On Monday, 2 May 2011 I was almost as shocked as I was on 11 September 2001. I returned from my early morning run to find my family at our television watching Al Jazeera. The news was clear. Osama Bin Laden had been killed. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Then a moment later I was aghast. Americans were celebrating. Death is no cause to celebrate. The pragmatic politician may argue that to celebrate death invites retribution. I am no politician, but I may be a prophetic pastor. As such there are principles greater than pragmatism. Life is the greatest value on this earth. Whenever it is lost one must pause. A wake or funeral may be a celebration of life and hope. However, lives taken as measures of justice must never be gloated over.
The emotions of revenge run deeply through our humanity. Even Bible verses contain words crying for revenge such as “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks (Psalm 137:8-9).” God is so magnanimous that he can bear to hear all the cries of our heart, even those seeking revenge upon children.
Another passage summarized the misplaced euphoria of my American brothers, “When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy (Proverbs 11:11).”
Yet when God speaks for Himself He proclaims, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live (Ezekiel 18:23)?”
Maybe, the reason I find such great offense at celebrating the death of the wicked is that I am preaching through the 10 Commandments at Christ’s Church in Rwanda (CCR). The sixth command is clear, “No killing.” Old Testament commentators argue it prohibits the cycles of revenge killings so common in clan warfare. The Jewish law saw life as so valuable that the only just punishment for taking life was capital punishment. Yet, the best of Jewish tradition was clear. Death was no cause to celebrate. Celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden seems far too much like cycles of clan revenge.
Humanity’s greatest philosophers have consistently concluded as we wrestle with ethical dilemmas that we must simply treat others as we desire to be treated.
Allow me to share my memories of being an American living outside of America on September 11. A Ugandan friend called me as she heard news on the radio of American tragedy. I turned on my TV to see on CNN as the second tower went down. I felt fear. I immediately called my parents to make sure my mom was safe and not in a public place. Then I knew within my spirit that my younger brother who serves in the US Marine Corp would soon be leaving home. For the last 10 years he and his comrades have been in my daily prayers.
My friends from various nations and faiths offered their condolences. These friends included Arabs and members of the Muslim faith. In fact, my Arab and Muslim friends surprised me with their magnanimity. As my seasons of life continued in the Great Lakes Region I found that at several key times when courage, generosity, kindness, and truth were deeply needed by my community it was my Muslim friends who first showed these marks of God.
I also remember watching on CNN as some cheered seeing thousands of innocent civilians die on September 11. I remember seeing Osama Bin Laden T-Shirts rapidly sell in the city I called home. I remember young people who saw Osama Bin Laden as a hero. They shouted insults at me as my morning run took me past their hang outs. I do not remember the feeling of fear, but of profound sadness that young had come to hate with such passion.
Thus as I listen to the words of my master, “Treat others as you want to be treated,” I cannot celebrate the death of the wicked. To do so is hateful revenge. The cycles of revenge have no place in healing the wounds of injustice. Death is no cause to celebrate.
I am not alone in these convictions among Americans. Martin Luther King Jr. summarized our thoughts well, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that”
Death is no cause to celebrate.