When news of bin Laden’s death broke in May 2011, people in Annapolis, MD, and Washington, D.C., spontaneously took to the streets to celebrate. The ultimate justice for the world’s most notorious anti-American, mass-murdering conspirator took 10 years to carry out, and it was a cathartic moment.
“Cooler” heads cautioned against celebrating bin Laden’s death, such as Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall:
I wasn’t questioning bin Laden’s evil acts. I believe that he will have to face God for what he has done. I was reflecting on our own hypocrisy. During 9/11 we watched in horror as parts of the world celebrated death on our soil. Earlier this week, parts of the world watched us in horror celebrating a man’s death.
Mendenhall’s equivocation of innocent victims of terrorism to the man who financed and oversaw their murder renders his observation moot to serious moral thinkers. Then there’s Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, weighing in:
In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.
I suspect this is really fruitless preening for Muslims protesting in honor of their mass-murdering hero. Victory over evil, the greatest means to grow peace, is to be celebrated, and not in muted fashion. As children of God, one of our chief “responsibilities” is to hate evil. The Bible repeatedly affirms this: “You who love the Lord, hate evil” (Psalms 97:10); “Do not I hate those who hate you, O Lord?” (Psalms 139:21); “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil” (Proverbs 8:13); “Hate evil and love good” (Amos 5:15).
How about this one: “When the wicked perish, there is jubilation” (Proverbs 11:10).
The “Hate the sin, not the sinner” maxim is often deployed against celebrants of bad guys’ deaths, forcing a wedge between the person and what he did to deserve death. It doesn’t hold up in extreme cases, when the sinner is unrepentant and enthusiastic about committing the most heinous of crimes. The maxim’s context bears this out. Its source is Mahatma Gandhi, who was paraphrasing St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine, writing 1,500 years earlier, was advising a nunnery how to deal with feelings of lust and temptation:
What I have now said in regard to abstaining from wanton looks should be carefully observed, with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin, in observing, forbidding, reporting, proving, and punishing of all other faults. But if any one among you has gone on into so great sin as to receive secretly from any man letters or gifts of any description, let her be pardoned and prayed for if she confess this of her own accord. If, however, she is found out and is convicted of such conduct, let her be more severely punished, according to the sentence of the prioress, or of the prior, or even of the bishop.
St. Augustine wasn’t talking about evil. He was talking about lust, which is part of the human condition, our fallen nature. Original sin does not begin to describe invoking of God to justify mass murder. That is an unbearable evil only God could possibly forgive.
The most oft-quoted verse used to caution against celebrating bad guys’ deaths is Proverbs 24:17: “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.” There are many words for “enemy” in Biblical Hebrew. In this context, “enemy” (oyeb) refers to a personal enemy, such as a rival for a woman’s heart, for a promotion at work, or for people's votes—not an evil person.
And, wouldn’t you know it, my study Bible has a footnote next to this verse, pointing to Job 31:29: “If I have rejoiced at the ruin of those who hated me, or exulted when evil overtook them…” The Bible makes a distinction between “those who hated me” (i.e., personal enemies) and evil people. The exhortation not to rejoice when your enemies fall is thus not applicable to evil men.