Where were you?
I remember the day that Saddam Hussein was captured. Do you remember where you were? I will never forget it. I was sleeping on my cot in a tent in southeast Iraq (modern day Ur-birthplace of Abraham) near a city called Al Nasiriyah. The clamor, commotion, and shouts were almost deafening. With crust still in my eyes, I instinctively reached for my helmet and flak jacket and my heart rate rapidly increased.
Weeks prior, the base had fallen victim to a double suicide bomb attack, during which I had been sleeping. The force of the explosion jarred me out of bed and onto the floor scrambling to make sense of what was happening. A few days after that attack I was leading worship rehearsal at the base chapel when some of the singers and musicians came in with eyes bloodshot from crying. They had lost several people in the attacks. I don’t think anything compares to a highly trained killing machine, painfully weeping without relief.
You can imagine my concern when I awoke this time to the loud yelling, the incessant shuffling of boots through the same sands of ancient Babylon. I soon realized something was very different though. There was no crying, nervousness or fear. There was celebration, and rightly so. The U.S. military (greatest military force in the world, no less) had just captured our number one Iraqi target! We all rejoiced and feverishly endeavored to extract every detail available through anecdotal stories, Fox News, CNN etc. Remembering the faces of those men and women who mourned the loss of their fellow brothers/sisters-at-arms, I was thankful to God that justice had come to Hussein, and would eventually come to complete fullness soon.
My wife also spent time in the Middle East; Afghanistan to be exact. She spent two tours in a much more dangerous location than I. She had friends and co-workers who were injured and even killed. I remember the day she called our home in Alaska in tears as she described how a friend, who was a sniper, had been killed. She was both mourning his death, and eager to avenge it. In addition to her emotional stability and safety eroding, spending 10 months apart definitely did little good and even damage to our very young marriage.
All of the above serve as but a few reasons why, from September 11, 2001, until recently, I have prayed for Osama Bin Laden to be brought to justice. Now that there is certainty that this prayer has come to fruition, I rejoice in God’s justice concerning all that has come of Osama Bin Laden. I find it difficult to celebrate his death in isolation outside of the context of God’s justice, however.
In a battle of “proof-texts”, the online scripture salvos have ensued in discussing this issue, of which I am no exception. On Facebook, I posted Proverbs 24:17-18 (although I misquoted the chapter as 27):
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls,
and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles,
Lest the Lord see it and be displeased,
and turn away his anger from him.
In Ezekiel 18:23, God says:
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live
While it’s clear that God doesn’t rejoice in the death of the wicked, John Piper points out that He does rejoice in His justice. Ezekiel 5:13 says:
Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself.
My confession: In my flesh, I want to rejoice in the death of Osama Bin Laden, much like I wanted to do when Saddam Hussein faced the gallows. The problem is that I can’t do it with a clear conscience before God because I can honestly say that my rejoicing isn’t motivated enough by His justice. It’s motivated more by my wish for vengeance, which is nothing more than self-regulated and self-centered justice. I think about the people I know who had loved ones working in the twin towers on 9-11. I think about the frustrating times in my marriage because of our separation due to military deployments. I think about the people who died in both Iraq and Afghanistan that my wife and I knew, and thousands others that we didn’t.
The tension is tough, but God demands we wrestle with it.
I am thankful for God’s justice. I’m also sobered by it. I will still rejoice imperfectly, repeating the words of the Psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!” I pray that those who are rejoicing do so out of a humbling, Gospel-centered reverence for God’s holiness and judgment. May it be said that we seek God’s vengeance beyond that of our own.
O LORD Almighty, you who examine the righteous and probe the heart and mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. –Jeremiah 20:12