Rejoice? Bin Laden and the cycle of violence

By Simon Barrow
May 2, 2011

This morning I woke to an orgy of media-fed delight about a violent death. According to Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lugdunum, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” According to at least one politician I listened to on the radio, what pleases God most is an enemy brutally murdered.

A Vatican spokesperson appropriately noted in response to the news of the killing of Osama bin Laden, that he was “a man who sowed division and hatred and who caused innumerable deaths.” His demise should prompt serious reflection about human responsibility before God, said Federico Lombardi.

But he began by saying that “in the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices.” Rather, the ending of a life is always another occasion for looking to sow seeds of peace and to explore the necessity of repentance.

By contrast, President Obama, whose Christian convictions have been on display a good deal lately, used a Medal of Honor ceremony to declare that the world is a safer place because of the death of bin Laden. This is most unlikely to be true. Already announcements are being made about the cycles of revenge that will almost certainly follow.

Al-Qaida will regrettably continue. It is not so much an organisation as a name used by disparate groups and leaders with overlapping grievances. Unless the West seeks to address running sores in the Middle East and elsewhere, its own military actions are likely to be met with yet more ‘asymmetric conflict’ - albeit from a more peripheral set of locations than it occupied until recently. Moreover, an opportunity to exercise international justice in relation to the accusation that bin Laden was a major protagonist in the horrific 9/11 murders has now been lost.

In terms of religion, there is also wide misunderstanding of what this death means. In fact the man “we” have “taken out” was – as Michael Marten has pointed out ( – not a cleric, had no formal training in Islamic law, spoke for no government, led no substantial movement and had few followers. He was denounced even by the Muslim Brotherhood. To see his murder as the key to overcoming terror tactics is fundamentally to misconstrue the world. Yet this is the course our geopolitics remains set for.

At a moment like this, it would be wrong not to extend heartfelt prayers for all those who lost loved ones at Ground Zero. If they feel a sense of vindication, it is hard not to sympathise. But it would be equally wrong not to acknowledge the deep damage that “rejoicing” at another’s death does to the human spirit, to fail to acknowledge the pain and suffering of many others caught up in the confrontations bin Laden has come to symbolise (including those labelled enemies), and to avoid the difficult lessons of recent history in relation to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

As theologian Walter Wink ( and Christian cultural anthropologist Rene Girard have said, the most primeval sites of sin in all human cultures are the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ (which believes that wrongdoing is undone by yet more wrongdoing) and the ‘scapegoat mechanism’ (whereby we mimetically seek to expel evil by projecting it wholly onto another and then killing that other in order to restore a supposed purity to the community).

Equally, there can be no greater ‘clash of civilisations’ than that between those Christians for whom enemy-loving, no matter how difficult and counterintuitive, is a central part of the way, life and truth declared in Jesus Christ, and those for whom an act of violence is an act of civilisation-building approved by God.

What the challenge of Christian divisions and the dominant response to Osama Bin Laden’s death illustrates is that the dilemma we face is not a simple, monolithic clash between ‘the civilised West’ and ‘murderous terrorists’, or between Christianity and Islam. No, the fault lines of virtue and calumny and responsibility are drawn in far more complex ways than that.

Rather, as Gilbert Akar has suggested in his book Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder, it is the dark underbellies of all cultures, people and ideologies which are being exposed by these new post-cold war atrocities.

To which a Christian must surely respond by working for a deep awakening to the need for personal and political metanoia (turning around and heading in a new direction) – rather than sanctioning yet more worldly vengeance in the naïve hope that the next act of violence will be the decisive one.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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