Any society that celebrates death is in cultural trouble, and I would say rather deep trouble.
This particular kind of trouble is not new to the United States, though it would take much more than a short blog post to catalogue the many examples. The recent eruption of jubilation across this country to celebrate just one man’s death halfway around the world only adds to the list.
Let me be clear: I am not sorry that Osama bin Laden is dead. He was a fomenter of violence and terrorism across the globe and a mass murderer (even of his own people). Whether rightly or wrongly (probably a combination of both), bin Laden catalyzed two major U.S. war efforts, drained the financial resources of more than one country, and caused untold heartache in dozens of countries. The statements from the families of 9/11 victims that have been broadcast in the wake of his death bear witness to the deep wounds, the scars, the grief that this one man, in some fashion, has caused.
So I’m not sorry he’s dead. But I don’t celebrate his death, either.
That distinction, though subtle, is an important one for Christians who claim to be an “Easter people.” Easter celebrates God’s decisive victory over death. We taint that celebration if we find anyone’s death a cause for celebration and jubilation, and perhaps especially when that death is violent.
Just over a week ago, Christian communities gathered for an Easter vigil celebration. On that night, many heard the story of how God rescued the ancient Israelites by leading them across the Red Sea on dry ground. This divine act of salvation, however, came at the price of drowning Pharaoh’s entire army, both horse and rider, in that same sea.
The Israelites celebrated their rescue in song (Exodus 15:1), and I would have done the same thing. But then, I have to wonder: did any of them grieve for the dead Egyptians and their families?
We don’t know. What we do know is that the Israelites spent the next forty years wandering in the desert. I’d like to think that they spent that time learning how to mourn the deaths of their oppressors. Perhaps their wilderness sojourn inspired a broader vision of divine liberation – a vision in which both oppressed and oppressor alike would come home to the Promised Land.
Isaiah seems to have been inspired by that kind of expansive vision when he writes about all the nations (not just a select few) streaming to the Holy Mountain, where swords are beaten into ploughshares and people learn war no more (Isaiah 2:2-4).
The trajectory from Exodus to Isaiah marks a remarkable evolution from tribal warfare to universal peace. I wonder what happened to that vision when I see college-aged students celebrating bin Laden’s death outside the White House by chanting “USA! USA!” as if we had just won the World Cup. I don’t know how else to describe such a scene except with words like “ghoulish” and “ghastly.”
The life-changing, world-altering insight that violence only breeds more violence is of course not new. In more than one gospel account, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).
The risen Jesus practiced what he preached as he came back from death, still bearing the scars of his torture. To the very ones who had abandoned him, he said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19-22).
A second century theologian by the name of Origen took that peace still further, and rather dramatically, by declaring that not even Satan and all his fallen angels would be excluded from the eternal offer of love and grace.
How queer can Christianity get? No, really. How far are we willing to take this? I honestly don’t know. I do know that throwing a party because someone was shot in the head falls a bit short of the queer promise of Easter. I’m not trying to be facetious; I’m genuinely appalled by the specter of dancing on someone’s grave.
Let me suggest this, and not without a little trepidation: The queerly good news of the Christian Gospel invites us to imagine that someday, somehow, not only the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Israelites, and not only the Roman soldiers and the disciples of Jesus, but also all the victims of terrorism and al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself, will find themselves gathering in the same banquet hall, preparing for the same feast, and deeply engaged in the kind of reconciliation none of us can presently conceive.
I’m not sure any of us – myself included – can really bear the queerness of that vision. But quite frankly, I’ll take the discomfort and offense of that queerly Christian posture over the jingoistic, even blood-thirsty ejaculations of so many of my fellow US citizens over these past twenty-four hours.
Surely, Easter queerly promises something different, something better than that. Surely it does.