How Should Religious People React to Bin Laden's Death?

To celebrate or not to celebrate?

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Osama bin Laden's death has elicited all kinds of spontaneous reactions, ranging from raucous celebrations to mournful prayer to YouTube odes and beard-shaving. Yet many religious groups and individuals have spent the past week grappling with how exactly they should respond to the al-Qaeda leader's demise in visceral, theological, and moral terms. As The Huffington Post's religion editor, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, wrote, "It is a strange and conflicting emotion to celebrate a death. My professed beliefs include the redemption of evil and the potential good in all humanity. Yet I felt a sense of exhilaration when I read the headline 'DEAD about Osama bin Laden."

Here's a brief--and by no means exhaustive--look at some of the discussion:


"Jesus said 'love your enemies.'" Kevin Eckstrom noted at the Religion News Service. "If only he had said how we should react when they die at our own hands." In the wake of bin Laden's death, the Vatican issued a statement noting that "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." Jim Wallis at Sojourners agreed. "The Bible takes evil seriously and clearly says that evildoers should be held accountable for their deeds," he wrote, and "Osama bin Laden was perhaps the most monstrous face of the monster of terrorism in our time." But he suggested Christians take the moment to reflect on how best to respond to evil. Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, meanwhile, summed up his position in a single tweet: "When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers" Proverbs 21:1." The Rev. John Langan, a Jesuit professor, told RNS that vengeance is a divine, not human, right: "I knew people who died in 9/11," he said. "I feel deeply the evil of that action. But I am part of a religious tradition that says that we don't make final, independent judgments about the souls of other men. That rests with God."


Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, tells JTA that while justice was meted out for a man who "killed in the name of God," he felt "thoughtful discussion and thoughtful remembrance" were preferable to "dancing in the streets." But Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, added that there's a difference between an ideal religious response and a human response. "What we're seeing [with the celebrations] is a reminder of how personally people were affected" by 9/11, she explained. "It's an understandable human response that we as Jews are blessed to elevate to a Jewish response." JTA points out that in the Purim story Jews feasted after killing those who were conspiring to murder them, but that Jews also solemnly spill ten drops of wine during the Passover seder to recall Egyptian suffering from the Ten Plagues.


The L.A.-based Muslim Public Affairs Council greeted the news of bin Laden's death with "an immense sense of relief," and MPAC's president said bin Laden's "actions and those of al-Qaeda have violated the sacred Islamic teachings upholding the sanctity of all human life." But Islamic scholar scholar A. Rashied Omar told RNS that even enemies deserve compassion, noting that "the Quran teaches that you never should allow enmity to swerve you away from compassion, because without compassion, the pursuit of justice risks becoming a cycle of revenge."

Photo by The Associated Press

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.