I have seen several posts on Twitter and on blogs from Christians who believe it is wrong, on Christian principles, to rejoice in the taking of any life, even Osama bin Laden’s. I’m not sure I “rejoiced” last night when I heard the news, so I hope that this isn’t just a matter of defensiveness, but something strikes me as wrong about such scolding.
First, I’m not sure one can read the New Testament and claim that vengeance is entirely absent from the gospel message. While there is a well-worn cliche about the Old Testament vs. New Testament God, it’s pretty clear that the OT includes plenty of love and the NT includes plenty of vengefulness — indeed the two may even go together (i.e., the cliche “Old Testament God” was so jealous precisely because he loved Israel so much). The liberal valuation of “love” as unambiguously “good” is simplistic and sentimental and essentially doesn’t convince many people. Advocates can claim that the latter is because it’s such a challenging and radical message, but it might also be because it’s such a simplistic and sentimental one that seems to have very little to do with the realities of living.
Second, I will admit that there are many people who have done worse things than bin Laden. Yet bin Laden undoubtedly did really bad things! He engineered a spectacular attack that killed thousands — including followers whose loyalty he cynically manipulated to get them to carry out a suicide attack. He then made a tape for public distribution, boasting and rejoicing in the success of the attack. Is it really a stretch to say that a person like that deserves to die? I don’t think so. I also don’t think it’s especially morally problematic for victims and those who feel solidarity with the victims to rejoice when that deserved death actually takes place.
Finally, the emphasis on how even bin Laden’s life was a “life” seems to me to share in the very worst features of the so-called “ethic of life” that simultaneously rejects abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty. What poses here as the most awesome and rigorous moral system is actually a complete evacuation of moral judgment — it knows only one category, “life,” and once you have placed something into that category, your moral work is done. A clump of cells, an elderly person kept alive only by machines, a death row inmate — all of these “lives” are somehow the same. Certainly there are similarities to be found, and yet it seems insane to think that the similarity of being “alive” trumps all the other differences. Like the liberal fetishization of “love,” this doctrine seems to me to have nothing to do with life as it’s actually lived.
I am personally against the death penalty, but my reason is not that the (justly convicted) death row inmate doesn’t deserve to die. My reason, rather, is that I don’t trust the actual existing government to apply that punishment justly — in fact, it seems safe to assume that no actual existing government will trustworthy in that matter. Yet I would not begrudge the relative of a murder victim for being glad that the murderer had been killed by a fellow inmate, for instance. Similarly, even though the U.S. government is a problematic agent for this act in a lot of well-known ways, I can’t see any legitimate grounds to begrudge people from being glad that bin Laden is dead.