The pastor of the church we attended in NY, Steve Froehlich, wrote this letter to the church family:
A California elementary school teacher posted on Facebook yesterday how she was greeted that morning by one of her 6-year old students : “Osama Bin Laden is dead … is that a good thing?”
Out of the mouth of babes, eh? What an excellent question to ask, one worthy of a careful answer.
10 years ago the world changed, or at least the world that sees America at the center of global influence. The US was brutally attacked, a shrewd but cowardly action that struck at symbols of American power and claimed thousands of civilian lives. The world watched as the aura of American invincibility crumbled. The decade-long aftermath has been a costly and controversial war against a real yet shadowy enemy identified as “terrorism.” Yesterday, that war celebrated a victory with the elimination of Osama Bin Ladan, the mastermind of the 911 attacks.
“Osama Bin Laden is dead … is that a good thing?”
Bin Laden is the Hitler of our generation. So it may seem like an obviously good thing to rid the world of such a monster. Even most people who are reluctant to affirm a belief in Hell are willing to make exceptions for the Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots, Edi Amins, and Mao Zedongs of history. Bin Laden is a small-time player compared to that list, but he qualifies.
Is it a good thing that justice is served? Yes, I believe it is. Justice is served on the Cross, although upon the one true Innocent, and we are charged to enact justice (personally and collectively) as men and women made in the image of the One who is perfectly Just. However, we would be wise to recognize how often we imperfectly carry out justice, an awareness that should temper any hubris in its execution. We are starting to lose count of the number of people confidently sent to death row by a jury of their peers who have now been pardoned and released after a more comprehensive review of the evidence has exonerated them. For as many times as we do well in exercising justice, we seem to practice a justice that is polluted by arrogance and ignorance.
There seems to be little doubt that Bin Laden is guilty of launching the murderous assault upon American civilians in 2001 — he has celebrated his actions openly and repeatedly. Therefore, it is just for the American government to punish him for his crimes — it is a God-ordained responsibility for those entrusted and empowered to govern to use “the sword” for protection and punishment (Romans 13:3-4). Within the biblical framework of justice and punishment, requiring the life of the murderer for the life he has taken is a just measure of punishment. But it is an option, but not a requirement. In fact, I am personally quite persuaded that in common civil law, it is usually unnecessary and unwise to take the life of criminals even though they may be indisputably guilty of heinous crimes. The famous Levitical legal principle of lex talionus, “an eye for an eye” (Leviticus 24:17-22) is not a prescription for punishment, but a restraint on excessive punishment, a restraint upon our sinful impulses in meting out punishment. If we have been robbed, it is just to ask that what was taken be restored, that we be made whole. While it is just to exact the full measure of punishment that is appropriate, as was done on the Cross, we are always free to temper justice with mercy. Why? Often the punishment, in the end (if we are honest), is more about our own visceral satisfaction than the just measure of the law. Often, sadly and ironically, the pursuit of justice exacts a costly toll upon our souls — too often, in seeking justice, we become poisoned by hatred, bitterness, pride, revenge, and arrogance (Consider Javert, the policeman in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, who will not rest until the full weight of the law falls upon Jean Valjean, a pursuit that in the end drags him to a lonely and bitter death). It is no surprise then that the Lord our God calls us not only “to do justice” but also “to love kindness and to walk humbly” with our God (Micah 6:8).
We may agree that it is just that Bin Laden be punished for his crimes. But more importantly, I think, we need to examine how we respond even to the death of the wicked.
Should we be relieved that Bin Laden is dead? Should we put our heads on our pillows with the blissful belief that all is well, the dragon has been slain, and we may live happily… and safely ever after? Certainly we enjoy a measure of relief knowing that this particular dragon is no longer a threat. While we hope that the loss of a leader is a major setback for a movement committed to violence and evil, there are hundreds of dragons-in-training who are eager to take his place. The epic Lord of the Rings is the about the war against the diabolical Sauron. But in the wake of Sauron’s defeat, Gandalf warns that “other evils will come.” Our government must remain vigilant against all sorts of evils that threaten us. But so must we be vigilant in our every day lives. We are to live well-armored lives because we must not be naive about the nature of evil — it is relentless, cunning, and powerful, and we must not live our lives thinking otherwise. We may give thanks for victories, but we must fight on keeping in mind 2 realities: 1) the inescapable persistence of evil, and 2) the invincible presence of Christ. We stand firm and stand ready (Ephesians 6) knowing that “we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Romans 8:37) — “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Should we be glad that Bin Laden is dead? Certainly any measure of freedom and safety resulting from his death is appropriate reason to rejoice — in that sense we may say we are glad he is dead. We are happy that the threat and evil he embodies have been removed. Also, justice is a gift to those who have been wronged by the evil-doer — when the system “works” those who have been wronged may “let go” and find a happiness in healing that is free of the corrupting impulse to seek revenge.
Yet at the same time, our hearts must be ruled by the fact that even a wicked man like Bin Laden bears the image of God. We argue that the unborn must be protected because they bear God’s image, and we must hold onto that belief when we are confronted with the most unlovable and despicable of our kind. We may be called upon to carry out just punishment of a fellow human being (parents, this includes you and your children), but we must never allow ourselves to do so glibly or gleefully. All too often we think that because we believe people deserve to be punished that we can dance on their graves — but, this is to our shame that we do so, and we add sin upon sin. Furthermore, such an attitude disgraces the image of God we bear. God is not shy about punishing the wicked — he executes judgment boldly and at times ferociously making some episodes in the Old Testament painfully difficult to read. But even God who does so with perfect justice, who is ultimately the one violated by our evil and sin and has the true right unleash the fury of his justice, does not take joy in punishing anyone. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God so turn, and live” (Ezekiel 18:32). “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; so turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11). God will punish the unrepentant in Hell — he will do so justly (as he did on the Cross) — and this certainty must kindle deep compassion in our hearts for all who reject Christ as Saviour.
Also, our taking joy in the punishment of the wicked cannot help but be an evidence of our pride. We rejoice because we have declared ourselves not-evil, not worthy of punishment. Or, in other words, we think of ourselves as righteous and deserving of the benefits of justice. But this pride is rank with self-deception. We may say, “I thank God I am not a Hitler… a Bin Laden… a Republican/Democrat…” (Luke 18:11ff). The Gospel frees us to stand fully exposed in the light of God’s grace to admit what we really are apart from him. The truth is the just estimation of our lives as expressed by the Psalmist: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” The answer is: no one. We each have enough sin to merit the judgment of God that fell upon Christ. We are no less sinful than Bin Laden, and it is possible we could be guilty of the very sins he has committed were our lives not constrained by God’s grace. The Gospel demands that we make this honest assessment of ourselves. But the Psalmist does not stop with the bad news. His very next statement is this 2nd completing affirmation of the Gospel: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared [worshiped]” (Psalm 130:3-4).
How are we to respond to the death of Bin Laden?
* We give thanks for the benefits of justice — freedom, security.
* We sorrow over the effects of sin and the need for justice.
* We repent of our own sin mirrored in the sin of others.
* We pray for peace — God’s shalom that comes from hearts made new and lives reconciled to him.
* We renew our commitment to live righteously, humbly, mercifully, justly.
* We worship — we bow our hearts and lives before the true King, give him our allegiance again, and trust him to govern the world in such a way that his eternal purposes are brought to their undiminished fulfillment when Christ returns to make all things new.