Economy of Death

It seems that the purpose of the blogsphere today is for public processing of Osama Bin Laden’s death.

The Twitter feed has alerted me to numerous posts that are saying, in essence, what I’ll say here as well: the economy of the Kingdom of God should give us pause about jumping into unmitigated celebration of the death of our country’s enemy.

A couple of thoughts on this.

First, if we speak of Bin Laden as “our” enemy, it’s important to remember that the “our” of whom we are speaking is not the church, not Christians, not the people of God, but the United States of America. Being an American is one part of my identity, it is my people, so yes, he was “our” enemy. But this is not the same as saying that he is the church’s enemy, an agent of Satan as one standing against the agents of light.

Hear me! This is not to say that he is not an agent of evil, but a plea for us to recognized that good guys and bad guys in the wars of the world are not drawn in absolute colors of black and white, but rather in various shades of gray.

The second place from which, I believe, Christian exuberance should be mitigated is in the simple biblical warning not to celebrate the downfall of our enemy. Proverbs 24 is a curious chapter. On the one hand there is the typical Proverbial expectation that God is at work in the world to reward the pious and punish the wicked. But despite this connection between the hand of God and the downfalls of the bad guys we might see here on earth, the chapter warns, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble” (Prov 24:17).

And this brings us to the final point of it all.

At moments like this, where we might recognize some net good to the world through the death of this agent of death, we also need to remember that this economy of death, which is the economy of the world, is not the economy of the Kingdom of God.

The nations live by this economy of the world, and to a certain extent are compelled to. But we, the United States, have for the past 10 years exacerbated the economy of death, fed death, through our response to the death we endured on September 11, 2001. We used those deaths as legitimation for bringing far more death to Iraq and Afghanistan than we endured on our own dreadful day.

Death begets death. It was the case with the deaths that stain Osama bin Laden’s hands, and it is the case with the deaths that stain our own. And no doubt it will be the case in the aftermath of this, our country’s latest victory.

Death begets death, until…

… until a people are formed who truly rejoice when persecuted.

… until a people are created who turn the other cheek when struck.

… until a people bless those who persecute them–bless and do not curse.

… until death is confronted with life.

… until death is conquered by resurrection.

… until the Kingdom of God comes, and God’s will truly is done on earth.

44 thoughts on “Economy of Death”

  1. Well said. I’ve been cautiously attempting to hold conversation about this on Twitter, but nerves are very raw right now. Thank you for your simple clarity.

  2. This was wonderful. I’ve had a hard time articulating it so eloquently as a result of my embarrassment and anger right now. I’m a bit more reactionary than I like to admit. Or as Paul Simon said, “I was in crazy motion until you calmed me down.”

  3. It seems that two groups immediately formed among American Christians upon the news of OBL’s death, those that delighted and those who did not. I was one that did not and am now under somewhat of a groupthink assault on Facebook. I will be reposting this.

  4. Now, I’m not off with those late-night rejoicers in D.C., and I understand that America’s enemies are certainly not always enemies of God’s people, but in this case I find it hard to say that Osama Bin Laden was not an enemy of God and his Church. He was not an enemy of God’s people because he killed Americans and was at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list, but was he not an enemy of God and his people because he saw Christians (the ones who follow the true Lord of the world) as infidels worthy of eternal death for blaspheming Allah? (Maybe he didn’t, but I was under the impression that he wasn’t too fond of us) I know most Muslims do not think this, but wasn’t Bin Laden a bit of a radical in this respect? Again, I’m not saying I’m exuberant over his death and that I wore red, white, and blue today, but I don’t think Christians and Bin Laden were necessarily neutral. He might not have minded offing some of us because we believe Jesus is the only true Lord over all creation.

    Your thoughts?

    1. It doesn’t get to your core questions, perhaps, but I’m reminded of the reminder we were given last night, that bin Laden actually killed more Muslims than he did non-Muslims.

      1. He very well did, I’m sure. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have wanted to kill more Christians because they defy Allah by claiming Jesus as Lord of the world. Whether he was successful or not misses the point.

        1. Jonathan, you raise a good point. I struggle here, because my goal is not to sanctify OBL but to keep us aware that his evils drew forth more evil from us–not the righteousness God desires. Is killing people because they have Jesus rather than Allah as Lord of the world any worse than killing people because they have Allah rather than the U.S. as Lord of all things?

          1. Daniel,if I understand you correctly you seem to imply behavior expected by God to individual Christians (turn the other cheek,etc.) also applies to Nations. How do you turn the other cheek to Hitler, Stalin, Bin Laden and the like? Taking what the Bible has to say about Nations I don’t see turning a “National cheek” anywhere, or godly in any way. Your moral equivalency of what Bin Lanen did and what the U.S. does is repugnant to me. You ventured from the spiritual where you are right on to your political beliefs. By the way, Americans dancing in the street at Bin Laden’s death is also improper and repugnant.

    2. Even if Osama Bin Laden were a direct enemy of the Kingdom, and of God, it is instructive how God deals with just such a religious zealot determined to persecute Christians: Saul.

      1. That was a very specific case and by no means establishes the norm. I don’t know, did the Navy Seals thwart God’s plan to convert Bin Laden and make him the next William Lane Craig?

        1. By waging war against Bin Laden and eventually killing him we have temporarily thwarted God’s intention to reconcile all things, yes. The example of Saul is specific, but suited your question and it was repeated many times over by the early church who either endured persecution and suffered martyrdom or rejoiced at the conversion of their former persecutors.

  5. I see your point to the extent that I am rejoicing as an American to the fall of “America’s enemy.” However, I think this is not (and need not be) the primary reason for rejoicing (although other people’s intent is undoubtedly difficult to determine).

    Bin Laden killed innocent people and intended to kill more. He deserved death. Because he killed and did not receive what he deserved, the world grieved. Now he has received what he deserved. That’s justice. Its appropriate to rejoice in justice. Prov. 21:15 (“The exercise of justice is joy for the righteous, but is terror to the workers of iniquity”)

    In my opinion, rejoicing occurred because our grief at unpunished injustice was removed. Rejoicing did not primarily occur because of our triumph over an enemy. In fact, Bin Laden physically harmed only a small percentage of us and the odds that he would harm any one of us in the future is actually quite small. So he is not much of any enemy to any one of us individually. Thus, explanations of triumph (apart from a sense that justice has been served) do not explain the full extent of the rejoicing. As evidence, “rejoicing” occurred even among the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which was subject to no physical threat from Bin Laden and presumably does not suffer from excessively close kinship with the United States (although it is more moderate than Hamas). http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/02/us-binladen-palestinians-idUSTRE74137A20110502

    Its also worth noting that the reason for not rejoicing in Proverbs 24:17 is that such rejoicing will minimize the suffering experienced by the “enemy” (here presumably, Al Qaida) (Prov. 24:18 “or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them”) I don’t believe your rationale is that our rejoicing has spared Al Qaida from receiving the full extent of the wrath it deserved. Therefore, I’d humbly suggest that additional scriptural authority may be needed to fully support your point.

    1. ^ This.

      I’ve also noticed the tendency of people to quote Prov 24:17 out of context. In context it’s actually quite close to the theology of the imprecatory psalms.

      I also think that at times, people in the wars of the world are not simpy shades of gray, e.g. those bent on the extermination of others to the greatest degree possible. In such cases I think one can rejoice in justice without rejoicing in death per se.

      1. Fair enough. It was actually the second half of the Proverb that I initially had in mind when I was thinking about its “oddness,” though I didn’t write about that part in the post.

        I’ve tried to walk a difficult line here. I do not want to make OBL out to be a saint. He clearly is responsible for numerous evils. But as I look at what “we” have done for the past 10 years, I question whether “justice” is the appropriate label for this moment. Would we call it justice when one mob boss takes out another? It’s the “we” who are the United States, responsible for far more global death and destruction than OBL, that makes me sober about assessing this moment.

        אתה האישׁ, and all of that…

        1. I agree this should be a time for introspection. And maybe I’m particularly in this mindset from coincidentally having scheduled the imprecatory psalms for my OT Poetry class yesterday. But in lecturing on those it occurred to me that (1) the psalmists (and sages) never want to take it into their own hands to carry out vengeance; that I think is an important point, and is part of what you’re trying to emphasize with respect to everything that came before this; but (2) when they pray for the death of the wicked it’s always in the mode of divine justice and/or the Tun-Ergehen-Zusammenhang principle (e.g. Ps 35:7-8). It really comes down to the issue of whether justice operates in the world. In that vein, it’s generally symmetrical. You live by the sword, you die by the sword; such is the world that God has set up. The evil that people do is requested to come back to them. That’s why Woman Wisdom herself says, “because you have ignored my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you…when distress and anguish come upon you….because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord” (Prov 1:25ff). Ok, so that can seem callous and I’m not recommending gloating or a cold indifference, but I think that we can feel satisfied that there is symmetry in the world (sometimes, yes, I see you over there Job) while also mourning not just death in general but the end of a life that rejected the fear of the Lord and in so doing brought tragedy and grief. That’s the balance I’ve tried to strike: an somewhat satisfied acceptance of the aspect of justice while also sorrowed by the loss of life, not just biological, but the whole arc of existence in which that tragic and brutal life was lived.

        2. Also, I should add, respectfully, that aside from the issues surrounding Christianity and war, the use of the analogy of mob bosses seems to imply a certain moral equivalence between the objectives and intentions of U.S. foreign policy and the objectives and intentions of Al-Qaeda, and if that’s the case then I completely reject it as indefensible. “Death and destruction” are always qualitative and not just quantitative. As just one example the difference is especially clear in the way this surgical operation was carried out with no collateral damage, the willingness to take Bin Laden alive had he not insisted on fighting back, and the care in protecting the resident women and children during the destruction of the helicopter. This is not an endorsement of “America, right or wrong”.

          1. In addition to Bradley’s point regarding moral equivalence, I think the comparison to a mob boss does not apply because the US and OBL are two different types of actors. Individuals or collections of individuals such as the mob, OBL and Al Qaida are not to punish evil. Instead, they wait for “God’s wrath.” (e.g. Romans 12:19) Therefore, an individually dispersed punishment of evil usurps God’s authority and is unjust. In practice, waiting for “God’s wrath” often means waiting for the state to dispense the “wrath of God” delegated to it for the purpose of punishing evil. (Romans 13:4– “[the state] is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”) With the death of OBL, the correct actor (a government) took the correct action (punishing evil). In my mind, Christians should praise this event as the sort of behavior we want the US to exhibit. Why should we bother to praise the punishment of evil and the implementation of justice? As David demonstrated fairly graphically, punishing evil is faith-affirming because “men will say . . . surely there is a God who judges on earth.” (Psalm 58:11) As others have noted, we can praise the US in this instance without precluding future disagreement based upon a different action we believe is unjust.

            As a separate point (and tangent), I wonder to what extent the “take no revenge against your enemy” passages can be reconciled with the praise justice/punish evil passages merely by categorizing them according to the type of actor. In this view, David’s psalms of punishing his enemies are appropriate for an anointed monarch whose personal enemies are (or should be) the same as those of the state (whose business it is to punish evil).

  6. I’m still struggling with this one, but it seems that the Osama takedown is essentially a question of captital punishment. Some of us feel that it is right to bestow justice by putting the evil one to death; others feel punishment is justified but not unto death as there must always be room for repentance.

    I understand that we are talking about a mass murderer, but I find myself questioning if I should feel joy in this so called act of justice.

  7. I think you make a number of good points here Daniel. I may question here and there too.

    ‘First, if we speak of Bin Laden as “our” enemy, it’s important to remember that the “our” of whom we are speaking is not the church, not Christians, not the people of God, but the United States of America. Being an American is one part of my identity, it is my people, so yes, he was “our” enemy. But this is not the same as saying that he is the church’s enemy, an agent of Satan as one standing against the agents of light. ‘

    ‘Being an American is one part of my identiy, it is my people…’ I am not sure that we should think of ourselves as part of a ‘people’ outside of ‘the people of God’. Here I am much happier with the title ‘resident alien’. I don’t get the impression that NT believers are encouraged to think of themselves with a national identity; we are always strangers, aliens, separate, with no country or continuing city,…

    1. Should we vote, John? Should we participate in seeking to have just laws enacted? I do think so–this is part of faithfully living out who I am here and now.

      Yes, we’re resident aliens. And my citizenship is in heaven. But I also am a parent, son, and brother; I live in a city, work at a school, am a citizen of a country. In numerous ways the requisite pragmatism of being faithful in one or more of these causes me to acknowledge the necessity of some things that I would not approve of ideally as a citizen of heaven. It’s why I can’t, in the end, be a pacifist, despite my affirmation of the peaceful way of the Kingdom of God.

      1. I am not overdogmatic on this issue (makes a change, doesn’t it) and I am especially not dogmatic on how the details are worked out. Israel were resident aliens in Babylon. They worked for the welfare of the country but they never viewed themselves as Babylonians. Only in the most nominal sense do I see myself as British.

        Nationalities seem to be part of the divisiveness of the fall that is done away with in Christ. Patriotism is perilously close to nationalism. ‘My people’ so easily becomes ‘my people right or wrong’.

        I am not a pacificit either. I believe the state has the God given right to use the sword on God’s behalf to uphold justice. So in this I doubt if we are far apart, my reservations notwithstanding.

  8. I feel that there is a difference, between those who are rejoicing over the death of the actual man, and those who are rejoicing because of the effect that his death will have on the war on terrorism. I am not excited because he died, I am excited because we are one step closer to my friends and family in the military being able to come home. for that reason, I rejoice that he is gone.

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