Monday, May 02, 2011

the death of Osama bin Laden and tensions in Proverbs

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.
Proverbs 24:17-18

The whole city celebrates when the godly succeed; they shout for joy when the wicked die
Proverbs 11:10


I have seen the first half of the first proverb quoted and notice a few people considering the second proverb during the news that Osam bin Laden has been killed. Some folks have said they will not believe bin Laden is really dead until a body has been produced. Whether or not these peple would also choose to believe bin Laden is not dead had the announcement come from a Republican president I do not know. There are pious expressions that we should not rejoice in the death of a man, even a man such as Osama bin Laden while there are other people who are rejoicing.

As I have reflected before so I reflect now, Ecclesiastes is a sober reminder that even attaining wisdom it iself a form of vanity. Koholeth weighs proverb against proverb and realizes that things are broken. Consider the precedent of Koholeth's methodology and observations in light of these two Proverbs about rejoicing in the demise of an enemy and in how a city rejoices in the death of the wicked. If it is wrong to rejoice when your enemy falls lest God take displeasure in it and revive him what happens when by God's providential design your enemy dies? Do you not rejoice then? Will Christ raise him from the dead?

Conversely, if it is not right to celebrate that a wicked man has perished for a city does this mean the reason we should not celebrate the death of bin Laden is because he was not wicked. If it is wrong to celebrate the death of a man who plotted the death of so many people is this because it was immoral to take up arms or enlist in the armed forces to go find and destroy him? Would it then be wrong to have enlisted in the war-like path bin Laden himself chose that is the reason it is wrong to celebrate the death of bin Laden? That would mean that becoming a soldier to fight a terrorist is morally equivalent to being a terrorist.

As I know brothers and sisters in Christ who are pacifists they can consistently stake out this position but other Christians who have staked out a pro-war on terror stance this reticence to celebrate that a killer has been killed reveals a fissure in wisdom. The scriptures are clear that when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy in the city. They can only not rejoice in the death of the wicked who are wicked themselves. The scriptures are full of songs that revel in the death of oppressors. I will sing unto the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider He has thrown into the sea. Let God arise and His enemies be scattered. Rejoice for the Lord crushes the nations. Blessed be the one who repays you, Babylon, by killing your babies and dashing their heads against a stone. These passages do not lend themselves easily to a view that says Christians should never rejoice in the death of another.

David, who was a chief among sinners despite being a man after God's own heart (not just that adultery thing but mercilessly slaughtering women and children), was not afraid to celebrate that the Lord had given him victory over his enemies. When God had given into David's hands those enemies who sought his life David could simultaneously rejoice that his life was spared but weep. David could rejoice that the Lord had taken Saul if only because Saul had sought David's life but raised a lament for Saul and Jonathan. David could be relieved that Absalom's insurrection had been quelled while grieving over his lost son. A true soldier can rejoice in the death of an enemy who is an enemy of the peace while grieving that it took the gears of war to put a stop to that enemy. If it's wrong to celebrate bin Laden's death then this would be because the entire war on terror and so on was immoral and no one should have enlisted in the military to fight against terrorists.

Again, for those Christians who are completely pacifistic I can see why this position would be consistent for them and yet ... the scriptures still say that when the wicked perish a city rejoices. Scripture condones celebrating the death of the wicked. So in the end we may find with Koholeth "Why have I become so very wise?" With much wisdom comes much suffering and this, too, is futile.

The problem with quoting this proverb to justify celebrating bin Laden's death or to frown upon celebrating bin Laden's death is the quotation of proverbs in itself has nothing to do with wisdom. Like the legs of the lame which are useless to him, so is a proverb in the mouth of a fool. A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a thorn stuck in the hand. Even his effort to use the proverb both harms him and reveals his foolishness. A fool uses the wrong proverb at the wrong time on the wrong person for the wrong reason.

Since I do not consider myself wise (because to consider myself wise would ensure that even a fool has more hope than me) I can't really say that one of these proverbs is the "wise" one to quote nor can I say that quoting the other proverb is necessarily wrong. If it is wrong to rejoice when the wicked perish and when the designs of the wicked are foiled then how can anyone truly say that we should rejoice that Christ has broken the bonds of death and crushed the head of the serpent? Surely among the wicked there is none more wicked than the adversary? If the city of God does not continually rejoice in the defeat of the Wicked then how can we display any obedience or love toward Christ? You see the scriptures do not attempt to resolve for us what we insist must be resolved in one direction or the other.

This may not so much be to prove one side right or the other wrong so much as to reveal that with the Lord resides wisdom and He chooses not to reveal all things for reasons we can't know. When times are good rejoice and when times are bad consider, for the Lord has made one as well as the other so that no one shall be able to know what comes after him. I have seen people who ten years ago ardently supported the war on terror have a drastic change of heart. I saw Christopher Hitchens go from being against Gulf War 1 to being surprisingly ardent in support of Gulf War 2.

We can rejoice that a wicked man has perished but not because we are not ourselves full of sin. We can rejoice that the Lord has seen fit to permit one wicked man among many to perish for the benefit of the city while recognizing that it is tragic that he chose a path of wickedness, this man who died. Yet beyond this we should recognize that we ourselves are not necessarily better than this man who once bore the image of God in his life. We can, however, look in our hearts and see that we are guilty of the same sin as bin Laden was, which is to look around us and ask in the most rhetorical way "And who is my neighbor?" seeking to justify ourselves for whom we have decided is not fit to be our neighbor and therefore not worthy of our love.

But here is the thing, even this can be nothing more than a pious fraud. It is true that there is no one who is without sin and yet we judge ourselves better than others all the time. All. the. time. It's easy to say we should not rejoice in the death of bin Laden or that we should rejoice in the death of bin Laden. It's easy to say that he isn't even really dead or that he is. It's tougher to resist saying in our hearts "I told you so" when someone screws something up and we knew we were right. Even saying this in our hearts can show where our disposition is. Whether or not we grant the possibility of a last second conversion by bin Laden; whether or not we remember to pray for those like him; in our day to day lives we may well discover that the challenge to walking faithfully with Christ brings with it a realization that there's a lot we don't know and can't know.

In various other ways we like to exonerate ourselves and condemn others in more mundane things than acts of terrorism. I can be tempted to assume the worst about someone who decides not to interview me when I'm job-hunting. Someone could decide that a person who is on food stamps or unemployment checks is part of what's wrong with American society and its endless drift toward socialism and anarchy. But perhaps most of all we are tempted to pontificate at times like this by quoting one proverb or another while forgetting to remember that it is good to hold on to one and not let go of the other.

In times like these it becomes easier to appreciate not only why Ecclesiastes has been given to us in the scriptures but why it is essential for all Christians to meditate deeply upon this beautiful, challenging book and to consider the other wisdom literature in light of the mutual warnings each book gives us. We should not presume that this will make us wise but we can trust that as elusive as the authors of scriptures themselves said wisdom is to not stop seeking it. If we remember that seeking wisdom is about seeking God it will help us avoid the snare of thinking that we have obtained wisdom merely because we can quote proverbs. As we've seen in Christian blogging about the death of Osama bin Laden, one proverb after another can be quoted in this time and this suggests that where ever wisdom truly is it is with the Lord and we have almost certainly not attained it.

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