Justice is served?


“Ding-dong, the witch is dead!”
Was the last thing he said
Before the bullet pierced his head.

This morning America woke to the news that Public Enemy #1, Osama bin Laden, is dead. The man behind the most brutal terrorist attack on Americans in our nation’s history was removed from this life at the hands of the American military.

Headlines, Twitter posts, blogs, Facebook news feeds, and no less than the President of the United States have stood in the public square as the town crier proclaiming the news: “Justice is Served!”

Justice is served? Really?

I have to admit to having some very mixed feelings about all of this. As a proud and very grateful American, there is a certain unavoidable sense that we should be, if not glad then at least relieved, that this man–who by almost anyone’s standards personified evil–is no longer a direct threat to the peace (direct, perhaps, being the operative word here). Much blood has been spilled at his hand and as both direct and indirect consequences of his actions. It cannot be argued that as long as he lived, he was a threat.

I also have to admit that the operation by which he was killed was carried out by extraordinarily brave men at great risk not only to their own lives, but by extension the impact their lives have on their own families and communities. The death or injury of a soldier is never just to that soldier. It ripples across wide expanses and carries broad implications.

But as someone who is trying to follow Jesus, and stumbling in my broken human ways along his path, I cannot bring myself to proclaim that Justice is served today.

What has been served today is Revenge.

Revenge and Justice are not the same thing.

I posted on my Facebook wall this morning that I was troubled by the celebratory reaction of many of my Christian friends. Because it seems clear to me that just because one evil man is dead, it does not mean evil has died. And when we react to violence with more violence, we are moving further from, rather than closer to, the kind of reconciliation Jesus lived–and, more importantly–died for.

I have seen many posts on my own and on other friends’ walls commenting that in the Old Testament, God exacted much justice through violent means: the plagues on Egypt, the slaying of Goliath, extermination of the inhabitants of the Promised Land, etc. Even in the post-resurrection New Testament, Annanias and Sapphira are struck dead for their infidelity.

Of course, there were just as many counter-posts quoting other scripture about loving our enemies as our neighbors, throwing first stones, living & dying by the sword, etc.

My point is that  you can verse-shop your way through any argument. Violence and war are an undeniable part of our history, and obviously of our present context. And yet calls for peaceful reconciliation, non-violent responses to violence, and radical forgiveness are also woven throughout both our historical and scriptural narratives.

In seeing the images of Americans celebrating the news in flag-waving crowds, chanting, “USA! USA! USA!!” I was struck by the inescabable irony of how much those demonstrations looked like the ones we have seen time and time again from what we call the radicals.

I’m sorry, but celebrating violence and death is never the moral high ground, no matter what your background, nationality or religion is. “Our” celebrations are not superior to “theirs.”

When we respond to violence with violence, only violence wins. You killed our guys, so we kill your guys. Then you kill more of our guys and we kill more of your guys. The death of any one individual or even of a group of so-called leaders never ends the violence. It always escalates it. War has always begotten more war. Even the so-called instances of God’s justice in the Old Testament demonstrated that retaliation always follows agression. And the point has long ago been reached where you can’t tell the difference between the two anymore. Even the “War to End All Wars” spawned more war.

It only stops when radical love and forgiveness step in. The kind of love and forgiveness that Jesus lived and died for. It doesn’t make sense to us. It is counter-intuitive. It is counter-cultural.

We want justice.

The thing is, God wants justice too.

But justice and revenge are not the same thing.

I have read many heartfelt comments from or about people that were directly impacted by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. My heart breaks for them. I cannot even begin to imagine that kind of loss, that kind of pain. And I cannot sit here in my ivory tower and say their feelings today are not legitimate.

But I can’t call it justice.

Justice, real honest-to-God justice, only comes when violence ends. God is not in the business of revenge. God is in the business of healing, of redemption, of restoration. That’s the kind of justice God is interested in. Justice may be synonymous with revenge in the human lexicon, but in God’s lexicon Justice is synonymous with Shalom. The overarching, indwelling, unfathomable peace of God’s full presence, God’s full love and God’s full glory.

If we are going to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden, or any “enemy” in any context, we must do so with the full realization that we are celebrating an escalation in violence, rather than a move toward peace and reconciliation. A post on Brian McLaren’s blog this morning quoting a letter from a reader said it well: “Perhaps the death of Osama Bin Laden has made this world more safe. I do not believe, however, that his death has made this world more beautiful.”

In the war against evil, there is one weapon and one weapon only that can succeed. That weapon is love. Love demonstrated through extreme forgiveness.

Some will say that kind of forgiveness isn’t possible. That it means, in essence, offering our throats for the enemy to cut.

If that is true, then the cross is meaningless. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection had no purpose. In Matthew 6:14-15, right after Jesus teaches his disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer, he says “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

We cannot experience God’s forgiveness if we do not offer forgiveness. It is that radical. It is that extreme. It is that counter-intuitive. It is that counter-cultural.

It is the way of Jesus.

God wants justice, not revenge. And justice thrives where love and forgiveness, not death and violence, rule the day.

An evil man is dead today. America has its revenge.

The question is, when will we begin to seek real justice?

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3 thoughts on “Justice is served?

  1. Perhaps you should have been a carpenter, the way you hit the nail on the head. Excellent thoughts on our collective response to this news.
    Is earth a better place without Osama? Yes.
    Was “justice” served? No.
    Well, not so fast. Perhaps there is still time.
    Justice is all souls being reunited with God. Perhaps on another plane of existence, there is hope that Osama will also be reunited with God. This is what God wants. I don’t think God would settle for anything less.
    But on this plane, as long as there is lust for revenge, as long as there is hate, as long as there is joy in death, then the dragon of the book of Revelation is alive and well, and just loves that we revel in such destruction.
    Osama may have “had it coming.” I won’t shop verses, but instead invoke Clint Eastwood, and say “we all have it comin’ kid.” We all have it comin’–not just death, but the kingdom of God–whether we want it or not.

  2. I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ words to Peter in a moment when he took on evil in a moment of passion “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” Mt 26:52.

    And so the cycle continues…

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