Do no gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him.– Proverbs 24:17,18
Do no repay anyone evil for evil. be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.– Romans 12:17-21
Late Sunday night, news broke of the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. After an almost decade-long manhunt, the man accused of being the mastermind behind the 9-11 attacks on Manhattan and Washington, among others, had finally been slain. Jubilation in the streets. An opportunity to waive the flag, to feel good about ourselves again. Our President addressed the nation. Chants of “USA! USA!” Newscasters credited both Obama and his predecessor for their unflinching vigilance. And of course, thanksgiving for our armed services.
I suppose at such a moment in history it is easy for Christians, too, to be caught up in the elation, relief, and national pride. Probably, somewhere in America, church bells were ringing. But even at this time of national celebration, we should remind ourselves that the New Testament, while commanding us to be good citizens, also reminds us that our true citizenship is in heaven, our ultimate allegiance to a kingdom that both is and is not yet; that we serve and worship, not a military hero, but a rabbi who taught of love even for our enemies and whom the world still does not understand, who was nailed to a tree, the Prince of peace, Son of God, King of kings and Lord of lords. What then should be our response as followers of such a Christ?
First, for the Christian, the death of any human being, even such a violent man as bin Laden, should never be an occasion for gloating or celebration, but for sober reflection. One may feel relief, of course, that a long and violent thread in the fabric of our world’s history has been snipped. That such a man, who lived such a violent life, ended it in such a violent way may be evidence of God’s justice but should never be the source of rejoicing. If we do not understand that, then we do not understand the One we claim to serve, who does not delight in the death of any sinner, but longs for all to come to repentance. Our enemy is never our enemy; it is the Enemy who is our enemy.
Second, we ought not to be arrogant but to reflect with grief at the massive toll in human life, hundreds of thousands, resulting from this manhunt or from the wars for which this manhunt was but a pretext. Revenge is costly in every way. Ironic is it not, that the original stated goal of this war was achieved by a handful of Navy Seals in a neighboring country, and not the hundred thousand still attempting to garrison another?
Third, we need to examine ourselves. Our President’s remarks last night were tragically revealing– of how we as Americans see the world and our nation’s role in it: “Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. We are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.” Sadly, however, our increasing skill at targeted assassinations does not make us either great or good. One would think he were speaking of some great humanitarian achievement. That such a remark should emanate from a winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace is a travesty of history that should chasten us, rather than embolden us with pride. But this is not the first time acts of violence were wrapped in such rhetoric about “American values.” We are a violent nation. Our history bulges with such examples, from Manifest Destiny to Vietnam.
“Justice has been served,” we were told. Whose justice? Now, I always thought that justice was something that resulted from a process of law, not something meted out on a battlefield, in which case both he and the victims of 9-11 and their families were denied justice. Unless, of course, we are talking about divine justice, of which we are doubtless the self-appointed guardians. We ought to shiver at such blasphemy. What America got Sunday night was not justice but vengeance. One may argue that the world is a safer place now, but we should tremble to cloak vengeance in the language of God’s justice.
The book of Proverbs encourages us to learn from our enemies in humility, for even they have something to teach us. It saddens me to the core, however, to think that after almost ten years of this “war against terror,” after so many lives lost, nations in ruins, trillions spent, we still have so little understanding about ourselves. Bin Laden was not only a mass-murderer; in his twisted and grotesque way, he also tried to hold the mirror up to our faces. But it is not an image we have ever been able to bear.
It is easy to curse an enemy, to beat one’s breast and waive a flag, and to dance like goblins over the corpses of those we demonize. It is not so easy to trod the Calvary road of our Savior, who commanded us to love our enemies and to pray for those who hate us, to win them, not with bombs or with our feet on their necks, but through peaceful acts of sacrifice, generosity and kindness. That is true heroism. Would that it were truly American.