Is it okay to cheer when someone dies?

Modest Hits Tour

Modest Hit #6 Is It Okay to Cheer When Someone Dies? (Originally published on May 4, 2011)

blog - bin LadenAlright, so I’m probably about the last person using social media to comment on the death of Osama bin Laden.  Nonetheless, this is the type of episode that really only comes along perhaps once a generation or so, so I’m not sure we’ve fully taken in what we’ve seen unfold over recent days.  One significant example of what I’m talking about was seen within minutes of President Obama’s national announcement of bin Laden’s death – celebration in the streets.

Now someone can feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here, but not within my lifetime, and I don’t recall seeing any documentation from years earlier, have we actually seen Americans literally cheering, singing, dancing, and in general, rejoicing, over the death of a specific individual, as we do here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kI8EUqbWdM

Comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, whom I don’t always agree with but don’t deny is unquestionably very intelligent and most often quite funny, said that because he was so close to the whole situation (covering bin Laden for years in the media, living in New York City, etc.), he probably was too close to it all to be the best person to objectively comment on bin Laden’s death.

Well, I’m not too close.  I’m not in the media.  While I’m incredibly grateful for our country’s armed forces, I really don’t have any close familial ties to the U.S. military.  I’ve only driven through NYC once.  And my take on what I saw Sunday night was: Cheering someone’s death DOES seem a little weird.  Millions of tweets and Facebook statuses immediately rejoicing in someone’s death is a bit peculiar.  This is something that, as far as I know, we haven’t seen as a culture before.  One of my favorite descriptions from an analyst was that the celebration “looked like the Ewok party at the end of Return of the Jedi.”  In fact, what it looked like was similar to the footage of what we saw many Middle Eastern children doing on 9/11.  It looked more like people interested in winning than people concerned for or about life.

Now, our country (and others) have cheered the end of war before.    And since bin Laden was clearly the head of a terrorist organization in Al-Qaeda that some hold responsible for the deaths of anywhere from 100,000 to a million civilian deaths, maybe ending his life is as clear of a victory as we can get in the War on Terror.  In other words, maybe it could be interpreted more as celebration of a war coming to a close rather than celebration over an individual’s death.  Nonetheless, it looked strange.  It looked more like the USA had won the Super Bowl than a war and it felt more like people were cheering the fact that “USA won” and “bin Laden’s dead” more than the fact that lives may be spared from the hands of a Sharia law Muslim madman.

Aside from hearing Geraldo Rivera on FOX reference this as the Old Testament’s injunction of an “eye for an eye,”  I’m yet to hear too many in the mainstream reference “what the Bible might say” about such things, which is a little odd in that, while bin Laden was not necessarily a Muslim leader, his beliefs were undeniably attached to his Muslim faith.  One notable individual often linked with Christian thought that weighed in was Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, whose official statement (i.e. not what he blurted out, but what he actually thought through and then wrote down as a statement to the world) much like many/most Americans, voiced more joy over bin Laden’s death than concern for bin Laden’s (or anyone else’s) soul.  He said this:

It is unusual to celebrate a death, but today Americans and decent people the world over cheer the news that madman, murderer and terrorist Osama Bin Laden is dead…It has taken a long time for this monster to be brought to justice. Welcome to hell, bin Laden. Let us all hope that his demise will serve notice to Islamic radicals the world over that the United States will be relentless in tracking down and terminating those who would inflict terror, mayhem and death on any of our citizens.

I guess I’d respond to his statement like this: If I am the face of American politics that is perhaps most closely associated with the Christian faith, I don’t say that.  It recalls the spirit of Peter chopping off Malchius’ ear in Gethsemane, not Jesus healing it.  And while I fully believe that God has given the government the right to take life from those who themselves have been so careless as to take life, Huckabee’s words sound more like dialogue from Bruce Willis in Die Hard, not a Christian, or even a politician.

In 2002, bin Laden wrote a public letter in which he called for Americans to “reject the immoral acts of fornication (sex before marriage), homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and usury (unjust interest collection).”  As a Christian pastor, I’m not sure he wasn’t on to something.  In the sermon I preached this past Sunday (linked here: http://resrochmn.wordpress.com/), I mentioned how the United States, by most definitions, is considered the “Most Christian Country” on the planet.  And yet we have countless statistics that don’t jive with our “Christian” beliefs.  We are a country that is willing to call Jesus “God” but refuses to follow Jesus as “Lord.”  Bin Laden’s problem was that he went about trying to “fix” America’s problems in the most godless, careless, and devilish of ways.  He deserved to die for his actions.  And his death is perfectly biblically defensible.  However, the drunken, spoiled rich kids and homosexual activist groups that I saw dancing in the streets at the announcement of bin Laden’s death made clear to me that the good/evil lines aren’t drawn as clearly and neatly as the national or political boundaries.

The more I think about it, the more I think that we as a country had a chance as “THE most influential Christian country” to show the world how to properly understand this – complete and necessary justice, but sad in the loss of human life, particularly a human life that is unquestionably bound for hell in his rejection of Jesus Christ as his Savior.  Instead, I think we kind of blew it with drunken parties and official statements from supposed Christian leaders saying things like, “Welcome to hell, bin Laden.”  I’m not convinced, as a people, that we’re much better than what bin Laden thought.

As with all things, there are certainly two sides to this.  While bin Laden’s death doesn’t bring back the husbands and wives of those who lost family members and friends on 9/11 or any other of al-Qaeda’s terrorist events, seeing the man killed is certainly evidence that there remains some sense of “justice” still sought on our planet.  And that, in itself, is something to take comfort in.

I also think that wishing for & praying for evil or evildoers to be brought to justice is certainly in line with the Christian faith.  We see that quite clearly in what are called the “imprecatory psalms” of the Old Testament.  Major Imprecatory Psalms include Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 with another dozen and a half or so also falling under the “imprecatory” (i.e. calling down curses) category.  And it’s not as though they were just seeking a form of Old Testament, old covenant, justice.  These psalms are quoted frequently in the New Testament.  For instance, Jesus quotes from them in John 2:17 and John 15:25, and the Apostle Paul quotes from Psalm 69 in Romans 11:9-10 and 15:3.  Here are a couple of examples of what imprecatory psalms look like:

  • May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.  May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.  May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.  May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. (Psalm 109:9-12)
  • May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.  Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them.  (Psalm 69:23-24)
  • O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.  (Psalm 137:9-10)

Now the diary-style psalms are often raw.  There are other places in the psalms where the psalmists at times offer words that seem to show moments of weak faith/trust in God, so I’m not sure we’d want to take EVERY attitude that we see in the psalms and always hold them up as the ideal to emulate.  Nonetheless, there are plenty of other spots in the Bible where godly leaders pray for the destruction of those who oppose God’s will.   Naturally, if these enemies oppose God’s will, then it would clearly be God’s will first that they repent of their wicked ways, but finally, if they refuse, he would desire for them and their will to be destroyed.

In reference to the Lord’s Prayer, Luther once pointed out that when one prays, “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” then he must put all the opposition to this in one category and say: “Curses, maledictions and disgrace upon every other name and every other kingdom. May they be ruined and torn apart and may all their schemes and wisdom and plans run aground.”  Again, the idea is, if a person is in clear opposition to the will of our Lord, then that person is at the same time both 1) a lost soul who needs the love, kindness, and the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ to touch their heart and turn their life around, but that person, if persistently unrepentant of their evil, is also 2) an enemy of God and (by extension) us.

So the other side of the debate in the question of “Is it okay to cheer when someone dies?” is that it would seem to be a cause for rejoicing whenever an open and obvious enemy of Christ is brought to justice.  But we never cheer in life lost.  We cheer that God is glorified when his enemies are subdued.  It might look like a subtle difference, but it is a profound one.  In this case it could be the difference between blood-thirsty, nationalistic vengeance and humble praise.  One is Christian.  One is not.

I want to remind you that I’m not trying to tell anyone what they’re “supposed to feel” at a time like this.  It’s an emotional and complex time for many families.  Am I proud to be an American?  Well, let me put it like this: I have no idea why I’m so incredibly fortunate that I was born into a Christian family in a country with a combination of unmatched prosperity and unparalleled religious freedom.  The odds are so small, humbling in fact.  I could just have easily been a pagan peasant child in the Soviet Union or China or a militant Muslim in the Middle East.  I’m so thankful to be an American, and incredibly grateful to our armed forces currently serving as well as to those who have done so in years past.  Regardless of how the masses or some leaders in our country have handled (or mishandled) bin Laden’s death, it doesn’t change that.

“For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,” declares the Sovereign Lord. “Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32)

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