government that God instituted by the will of the American people executed justice on a monstrous evil doer. Scripture tells us that civil government is God’s instrument, “an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:4). “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19), and he executes his dread vengeance in part through the civil authorities he has appointed for that purpose.
A Christian can and should rejoice in all good things, among which is the execution of justice in the world. I work in Midtown Manhattan. I’m sorry I missed the party at Ground Zero.
David C. Innes is associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, and co-author of the forthcoming Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media).