There is a question in the Talmud (a Jewish commentary on Scripture dating to 1700 years ago) that asks, “Does the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoice at the downfall of the wicked?” I think that’s a question we all have to explore this week as we mark the death of one of the most heinous people of our time, Osama bin Laden.
My own feelings ran the gamut of surprise, amazement, relief, and hope. I suspect most of us had similar reactions. However, once I saw the footage of cheering crowds, I began to feel we were overlooking some fundamental realities. On the West Coast, where there was more time, there were even street parties and fireworks displays. My friends on Facebook, clergy included, posted a mixture of joyful posts and prayers for our enemies.
While we can’t deny our feelings, what is an appropriate way to mark this moment as a people of faith? Was justice served (and this is not a simple question)? Do we rejoice at the success of the operation? Do we grieve at the hold violence continues to have on our lives? Or do we stand in solemn silence, perhaps turning over our thoughts to God in prayer?
When the Hebrew slaves escaped Egypt through the parted Red Sea, the sea closed over again and drowned the pursuing armies of Pharaoh. Safe on the other side, Moses’ sister Miriam danced and Moses sang the song “I will sing to the Lord who is lofty and uplifted, the chariots of Pharaoh and his army has drowned in the Red Sea.” (Exodus 15). The Talmud says that the angels in heaven also sang hymns of praise to God at the defeat of the enemies of God’s people. God then rebuked them, asking “How can you sing at the death of my children?” Even the destruction of those seeking the death of God’s chosen was not beyond God’s grief. Yet, the people themselves rejoiced, and we sing that hymn of joy each year at the Easter Vigil, and each Thursday during Morning Prayer.
I think the discrepancy in responses between God and God’s people show that it is truly OK to feel relief when something happens that makes one more safe, gives one a chance for a better future, or brings to a close a very painful past. Yet, it is never safe to assume our actions are God’s actions, and history has shown that hatred and violence always seem to find a new champion.
In the midst of this reality, Jesus calls us to remember the larger reality and orient ourselves accordingly. And this is why we cannot cheer. Bin Laden has to now stand before divine judgment where all is revealed to him in it's terrible fullness, and it must be a dreadful prospect to stand before God and discover that one’s life has been nothing more than a source of destruction in service to a delusion.
In the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, God asks “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23) This history of salvation is the story of a just, holy, and merciful God seeking ways for a broken humanity to be in fellowship with God. We are never off the hook for our own sins, but God seeks a way for us to move past those sins.
Christ died for the whole world, the just and unjust alike, and it is through Christ’s love and not our own merits that we are given mercy on the Day of Judgment. It is in this context that Scripture calls us to not only pray for loved ones, and ourselves but for our enemies as well, as Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44)
The Christian life is about joining our hearts to Christ’s heart, and it is the heart of Christ that loves the whole world, thus we, too, must learn to love the whole world, friend and foe alike.
Whether bin Laden will have the opportunity to repent of his sins and have his soul set aright after death is solely in the hands of God, but the greater witness of our faith story is that God will do anything to give us that opportunity, even die for us, though the final choice to accept that grace is always left up to us.
What we can celebrate is that God is both merciful and just, and that mercy is given to us in Jesus Christ who stands with us on that last day. In the words of Psalm 107:1, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his mercy endures forever.” There but for the grace of God, could go any of us.
Prayer for Our Enemies
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
- Book of Common Prayer, p. 816