Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”Romans 12:19
I have received today’s news with mixed emotions. Oh, don’t get me wrong—I am not grieving the death of Osama bin Laden. As a born and raised New Yorker who has lived for the last 20 years in Washington, D.C.—two places that came under attack by Mr. bin Laden’s minions—I still have a lot of strong feelings about the devastation he wrought on the places I call home. I remember September 2001 very well. Our decision to go into Afghanistan and seek out those who had wrought this terrible mass murder was something I was completely behind.
No, I do not mourn him. He was an apostle of a vengeful, hateful ideology that perverted a noble religious tradition and traded innocent blood for political points. But there is something that I do mourn: the loss of our soul as a people.
In our national mythology, we consider our involvement in the Second World War to be of the noblest order. When the forces of tyranny sought to dominate the free peoples of the world, we rose to the occasion and unleashed the “arsenal of democracy” in the defense of human freedom. When the war ended, there were mass celebrations in the streets (we’ve all seen the iconic pictures). But there is something important to note. As soon as the war ended, we began the task of rebuilding our former enemies, reaching out in care and compassion to a vanquished foe. The reconstruction of Germany and Japan after the war was among the noblest, and dare I say it, most Christian, things we as a nation have done. It is a tough thing to love one’s enemy in war-time (some argue it is impossible), but to respond with love and forgiveness after the shooting has stopped marked a great chapter in world history. The enduring democracies in Germany and Japan have much to owe to this approach. For, it is an approach in love. It is what just war theorists would refer to as waging a war with the interests of peace as the result.
I remember how angry I felt in the days after September 11th when our television screens would show from time to time images of various peoples in the Middle East celebrating the attacks on the towers. Revulsion. Horror. Disgust. What kind of people celebrate this kind of atrocity? I sincerely hope it’s not us. I don’t want pictures of American crowds celebrating the death of a terrorist to inspire the same revulsion and disgust among others.
Is the celebration around bin Laden’s death understandable? Of course it is. He is the mastermind of our national sorrow. His name is forever linked to the graves of more than three thousand Americans. It would be surprising if there were not a celebration. But is our jubilation a good idea? I am not sure. Does it help us to demonize the other? Does it contribute to an attitude where we no longer care about the welfare of those who would style themselves our enemies? Does it leave us less able to respond in compassion when the shooting stops and to rebuild a troubled world? Do the joyful celebrations too easily make light of the enormous sacrifice made so many over the last few years: those who lost their lives on that fateful day, those who stand on the front lines in defense of the nation, those who mourn our thousands of war dead?
I don’t have any easy answers. As I wrote in a sermon some years ago, reflecting on Jesus’ commandments to forgive, I know that my Christian faith often calls me to places I am not comfortable going, and often unwilling to go. And yet, I know that Christ’s way is the better way. As I sit here in my office and hear the jubilant cries outside my window of those celebrating a mass murderer’s death, I can understand the emotion. I understand it very well. But I look up at the portrait of the Crucified One on my wall, and see his head hanging in sorrow, and wonder what costs these shouts of victory will have upon the soul of our people.