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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