"I have never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure." I will confess that this witticism, attributed to Mark Twain, was the one to which I nodded a "yes" last night as I scrolled through my Twitter feed upon discovering that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Navy Seals in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Moments later this reminder followed on Twitter, from someone quoting Proverbs 24:17, giving me pause: "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles" (ESV).
I have no doubt that in this military killing the United States' government exercised its divinely ordained task, wielding the sword to administer justice and constrain evil. I believe this to be so largely because I am one of those Christians for whom the question of the proper task and character of government cannot be answered without reference to Romans 13: "Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. … [The ruler] is God's servant for your good . … [H]e does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer."
Because of this conviction, I resonate with the statements by President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, former President Bush, and former New York Mayor Giuliani, when they say that in this killing, "justice has been done." It will be important in the days (and years) ahead to learn more about the prudential judgments that informed this military action. What were the immediate intentions with the action: to capture or assassinate? What are the military purposes that this action will advance? Beyond just retribution, what are the proper political purposes that this action will serve? But as to the fundamental justice of the action, I suffer from no ambivalence.
The question that does trouble me is how we as Christians should respond to the news of this death, especially those of us who are citizens or friends of the United States of America.
The immediate response to the news was rejoicing in the streets. Online, some of my friends and acquaintances expressed sentiments of the "O-B-L, roast in hell" variety. And I understand this response, and have at many times in my life felt similar sentiments when faced with the perpetrators of intentional grievous harm to others. The Christian Scriptures themselves show, in particular in imprecatory prayers like Psalm 137, that the people of God often feel a desire for vengeance, and take a sometimes shockingly expressed delight in the prospect or realization of punishment for enemies and evildoers:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, "Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!"
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
But beyond this immediate response, understandable as it is, I believe it is necessary for Christians to pause, and to consider the death of Osama bin Laden within the deeper perspective of human sin and divine grace. In the end, no death should give us pleasure. Another Scripture passage coming across the Twitter transom has been Ezekiel 18:23: "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?"
Whenever I take delight in the punishment of an evildoer, I am reminded of the words attributed to the 16th-century English Protestant and martyr John Bradford, who said from his imprisonment in the Tower of London, watching a criminal being led to execution, "There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford." And then I am reminded of a prayer attributed to Tim Keller, who has been a help to all of us as we tried to make sense of the events of 9/11: