Vengeance and Victory

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” —Romans 12:19

I have received today’s news with mixed emotions.  Oh, don’t get me wrong–I am not grieving the death of Osama bin Laden.  As a born and raised New Yorker who has lived for the last 20 years in Washington, D.C., two places that came under attack by Mr. bin Laden’s minions, I still have a lot of strong feelings about the devastation he wreaked on the places I call home.  I remember September 2001 very well.  Going into Afghanistan and seeking out those who had wrought this terrible mass murder was something I was completely behind.

No, I do not mourn him.  He was an apostle of a vengeful, hateful ideology that traded innocent blood for political points. But there is something that I do mourn: the loss of our soul as a people.

In our national mythology, we consider our involvement in the Second World War to be of the noblest order.  When the forces of tyranny sought to dominate the free peoples of the world, we rose to the occasion and unleashed the “arsenal of democracy” in the defense of human freedom.  When the war ended, there were mass celebrations in the streets (we’ve all seen the iconic pictures).  But there is something important to note.  As soon as the war ended, we began the task of rebuilding our former enemies, reaching out in care and compassion to a vanquished foe.  The reconstruction of Germany and Japan after the war was among the noblest, and dare I say it, most Christian, things we as a nation have done.  It is a tough thing to love one’s enemy in war-time (some argue it is impossible), but to respond with love and forgiveness after the shooting has stopped marked a great chapter in world history.  The enduring democracies in Germany and Japan have much to owe to this approach.  For, it is an approach in love.  It is what just war theorists would refer to as waging a war with the interests of peace as the result.

I remember how angry I felt in the days after September 11th when our television screens would show from time to time images of various peoples in the Middle East celebrating the attacks on the towers.  Revulsion.  Horror. Disgust.  What kind of people celebrate this kind of atrocity?  I sincerely hope it’s not us.  I don’t want pictures of American crowds celebrating the death of a terrorist to inspire the same revulsion and disgust among others.

Is the celebration around bin Laden’s death understandable?  Of course it is.  He is the mastermind of our national sorrow.  His name is forever linked to the graves of more than three thousand Americans. It would be surprising if there were not a celebration. But is our jubilation a good idea?  I am not sure.  Does it help us to demonize the other?  Does it contribute to an attitude where we no longer care about the welfare of those who would style themselves our enemies?  Does it leave us less able to respond in compassion when the shooting stops and to rebuild a troubled world?  Do the joyful celebrations too easily make light of the enormous sacrifice made so many over the last few years: those who lost their lives on that fateful day, those who stand on the front lines in defense of the nation, those who mourn our thousands of war dead?

I don’t have any easy answers.  As I wrote in a sermon some years ago, reflecting on Jesus’ commandments to forgive, I know that my Christian faith often calls me to places I am not comfortable going, and often unwilling to go.  And yet, I know that Christ’s way is the better way.  As I sit here in my office and hear the jubilant cries outside my window of those celebrating a mass murderer’s death, I can understand the emotion. I understand it very well.  But I look up at the portrait of the Crucified One on my wall, and see his head hanging in sorrow, and wonder what costs these shouts of victory will have upon the soul of our people.

Mark Schaefer
United Methodist Chaplain

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are not necessarily the opinions of the AU United Methodist Community or The United Methodist Church.

12 thoughts on “Vengeance and Victory

  1. “Of course, Christ’s words that those who draw the sword will die by the sword also apply to us (co-conspirators). But right now, reason dictates that we must do this, and then of course we still have to turn to God for forgiveness in Christ.” Bonhoeffer added, “For the first time I understand what Luther meant when he wrote (to his associate Philipp Melanchthon in 1521), ‘Sin boldly but even more boldly believe and rejoice in Christ.'”

  2. “Of course, Christ’s words that those who draw the sword will die by the sword also apply to us (co-conspirators). But right now, reason dictates that we must do this, and then of course we still have to turn to God for forgiveness in Christ.” Bonhoeffer added, “For the first time I understand what Luther meant when he wrote (to his associate Philipp Melanchthon in 1521), ‘Sin boldly but even more boldly believe and rejoice in Christ.'”

  3. mark – everything you say is true, or founded in truth, and I agree with you. While watching the phils-mets game, and seeing people chant USA, I thought about how morbid it was to celebrate a person’s violent death.

    it’s not a death worth celebrating – it’s the end of an era. my friends and i were at the white house. we were waving flags, we were singing patriotic songs, and we were elated. but not because a man died. every one of us remembers where we were 9/11, and more importantly, how it changed our world drastically and negatively. the country we lived in became cynical, realist in policy, scared and xenophobic. this is kind of the end of that era, to us. in a strange way, it’s as though we no longer have to fear.

    i know my middle eastern friends will see the photos and videos of us celebrating on facebook, and it has occurred to me. i don’t want them to feel like this divides us further. but i believe they understand what this means for us and for our feeling safe. everywhere – here in our own country and abroad.

    this is the end of a terrible decade in which americans were singled out as separate from the rest of the world. but i saw so many diverse faces – multitudes of ethnicities, young and old, black and white, foreigners from europe or asia, muslims in hijabs, foreign taxi drivers smiling widely and honking in jubilation, etc. This isn’t about a man’s death. it’s about freedom for everyone. a glimmer of hope that we might be able to all look into the future and continue to build a world highly inter-connected and human more than national. terran, if you will.

    i know that’s a naive thought but it’s what i saw in the faces around me tonight.

  4. mark – everything you say is true, or founded in truth, and I agree with you. While watching the phils-mets game, and seeing people chant USA, I thought about how morbid it was to celebrate a person’s violent death.

    it’s not a death worth celebrating – it’s the end of an era. my friends and i were at the white house. we were waving flags, we were singing patriotic songs, and we were elated. but not because a man died. every one of us remembers where we were 9/11, and more importantly, how it changed our world drastically and negatively. the country we lived in became cynical, realist in policy, scared and xenophobic. this is kind of the end of that era, to us. in a strange way, it’s as though we no longer have to fear.

    i know my middle eastern friends will see the photos and videos of us celebrating on facebook, and it has occurred to me. i don’t want them to feel like this divides us further. but i believe they understand what this means for us and for our feeling safe. everywhere – here in our own country and abroad.

    this is the end of a terrible decade in which americans were singled out as separate from the rest of the world. but i saw so many diverse faces – multitudes of ethnicities, young and old, black and white, foreigners from europe or asia, muslims in hijabs, foreign taxi drivers smiling widely and honking in jubilation, etc. This isn’t about a man’s death. it’s about freedom for everyone. a glimmer of hope that we might be able to all look into the future and continue to build a world highly inter-connected and human more than national. terran, if you will.

    i know that’s a naive thought but it’s what i saw in the faces around me tonight.

  5. Thank you for this piece! While I watched the “celebration” and knew that members of my family were there, and while I feel that this death may bring closure in a sense for some, I was concerned that those images may put others in harm’s way. I thank you for a nicely balanced piece that does well to remind us what our next steps should be.

  6. Thank you for this piece! While I watched the “celebration” and knew that members of my family were there, and while I feel that this death may bring closure in a sense for some, I was concerned that those images may put others in harm’s way. I thank you for a nicely balanced piece that does well to remind us what our next steps should be.

  7. Mark, I couldn’t agree more. We claim we want world peace, but only on our terms. We need to hold ourselves to the same standards as we hold to everybody else. We should be accepting people to our point of view, not riotously proclaiming victory from a pile of corpses. The euphoria feels good. Of that there is no doubt. But sometimes we need to let the bigger picture fill the frame.

  8. Mark, I couldn’t agree more. We claim we want world peace, but only on our terms. We need to hold ourselves to the same standards as we hold to everybody else. We should be accepting people to our point of view, not riotously proclaiming victory from a pile of corpses. The euphoria feels good. Of that there is no doubt. But sometimes we need to let the bigger picture fill the frame.

  9. I agree with most of your position. I too was upset with the celebrating because it reminded me of the celebrating in many mid-east countries when tragedy occurred in our country. I certainly understand the elation over the removal of one of the most hateful people in the history of the world.
    What is even more disturbing is the efforts and resources that terrorist put into their campaign against the west. If only they applied those efforts and resources to the betterment of their people. That would truly be worth celebrating.

  10. I agree with most of your position. I too was upset with the celebrating because it reminded me of the celebrating in many mid-east countries when tragedy occurred in our country. I certainly understand the elation over the removal of one of the most hateful people in the history of the world.
    What is even more disturbing is the efforts and resources that terrorist put into their campaign against the west. If only they applied those efforts and resources to the betterment of their people. That would truly be worth celebrating.

Comments are closed.