Religious leaders react to death of bin Laden

May 2, 2011

After President Obama announced that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden
had been shot dead in Pakistan, ebullient crowds gathered outside the
White House and at Ground Zero to cheer the demise of the world's most
wanted terrorist, smoking cigars and breaking into chest-thumping chants
of "USA! USA!"

Watching from her home in suburban Virginia,
Christian ethicist Diana Butler Bass felt a growing sense of unease.
"What if we responded in reverent prayer and quiet introspection instead
of patriotic frenzy?" she posted on Facebook. "That would be truly
American exceptionalism."

At the Vatican too, where church leaders
had just wrapped up celebrations elevating the late Pope John Paul II
to one step below sainthood, officials urged caution. "A Christian never
rejoices" in the death of any man, no matter how evil, Vatican
spokesman Federico Lombardi said, but instead "reflects on the serious
responsibility of each and every one of us has before God and before
man."

For many Americans, bin Laden's death on May 1 was quite
literally an answer to prayer. Muslims who saw bin Laden as an apostate
breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Ethicists and pastors searched for the
appropriate space between vindication and vengeance.

"As
Christians, we believe that there can be no celebrating, no dancing in
the streets, no joy, in relation to the death of Osama bin Laden,"
Christian ethicist David Gushee said. "In obedience to scripture, there
can be no rejoicing when our enemies fall." Indeed, the Hebrew prophet
Ezekiel warned that our enemies are not necessarily God's, who takes "no
pleasure in the death of wicked people," preferring only that they
"turn from their wicked ways so they can live."

For many, what set
bin Laden apart was his defiance, unrepentant violence and coldly
calculating designs to rain destruction upon Americans, innocent
civilians and even fellow Muslims. "While vengeance is not a
responsibility of us mortals, the pursuit of justice is," said a
statement from Agudath Israel, an Orthodox umbrella group. "As believing
Jews, we see in bin Laden's demise the clear hand of God."

"It is
a sad truth that one man's death can represent a step forward in the
progress of human relations," said Zainab Al-Suwaij, president of the
Washington-based American Islamic Congress.

For many people, bin
Laden's guilt or innocence never needed to be adjudicated in a court of
law, and an American bullet to his head was judgment enough. Scholars
cautioned, however, that there's a difference between judging a man's
actions and judging his soul.

John Langan, a Jesuit professor of
Chris­tian ethics at Georgetown Univer­sity, said killing bin Laden to
prevent future attacks is morally valid, but cautioned that vengeance is
ultimately a divine, not human, right. "I knew people who died in
9/11," Langan said. "I feel deeply the evil of that action. But I am
part of a religious tradition that says that we don't make final,
independent judgments about the souls of other men. That rests with
God."

Which all leads back to Americans' response to the death of a
madman. "You have to have compassion, even for your enemies," said A.
Rashied Omar, a re­search scholar at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc
Institute for Inter­national Peace Studies. "The Qur'an teaches that
you never should allow enmity to swerve you away from compassion,
because without compassion, the pursuit of justice risks becoming a
cycle of revenge."

Others said there is a difference be­tween
rejoicing in bin Laden's death and finding a certain degree of
satisfaction—a "subtle but important difference," said Jay Emerson
Johnson, an Episcopal priest who teaches at the Pacific School of
Religion. "I'm not sorry bin Laden is dead," Johnson posted on Twitter.
"That's not the same thing as celebrating his death."

And that,
perhaps, is where Amer­icans will live in the coming weeks, caught in
the gray space between satisfaction and celebration, glad that bin Laden
is finally gone but not wanting to dance on anyone's grave.

"Without
apology, we all sleep better in our beds knowing that Osama bin Laden
is no longer a threat," said R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern
Baptist Theological Seminary in Louis­ville, Kentucky. "But celebration
in the streets is something that falls short of the sobriety that I
think Christians should have in our hearts in reflecting on this event."
—RNS