Rejoicing over death of bin Laden debated

Response divides even theologians

A crowd in Times Square Monday celebrated news that Osama bin Laden had been killed. A crowd in Times Square Monday celebrated news that Osama bin Laden had been killed. (Mario Tama/ Getty Images)
By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / May 5, 2011

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There were shouts of jubilation and rounds of the national anthem, blaring vuvuzelas and chants of “USA!’’ On Boston Common, in Lower Manhattan, and on the White House plaza, frenzied celebrations erupted after the news broke of Osama bin Laden’s death.

But amid such displays, and as President Obama prepares to visit New York today to lay a wreath at ground zero and meet with victims’ families, clergy and theologians are debating public shows of triumph. Many doubt it is wise — or right — to exult over any death. Even within religions, there is disagreement over what the ideal response to an evildoer’s demise should be.

A Presbyterian blogger this week highlighted the contrast between the words of Pope Benedict XVI’s spokesman on Monday and those of Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and a Southern Baptist minister.

“Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace,’’ said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.

Huckabee said in a statement: “Welcome to hell, bin Laden.’’

He added: “It is unusual to celebrate a death, but today Americans and decent people the world over cheer the news that madman, murderer, and terrorist Osama bin Laden is dead.’’

Religious texts may not provide clear guidance on the question. Rabbi Joel Sisenwine, of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, marked a tension within the Hebrew scriptures about how to respond to the downfall of an adversary. The Book of Proverbs says that “when the wicked perish, there is song,’’ but later warns, “If your enemy falls, do not rejoice.’’

Sisenwine resolves the conflict by concluding that it is acceptable to applaud justice served, but not the loss of life. So the appropriateness of the exultation over bin Laden’s death may depend on the motivations of those in the crowd.

“A sign that says, ‘Kill them all,’ would not be consistent, but ‘pursue justice’ would be more appropriate,’’ he said. “Human life has great value, and to me that is what distinguishes us from the terrorists, who are so willing to take innocent life, or their own. When we take life, we do it hesitantly, carefully, and at times mournfully.’’

The beliefs that life is precious and that empathy toward others is desirable even when it’s difficult to summon are common to many religious traditions. John Makransky, a professor of theology at Boston College and a Buddhist teacher within the Tibetan Nyingma tradition, said he understood the celebrations on one level, but Buddhism requires compassion for all sentient beings, no matter how evil their actions.

“There is no ‘them,’ ’’ he said. “That is the core of Buddhist teaching — it is all us. That includes bin Laden.’’

That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that all Buddhists would oppose the US military action against bin Laden, he said. “Some would say that it is simply wrong and goes against the structure of things to intend to harm others, so we have to avoid it at all costs,’’ he said. But other Buddhists, he said, would maintain that ending bin Laden’s life would be acceptable if the motivation was to spare him from his own evil acts, as well as the people he might harm.

Several clergy said the cheering throngs created a problem that was both practical and theological: Celebrating death could indirectly cause more death. Imam Talal Eid, executive director of the Islamic Institute of Boston, said the jubilation was a normal reaction to bin Laden’s horrendous crimes, but he feared it could drive more attacks against innocent people.

“It will create animosity’’ among people who saw bin Laden as a hero, said Eid, who is also Muslim chaplain at Brandeis University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. There are already signs that the jubilation may risk perpetuating religious conflict and division, said Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, citing graffiti that appeared Monday morning on a mosque in Portland, Maine.

“I hope this doesn’t obscure the possibility for bringing about a deeper peace in the world,’’ he said. Christians, he added, “are supposed to look at the event and try to find some kind of new life there, and be praying and working for that new life.’’

Some clergy, however, saw the cheering crowds as more benign than bloodthirsty. Monsignor William Fay of St. Columbkille Parish in Brighton called the displays of elation “a human thing.’’ Most people, he said, seemed to be rejoicing in the triumph of good over evil rather than reveling in hatred or revenge.

“It was kind of like something horrible hanging over our heads isn’t now, and it was a kind of liberation experience,’’ he said.

Many religious people felt a fundamental discomfort with the revelry, however symbolic it was. Diana L. Eck, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, was in the audience at Memorial Church on Monday when the Rev. Serene Jones, president of the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York, delivered the Paul Tillich lecture, an annual event honoring the late German theologian and Harvard professor.

“The moment she said she wondered about the appropriateness of the celebration in the streets . . . to the killing of Osama bin Laden, the whole church erupted in response,’’ Eck said. “Many people were pleased to finally see the end of the Osama bin Laden drama, but did not feel it was at all appropriate to have the rejoicing [expressed] so vividly.’’

“Emotions are good gifts from God, but they must always be tempered by virtues of justice, goodness, and wisdom,’’ said Dennis Hollinger, president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton and a professor of Christian ethics, in an e-mail. “Otherwise we begin to mirror the very acts we deplore.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the location of a mosque scarred by graffiti this week. It is in Portland, Maine.