What Can We Celebrate – and What Ought We Not to Celebrate – About Osama bin Laden's Death

What Can We Celebrate – and What Ought We Not to Celebrate – About Osama bin Laden's Death May 4, 2011

As I noted in Part One of this series, a controversy has blossomed in the blogosphere and on social networking sites over the “Excessive Celebration” of many young people in DC, New York, and just about every college town once the news was confirmed that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  The first part considered whether there was any reasonable moral parallel between the 5/2 (the day on which Osama bin Laden died) celebrations and the 9/11 celebrations in many anti-American places around the world.  While the optics are indeed disturbing similar, I argued that there is, on a moral level, no compelling parallel here.  To celebrate the wanton slaughter of 3000 innocent men, women and children by a terrorist network is, morally and spiritually, worlds apart from celebrating the just killing by a duly elected government of the man most responsible for that slaughter.

Now, the question is, Was it wrong to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden? See the first post for background.  Before addressing the question, there must be a few provisos here:

  1. Most of the revelers were college students and college-aged young people, who generally look for any reason to party.  Presumably many came down to their campus centers, or to places like the White House and Ground Zero, because they heard there was going to be a rockin’ party.
  2. It’s not clear to what extent the responses of those young folk are representative of the responses (a) of Americans generally and (b) of Christians in particular.  Presumably there were some Christians amongst the revelers, but these were not Christian celebrations per se.
  3. Also, it must be admitted that there are some amongst the liberal intelligentsia (trust me) who find any Public Displays of Patriotism that involve flag-waving and chants of “USA! USA!” distasteful.  This is not because those members of the liberal intelligentsia are not patriotic; it’s because they have a different vision of what patriotism looks like, and they think that the kinds of folks who drape themselves in flags generally have a lot to learn about the faults of the United States and all the rotten things we’ve done.  There is even more distaste when those PDP’s have to do with the successful prosecution of a war effort.  Again, I’m not questioning anyone’s patriotism, but I am sharing my honest observation, from having spent many years amongst people who do feel this way.
  4. Finally, I feel that we need to have a little more grace with one another.  People respond in different ways, and the “Right Reaction Police” would want everyone to respond in the same way that they did.  But we are human beings, imperfect and different, and I don’t know whether this is a situation in which every variation can be adjudicated.  Still, I do think we can have some spiritual guidelines.

What can we say, then?  What is it permissible to celebrate, morally and Christianly?  And what is not permissible to celebrate?  I would say that it would be wrong to celebrate two things:

  1. FIRST, Christians do not celebrate the loss of a soul.  Osama bin Laden did not enter the world as a terrorist.  He entered as a child of God, created in the image of God.  The story of the loss of his soul is tragic, and it is not what God willed.  God desires that all should be saved.  So we do not celebrate the loss of a soul, but I would add this proviso: many people would argue that bin Laden’s soul was lost long ago.  His death only took him to the judgment for which he was fated ever since he cast his lot so fully and finally against the God who is Love.  This is a subject on which reasonable Christians can disagree, but I believe that Obama had cast his lot.  And while it is important theologically to hold open the possibility that even Osama bin Laden could convert and take refuge in God’s grace, we have no reason to believe that he did so.  Again, these are delicate theological matters, but we can bracket them for the moment, and (I hope) agree that there is nothing to celebrate in the self-damnation of a human soul.
  2. SECOND, I don’t think that Christians should celebrate Osama bin Laden’s death in itself.  There is nothing joyful or laudable about taking a life.  It is tragic that such a thing, in this case, was necessary.  Life is sacred, and even when it is rightly taken, there may be some sober satisfaction in the fact that it was taken but there ought not to be, in my view, a celebration that minimizes the importance of life and the gravity of death.  In itself, abstracted from context, there’s nothing to celebrate about killing someone.  I agree with the Catholic Church that a Christian ought not to delight in the taking of a life.

What, then, might be rightly celebrated about 5/2?

  1. I think it is perfectly permissible to celebrate that justice was finally done.  We do not celebrate that we live in a fallen world, and do not celebrate that people do thinks in wars that merit their killing.  But given this context, given that there was just cause to kill Osama bin Laden, it is possible to celebrate this justice.  Martin Luther once commented that the only thing really worth celebrating is that the will of God has been done.  If the will of God has been done in the killing of Osama bin Laden, then we may celebrate the fulfillment of God’s will.
  2. I also think it’s perfectly permissible to celebrate the consequences of Osama bin Laden’s death.  The world was made safer.  The al-Qaeda network was weakened.  The morale of terrorists around the world took a hit.  In the short term, there may be an increased risk of retaliatory attacks.  But the symbolic victory of killing Osama bin Laden is huge.  This is not the way in which a hero or a martyr dies.  Make no mistake.  This is a significant blow — if not operationally (and perhaps operationally, if some of the reports about what was discovered at the compound are true) then at least symbolically and psychologically — against al Qaeda and against the cause of jihadist terrorism.  At just the moment when another model — the model of peaceful uprising in the Arab Spring — is rising to take its place, we can all celebrate that the world is probably safer now for our children.
  3. Finally, I think it’s possible to celebrate that America has accomplished something difficult and complicated, something that spanned at least two Presidential administrations and that involved many thousands of people, civilians and soldiers, working together.  Even though the result of this activity is grisly, there is something worth celebrating in the fact that we finally accomplished a worthy and important goal.

Again, I am hesitant to say that there is a single right way of responding to this news, and I do find a certain holier-than-thou attitude in people who instantly judged the “hooligans” for their “patriotic frenzy.”  But I do think there are some general moral and spiritual guidelines, if we observe the above distinctions.

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  • Watchman

    For Christians this is a sad loss because another soul was indeed surrendered to Satan. Is it perhaps because the church didn’t do it’s job in sharing the Gospel with the people group that Osama bin Laden belonged to? What if Osama bin Laden never heard the Gospel and therefore resorted to the only religion he knew, namely fundamental Islam. If Christian missionaries had visited the village that Osama bin Laden grew up in would the outcome have been different? As Christians we should not be celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden nor anyone other person who have never professed a faith in Jesus Christ. Because we have failed to tell them about Jesus. We have failed to tell them about the free gift of grace. When I see Christians stuffed in their cozy pews every Sunday at church and go about their normal lives Monday thru Saturday and do nothing to share the Good News with a dark and hurting world, how can we possibly celebrate? How can we possibly rejoice that “justice was served”?

    Jesus tasked us all with the Great Commission. No exceptions. Sadly, only a very small minority of Christians have obligated themselves to this Commission. As a result, we will only see more Osama bin Ladens in the future. More people who are angry with the world because they have been captured not by the love and grace of God, but by Satan.

    • Watchman,
      I can see that you are angry with the “church” the body of Christ as a whole (sitting in our pews, etc.). And I can understand that. But I think, looking at the whole picture, we can be glad that with bin Laden gone OTHER people WILL have a chance to hear the Gospel. As long as Jesus tarries, there are opportunities. God is not silent. Do we need to rise up and fulfil the Great Commission? Yes!!! But just imagine if bin Laden had plans in the works for another 9/11 terrorist attack to happen in the next 6 months somewhere in the world. Now that plan is thwarted. So I do rejoice that justice was done and perhaps more will have a chance to hear God calling their name. Bin Laden ultimately rejected God and God had numbered his days. Sad. But let’s get on with what we are called to do – share Jesus.

      • Watchman

        Very good points, Laura. I am a bit peeved with the church right now. A righteous anger, not an uncontrolled vile anger. An anger that so desires to see every Christian leave the comforts of their lives and serve Christ in their communities and primarily in other countries where there are BILLIONS of unreached people. Thank you for your insight. You made a lot of good points I haven’t thought of before. Let’s hope opportunities will arise for more missionaries to go to the ends of the earth.



        • Watchman,
          I share that righteous anger about the Church and the Great Commission. I hear Christians say they are not “called to go.” But, in fact, I believe the calling to share Jesus everywhere, in every place and in every time, IS, in fact, the calling of every Christian. I spent a few years in British Columbia on native reservations as well as a year in Central America working among the poor in the name of Jesus. Now, living in America, it’s hard to see and hear Christians who don’t seem to think they, too, are called. They do not realize that most of the world does not live as we do here in North America.
          So, may you keep that righteous anger and keep spurring others on to love and good deeds in the name of Jesus. Until all have heard.

  • Thank you. Thank you for your succinct response to something that has been such a hot topic of debate. I am tired of trying to explain myself and not finding adequate words to do so. Your blog is so incredibly helpful and, I think, incredibly intelligent. Thanks and God bless you.

  • C. Ehrlich

    I find your first reason for celebrating bin Laden’s death dubious. It seems assume a dubious conception of justice.

    While I find it plausible that it wasn’t unjust to kill bin Laden, is it really true that justice required bin Laden’s death, or that killing bin Laden is even a way of “getting justice done” or of fulfilling its demands? While such judgments are commonly affirmed and they obviously validate many of our all-too-human sentiments, can they indeed withstand critical reflection?

    Also, some argue that it is in God’s will to send an unbeliever to hell. Suppose that this hell-tormented individual is your own child. May we, then, celebrate the torment of your child in hell?

  • Bruce Meyer

    I’m glad that matter is behind us. I’m glad for closure, and can’t find heart to rejoice in the death of people. I’m glad for a measure of justice too.

  • Morgan

    @C. Ehrlich:
    One definition of justice is “righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness.” Doing justice means “to act or treat justly or fairly.”

    Killing the man ultimately responsible for the slaughter of thousands, whatever his purported grievances, seems to fit that definition, and is hardly a “dubious conception of justice.”

    Just because it’s unpalatable to us for the (God ordained) state to execute judgment, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong for it to do so.

  • C. Ehrlich

    Morgan, while there are plenty of potentially justifying reasons to kill bin Laden, its hardly obvious that justice per se demands his death. One justification for killing bin Laden might just be to neutralize the hostile and lethal threat which bin Laden has voluntarily demonstrated himself to be. (But to celebrate this goal is to celebrate for the second reason TD lists.) If there were some other way to secure this good (and the other such instrumental ends often achieved by such killings), would justice still demand that we kill him? In other words, what is really at the heart of justice’s so-called “demand”?

    Retributive conceptions of justice and morality are so pervasive (dignifying as they do our all-too-human sentiments of revenge and retaliation) that you might assume that justice would still demand bin Laden’s death. For example, people often seem to assume that, other things being equal, it is morally better that a person should suffer for doing wrong. I just don’t see how such assumptions can withstanding critical scrutiny once they are made explicit. It seems to me that there are a lot more reasons to be skeptical of such “justifications” for retaliation.

    • Morgan

      Very much appreciate your comments on this.

      I suppose I’m just simply arguing that the state, in this case, is the (again, God-ordained) arbiter of justice. I have absolutely no clue if that holds true in every single case (does, say, North Korea perform this function, too?).

      I’d also argue that if the outcome were that OBL was captured and imprisoned for life, that would also be justice (even though I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the decision… and I fully admit having a layperson’s “retributive conception of justice”).

      In the end, at least in this case, I think we have a proper authority deciding what is justice and what isn’t.

  • C. Ehrlich


    The thing I think you should really question is your “layperson’s retributive conception of justice.” Are you attracted to the following principle: other things being equal, it is morally better that a person should suffer for doing wrong?

    In answering this question, be sure to understand the import of the “other things being equal” phrase. It essentially means that you are not to think that what makes the suffering of the wrongdoer good is that because of the way in which it is a means to other obviously good things (e.g., setting a socially beneficial example, dissuading others from wrongdoing, protecting the innocent, etc.). Now, if you still agree with this principle, then try to say why you think it is valid. If don’t agree with this principle, then what can you say about your retributive conception of justice to make sound plausible (in the face of skeptical thought that it is just a way of dignifying with a moral imperative our all-too-human attraction to revenge and retaliation)?

  • Another view of OBL’s death is that it’s simply part of that never-ending cycle of violence that is perpetuated by empires. While his death may have weakened an already weak terror organization (and the jury is still out on that), it will surely spawn other acts of violence that we will then have to respond to, and on it goes. As MLK said years ago, you cannot end violence with violence.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Personally, I don’t think there’s any way to end violence. You cannot end violence with violence, and you cannot end violence with non-violence, simply because violence will continue for as long as there are human beings. But I do think that violence can bring an end to certain threads of violence, to violent organizations, or to violent people. Violence and the threat of violence can actually be creative insofar as it creates conditions for peaceful flourishing.

      While I have a great deal of respect for MLK and Gandhi and others who taught non-violence, I also think we need to inspect sayings like the one you quote and consider whether things are a little more complicated than they allow. My two cents.