I find myself in need to reflect over the momentous events of Sunday, in which the world saw the beatification of Blessed John Paul the Great, and the long-awaited capture and execution of Osama Bin Laden. My thoughts go first to the latter event. Like the vast majority of the world, I feel a sense of relief to know that he is no longer at large to threaten the world. At the same time, as a Christian, Proverbs 24:17 immediately comes to mind “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.”
I was talking with my mother shortly after the news broke, and I was struck by her perspective on it. “On the one hand,” she said, “I’m relieved that he can’t harm anyone else ever again. But is there something wrong with me that it makes me sad too? Because as a mother I just keep thinking of the fact that there was a day when he was born, a beautiful olive-skinned baby boy with so much potential, and he did not have to grow into a monster.” This is in fact, I believe, a profoundly right and Christian response.
As with any of us, Osama Bin Laden was a man created in the Image of God. As a human person he had an inherent dignity bestowed upon him by his Creator. And like the rest of us, he had free will and was subject to the power of sin after the Fall. But at the same time, our Lord and God Jesus Christ took flesh, dwelt among us, died on the Cross and rose again for Bin Laden just as he did for every other human being on the face of the earth.
The sad thing is, his actions and his beliefs fell so far short of the dignity to which every man is called by God. That is the tragedy of that man, and every other name in human history whose coming brought terror and whose passing brought relief to whole societies or even the whole world. As the Holy See noted, using the life and free will God gave him “Osama Bin Laden – as everyone knows – has had the gravest responsibility for spreading hatred and division among people, causing the deaths of countless people, and exploiting religion for this purpose.”
As much as I at times would like to embrace a pacifistic view as do some of my Christian brethren, I do believe that in the present world, until Christ comes again, occasionally the killing of an aggressor is a sad necessity to prevent them from harming other people. But this should never be a cause for rejoicing. It should rather be a cause of great sorrow to the Christian heart that a man has gone so far astray and been so consumed by darkness so as to make his execution a cause of relief for the world. As we see again and again in Scripture when God is forced to enact judgement against a person or people, the Sacred Heart of the Divine Mercy is rent with anguish and sorrow that His beloved creatures have gone so far astray from Him and destroyed themselves and others, and marred His Image within them.
Indeed, we see this in the first major act of judgement and salvation by God in Genesis 6 when He is forced to send a flood to wipe out the vast majority of humanity. “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” One of the [many] wonderful things about Hebrew is that it is a beautifully expressive language. When it says that the Lord “was sorry” in the English, the root in Hebrew denotes grieving, pity, deep sorrow and even woe- stemming from the root for comfort and pity, and, I believe, closely related to the word for mercy. So here, as everywhere, God is deeply grieved by wickedness and the need for judgement, because the Divine Mercy does not delight in the death of sinners, but rather that they repent and be converted. Indeed, our Lord Jesus tells us in the Gospels that the angels in heaven rejoice over the conversion of a sinner.
How much grief there must be then over one sinner who does not repent. We must then be imitators of our Lord and his heavenly court of angels and saints and lament the death of a sinner, and pray that somehow they found repentance and redemption before the end. If we find ourselves rejoicing over the death of a sinner, we need to check our moral compass as Christians, because it is clearly not pointed toward Jesus Christ. Indeed, being a man who desires desperately to be the penitent sinner clinging to the Cross of the Master, I do not want to be guilty of wishing Hell on anyone. It is a dreadful thing for any of us to come before the awesome throne of Christ and stand in account of ourselves, and Hell is a distinct possibility for any of us. I can only hope that perhaps even Osama Bin Laden, faced in the final moment of his life with the realization that he was about to stand before the Lord of All, like the thief on the cross next to our Lord found within himself, twisted by sin and evil as he had become, that remnant of the Image of the Lord he bore and cried out somewhere in his soul “Lord, while I have sinned grievously against you and my neighbor, and deserve every punishment, please have mercy and forgive me.” As the Eastern Orthodox lamentations for Holy Week I was listening to so beautifully and hauntingly chanted “The wise thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise O Lord in a single moment. By the wood of Thy Cross illumine me as well and save me.” So vast and incomprehensible is the goodness and humility of God that He would willingly assume human flesh, bear a crown of thorns and every manner of torture, allow himself to be pierced through and his heart speared for love of us, and to reign forever after His glorious resurrection bearing those marks of His incomprehensible love for mankind. I can only pray that this truth penetrates even the most hardened of hearts, as all creation longs for His reign to come in its fullness in which every tear will be wiped away, and God will be our God, and we will be His people.
In contrast, on the same day which saw the death of Osama Bin Laden, the Church was blessed to celebrate the beatification of our late pope John Paul the Great. This rather is the cause for celebration which Sunday gave us- to remember and celebrate the sanctity of a man whom God raised up among us in the Church, and that he is alive in Christ, praying for the Church and for the world before the throne of God in the great host of saints and angels. John Paul II came from a country well acquainted with suffering at the hands of the Germans and the Russians, particularly during World War II – a suffering which our late Pontiff experienced himself. And through that experience of suffering, following in the footsteps of Christ, the Lord used him to powerfully communicate the Christian hope to the Polish people and then to the Church and the world as a whole. One article I read speculated that once canonized, he may even be made a doctor of the Church. I don’t know how accurate that speculation may prove to be, but it certainly adds to the joy we must feel that God continues to raise up great saints among us in our own day, whom we can see and touch, to provide us with hope and a sign of His continued Presence among His People in the midst of the darkness of the present age before Christ’s coming again in glory.
This contrast between the events on Sunday is worth noting. Do we celebrate the life of a man who was so consumed by the love of Christ that despite his death, he lives in Christ and will be raised up on the last day and we remember him now as a father to us despite his passing, or do we celebrate the death of a man who brought much suffering to the world? The former holds so much more hope and joy. Deuteronomy says at one point “Today I set before you life and death. Choose life!” Let us rejoice then in God and His Saints, and look forward to the fulfillment of the Christian hope! As for the continuing violence of the present age and the coming and going of differing tyrants and terrorists, let us pray for the Lord to have mercy on us and the world and to give us strength that we neither fear their terrors, nor rejoice in their downfall. As I believe our late Holy Father would commend us to do, let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole life and world to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ our God through the intercessions of the Immaculate Heart of our Most Blessed and Glorious Lady Mary the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. Totus tuus.