I woke up this morning to find my Facebook feed lit up with the news that Osama bin Laden has been killed. Thankfully, most of the status updates were not of the celebratory type, though there was a particularly egregious "Got 'em! USA, Stopping terrorism since 2001!" post. Leaving aside the inaccuracy of this statement -- we were struck by terrorists in 2001 and did not manage to "stop" Osama until this weekend, ten years, thousands of lives, and untold more hatred sown later -- many of my Facebook friends are fellow theology students who tend toward the more stereotypically liberal, friendly Christianity than the stereotypically and often unfairly caricatured conservative, "Jesus is an American warrior" type. (More on this later.) In any case, I was at least relieved that I did not have to stomach celebrations of death on top of news of death this morning.
The Gospel commands us to love our enemies. Even the tax collectors love their friends; but Christians are called to a higher standard, to love our enemies as well as our friends. There are no footnotes explaining that it's okay to hate our enemies and celebrate their deaths if they are really bad people. The command is simple: love your enemies.
Does this mean we have to be pushovers and not stand up for ourselves when someone is trying to harm us? Some would disagree with me, but I don't think so. I attended a panel discussion on just war theory at the University of San Francisco a few years ago, and then-Msgr. Robert McElroy used the example of the Good Samaritan to illustrate his position. In the biblical story, the Samaritan happens upon the man who has been beaten after the robbers have already left. But what would the appropriate response have been if the Samaritan had witnessed the attack? Would it have been to stand back and watch the man be beaten and robbed? I follow Msgr. McElroy in asserting that the appropriate response in that situation would be for the Samaritan to intervene to protect the accosted man, even if that meant he would necessarily have to injure the robbers as a result.
I see two main objections to this analysis. The first is that maybe the Samaritan would not be able to prevent the attack, and his attempted intervention would only result in himself being injured or killed. The second is that this reasoning can be stretched and abused to justify preemptive strikes that are really offensive rather than defensive. Both criticisms are valid. However, I will set them both aside for now since neither applies to the situation that inspired this post.
My distaste for celebrations of bin Laden's death does not arise from a conviction that bin Laden was a good person, or from a belief that the United States should not have taken steps to protect itself and prevent future harms. It arises from a basic conviction that an unnatural death is never something to be celebrated. It is always, if not a tragedy, at the very least a sad occasion. A bad man died; but how many thousands of other people also died unnatural deaths in efforts to bring about this one? His death is a reminder of all those that have occurred both at his hands and in the name of the War on Terror.
Now, a note on the liberal/conservative stereotypes. A comment on another celebratory status update read "man im glad to hear some patriotism an not some liberal [rhymes with "ducks"] lol." Looking at my friends' updates, those celebrating bin Laden's death are mostly conservative Christians, including Catholics; and those decrying the celebratory atmosphere are mostly liberal, including many who are not particularly religious, if at all. Thus it happens that those celebrating bin Laden's death are the most vocally anti-abortion, while those cautioning against the celebration thereof are perhaps on the whole more likely to be pro-choice. Interesting, no? Broadening this to thinking about the nation as a whole, I think I can safely assume that this divide in attitudes would hold true for a reasonably significant majority of the population. Obviously, not everyone strives to align his/her life with the Gospel. But from a Christian standpoint, this makes no sense. How can people be against celebrating bin Laden's death, but be in favor of killing unborn children? Yes, there are the "babies are innocent/bin Laden was not innocent," and the "it's a woman's body, and she gets to choose what to do with her own body" arguments; but if we look deeper to the actual fact of the deaths themselves, inconsistency abounds.
"Love your enemies" is biblical. "Respect for life from a natural birth to a natural death" has entered my knowledge specifically through the Catholic tradition, but I do not doubt that non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians can also assent to this. Though it may be difficult, let us use this occasion to remember and mourn the death and evil that are so prevalent in our time, in all their forms and whatever their causes.
I will end with a quotation lifted from a friend's status update:
"Unpopular and difficult though it may be, let us never celebrate or equate with justice the death of an individual himself but unabashedly rejoice in the end of his evil efforts, particularly in this Easter time. May we be ever vigilant against the allure of 'justified' hate which inevitably soils the very good it seeks to restore and tears our own hearts only further asunder."