Osama bin Laden — a man whose purpose in life was to inflict death and suffering on as many innocent people as possible — was finally killed, and much of the Western world’s religious — and, of course, secular liberal — elite has expressed moral objections to those who celebrated this death.
Pastor Brian McLaren was named one of Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” in 2005. This is how he reacted to television images of young Americans chanting “USA! USA!” the night bin Laden’s death was announced: “Joyfully celebrating the killing of a killer who joyfully celebrated killing carries an irony that I hope will not be lost on us. Are we learning anything, or simply spinning harder in the cycle of violence?”
CNN reported this reaction by an Episcopal priest, Danielle Tumminio, whose Long Island neighborhood lost scores of people in the 9/11 attacks:
When she saw images of Americans celebrating, “My first reaction was, ‘I wish I was with them,’ ‘My second reaction was, ‘This is disgusting. We shouldn’t be celebrating the death of anybody.’ It felt gross.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, reacted to the killing of bin Laden in this way: “I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling; it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done.”
Likewise many rabbis have objected to celebrating the death of one of history’s great Jew-haters.
In the New Jersey Jewish Standard, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, a prominent rabbi in the Conservative (not conservative) denomination of Judaism, eloquently wrote of his gratitude to both Presidents Bush and Obama for the killing of bin Laden, blessed the Navy SEALS, and blessed America. “But,” he then wrote, “even with all of those feelings, I cannot celebrate a death. It does not feel right. It does not feel Jewish. When I saw hundreds of young people chanting and cheering in front of the White House, at Times Square and with Ground Zero in the background last evening before the President addressed the nation, I had a hard time differentiating between us and them.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice-president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, wrote in the Washington Post that “Judaism [finds] the celebration of a person’s death, even if he is guilty of a heinous crime, as immoral.”
Many Reform rabbis have expressed similar sentiments.
On the other hand, nearly all “fundamentalist” Christian and Jewish clergy wrote of the permissibility, even goodness of celebrating bin Laden’s death. As Orthodox Rabbi Tzvi Freeman wrote on the Chabad website Ask the Rabbi,“Someone who is not celebrating at this time is apparently not so concerned by the presence of evil upon our lovely planet.” And as Chuck Colson wrote in the Washington Post, “The death of bin Laden is being rightly celebrated by the Western world, and indeed by Christians.”
The Christian and Jewish clergy who objected to celebration of bin Laden’s death cited the Bible — and in the Jewish instances, the ancient rabbis.
Nearly all cited the Book of Proverbs: “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, let your heart not exult.”
And the rabbis all cited the famous rabbinic legend from the Talmud: “When the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea of Reeds, the angels wanted to sing. But God said to them, ‘The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?’”
On the other hand, the Book of Proverbs also states, “When the wicked perish, there is joyful song.” And the Talmud also states, “When the wicked perish from the world, good comes to the world.”
So what is one to make of these seemingly contradictory sentiments?
They are not in fact contradictory.