There are times when I am tempted to despise some of my co-religionists, like Sunday night when spontaneous celebrations broke out across the country after the president's announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed.
Followers on my Twitter feed and friends on Facebook (mostly those who aren't natives of New York or New Jersey) began expressing their concern that Americans were celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden. The longer it went on, the more irritated I became. On Monday, when the scolding didn't stop, I began unfollowing people on Twitter.
Proverbs 24:17 was one of the most abused Scriptures scrolling through my social media feeds. "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice," it says. Verses 19-20 were conveniently ignored: "Do not fret because of evildoers or be envious of the wicked, for the evildoer has no future hope, and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out."
This is called proof texting, or pulling a verse out of context to affirm one's position. It was as if these friends and followers came down with collective amnesia about all the expressions of God's wrath in the Bible.
Lenny Bernotas, pastor of Trinity Bible Church in Allenwood, delivered a moment of reprieve to my Facebook feed when he wrote:
"Proud to be a Navy Vet today. Congratulations Navy Seals. To God be the glory: 'You went out for the salvation of your people...You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck.' (Habakuk 3:13). As to ministry: 'Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.' (Ezekial 33:11.)
I can live with this paradox of justice and mercy, for it describes so well the grace of God that allows us to suffer the temporal consequences of our actions, but offers mercy to all who will receive it.
Why is it that so many Christians feel compelled to instruct people in how they should feel about and/or react to events? I asked my Facebook friends, many of whom are Christian authors and religion journalists. None of these experts responded.
"Assuming Godlike knowledge of good and evil, therefore being everyone else's judge is as old as Adam and Eve. ... Balance and perspective, it takes time, thought, and prayer to receive these virtues," wrote Pastor Lenny.
Lenny's first wife Karen was a friend of mine. When she was dying of ovarian cancer, another friend, Jean Peterson, selflessly took care of her and her family in ways that none of the rest of us could muster the nerve or the strength to do.
On September 11, 2001, Jean and her husband Don arrived at Newark airport early for a flight to San Francisco. They boarded United Airlines Flight 93 instead.
Don's Bible was found sometime later amidst the debris in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was reportedly open to 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, in which the Apostle Paul lays out an argument for the resurrection of the dead based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The passage includes this comforting statement: "For [Jesus Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (v. 25-26).
God has enemies too and one of them is death. Whether or not God hates the death of Osama bin Laden, I don't know, but I do know that God hates what Osama bin Laden and his cohorts did to all of the victims of 9/11, including a generation of children who came of age in a decade over which terrorism and war hung like a dark, imposing cloud.
Andrew Sullivan wrote about these young people in a post at The Daily Beast. Many of them signed up for war "to find, capture, or kill Osama bin Laden," he wrote, and far too many were killed in action.
"The only sane thing to feel right now, I think, is both great sorrow and great joy," wrote Sullivan.
"The reason for the sorrow is obvious: that this one figure was capable of inflicting so much pain on so many people, that he distorted so many minds and souls, that he killed so many human beings. And that he did it all in the name of God.
The reason for the joy is actually less obvious. It is, at its best, I think, not vengeance or relief - although they are within us all, at various levels of suppression. The joy comes because somewhere we feel for the first time in so long that this hideous, bungled, tortuous, torture-filled decade of war and mass murder might, after all, have some smidgen of emotional closure, some sliver of justice in its long arc, some core thread leading to something we can call victory," he concluded.
It is a cruel thing to tell people not to celebrate the apprehension of a mass murderer, and it is an especially debased thing for people who claim to represent a just God to do.
"There is no deeper pathos in the spiritual life of man than the cruelty of righteous people. If any one idea dominates the teachings of Jesus, it is his opposition to the self-righteousness of the righteous," wrote theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics.
We don't often think of condemning celebrations of long awaited justice as self-righteous, but that's exactly what it is.