- Right Matters
Talking about the future of conservatism with Ramesh Ponnuru.
Killing bin Laden, Loving Our Enemies
Like everyone else, I was delighted to hear the news that U.S. forces had found and killed Osama bin Laden. In the days since the announcement, I’ve also been thinking about how his death illustrates the psychological difficulty of Christianity.
The Christian tradition, to which I try to adhere, famously and unnaturally commands that we love our enemies. It categorically forbids revenge. Christians are not supposed to will the suffering of someone they hate—even if he has given them very good reason to hate him. We are supposed to believe that even Osama bin Laden, a man who turned himself into a monster, was made in the image of God.
On the other hand, the tradition also upholds the need for retribution. When wrongful acts put society out of balance, justice demands that balance be restored. So the tradition smiles upon our natural instinct to celebrate when criminals are captured and punished. The distinction between retribution and revenge is that between a real and objective good on the one hand, and a desire for a kind of emotional satisfaction on the other.
The implication of the traditional Christian view of these matters, it seems to me, is that we may rightly celebrate the fact that Americans have stopped bin Laden from being able to do further harm, have brought him to justice, and have struck a great blow (even if partly symbolic) against his evil cause. What those of us who accept the tradition may not do, however, is celebrate his death as such. That is, we should not be happier that he is dead than we would be if he had been captured and committed for punishment. (Even that statement comes with a qualifier, though, since we may rightly be pleased about some of the consequences of his being dead rather than captured.)
In real life, of course, our motives are mixed. Unless they tell us explicitly, we will usually not be able to tell if someone else has crossed the line between retribution and revenge. We may even deceive ourselves to the point that we do not recognize our own crossing of that line. This possibility of self-deception is what makes spiritual discipline necessary to avoid the sin of vengefulness. We are called to form our character so as to minimize our susceptibility to the desire for revenge. Inevitably, we fall short. I certainly do in my daily life, let alone when contemplating the last earthly minutes of bin Laden.
The distinction between retribution and revenge can seem like hair-splitting, but it nonetheless has a hold on our culture. If bin Laden had been killed while trying to surrender, the country’s satisfaction at his end would be less intense and less widespread. He would be just as dead and just as unmourned, but under those circumstances the justice of the act by which he died would have been muddier. And it is justice, not revenge, that we are and should be celebrating.
- Ramesh Ponnuru