The Common Good

Is It Moral to Celebrate a Person's Death?

[Editors' note: This post was written in response to a question posed by The Washington Post's On Faith blog editors: Is it moral to celebrate a person's death, even if he is guilty of heinous crimes?]

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Pumping our fists in victory or celebrating in the streets is probably not the best Christian response to anyone's death, even the death of a dangerous and violent enemy. The world can be relieved that a leader as evil as Bin Laden can no longer plot the death of innocents. We can be grateful that his cynical manipulation and distortion of Islam into a message of division and hate is finally ended. Even if we sharply dissented from the moral logic or wisdom of the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan of the last decade, we can be glad that a mass murderer has been stopped and brought to justice. And we can be hopeful that the face of the Arab world might now become the young nonviolent activists for democracy rather than a self-righteous smirk of a self-promoting video character who tells us he is going to kill our children if we don't submit to his hateful agenda.

But the book of Proverbs clearly warns us to "not rejoice when your enemies fall." And, in the hardest words of the gospel, Jesus tells us to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Neither of those texts have been very popular pulpit texts during the years since 9/11. So as people of faith, we don't celebrate the death of other human beings, regardless of how twisted or evil they have become.

The chants of "USA, USA, USA" are also not the best mantra for believers who should know that they are meant to be Christians first and Americans second. We Christians have too often valued the innocent lives of Americans who have been lost to war more than the innocents who were in the way of our wars in response to the attacks against us. Christians are simply not allowed to so selectively value human life.

The violence of terrorism, the violence of war, and even the violent reprisal against Osama bin Laden on Sunday should all push us to deeper reflection, and even repentance, for how we have allowed the seeds of such destruction to take root and grow in our hearts and in our world. Neither does this successful action vindicate all the other violence we have committed in the name of our "War on Terror." If anything Sunday's success showed the effectiveness of good intelligence and "policing activities" more than the endless wars of occupation, as some have pointed out.

More innocent civilians have become the "collateral damage" of our wars, than from the direct assault on civilians undertaken by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda assassins on September 11. This fact, by the standards of Just War Theory, which is at least given lip service in most churches, is a grave moral failing. Violence is always more a sign of our failures than our successes and is not easily exorcized from the world by the killing of one man, no matter how dangerous or symbolic he may be.

As long as Osama bin Laden remained at large and able to launch his hateful rhetoric, we seemed stuck in failed wars as our best response to terrorism. But perhaps with Bin Laden now gone and rendered irrelevant, we can turn the page on the 10-year trauma of 9/11 and find better ways to settle our conflicts, defend ourselves, and undermine the threats against peace. I believe one of our most hopeful ways forward is to now unite across religious lines and learn again together "the things that make for peace."

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Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.


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