Last night the Obama administration announced that they would not release photos of the dead bin Laden. They cited various reasons and added that it would be like spiking a football in the end zone after scoring a touchdown—publicly gloating over our victory. I haven’t run into anyone who is ambivalent about the benefit of getting rid of bin Laden, or who would disagree with the president’s assessment that May 1 was “a good day for America,” but I’ve seen lots of ambivalence about how to respond. Some people cheered and celebrated and danced in the streets. Other people were upset and troubled by those very scenes. Some even invoked Yeshua’s teaching about turning the other cheek. Where’s the balance in all this?
It might be helpful to recall that bin Laden was killed barely two weeks after we retold the story of our deliverance from Egypt at Passover—a story that includes the violent death of Pharaoh along with most of his army and the first born of every household in Egypt. When we recite the list of the ten plagues early in the Seder we spill a drop of wine out of our cup for every plague: Blood! (drop) Frogs! (drop) Vermin! (drop) and so on. One rabbi says that one interpretation of this practice “is that it represents tears, for Jews do not rejoice at the downfall of their enemies, but we rather shed tears for their suffering” (R. Yitzchak Sender, The Commentators’ Haggadah, p. 157). The Egyptians had it coming, and they were our enemies, but nevertheless they were fellow human beings and we don’t rejoice over their suffering. At the same time, though, we do rejoice over their defeat. Right after reciting the plagues we say, “We owe the Omnipresent a debt of gratitude, not for one, but for many and repeated benefits. For He brought us out ofEgypt. And executed judgment on them . . .” (ibid. p. 179).
A few days ago, when the online chatter about bin Laden’s death was just ramping up, one of my colleagues posted Ezekiel 18:23—“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” It’s an apt reference, although the likelihood of bin Laden’s every getting around to turning from his evil ways seems nil.
As people instructed by Torah—I’m thinking of Jews in general and especially Messianic Jews—we need to guard against falling into the same sort of barbarism that our enemies practice. We don’t return on them the same they’ve done to us, but we do seek justice, which sometimes calls for the death of the perpetrator. So, what about turning the other cheek? I discuss this teaching in my book Divine Reversal:
Yeshua phrases his whole instruction in Matt. 5:38-42 in personal terms. In the plain sense he speaks of “you” being struck, being sued, being forced to go a mile. It is one thing for me to turn my other cheek to the one who struck me. It is another thing to figuratively turn someone else’s cheek by not resisting the evil perpetrated against them. It is one thing for me to relinquish my own demand for justice, quite another to demand that someone else give up his or her demand for justice. The individual believer may practice something that corporate groups cannot, or should not, practice, given the realities of evil in our world. . . .
At the same time, Yeshua’s teachings do have implications for public policy. Thus, he may not require his followers to be pacifists because national defense may be a grim necessity in this world. The Scriptures, however, teach regard for the enemy as created in the image of God, and Yeshua expands that teaching to mean love for the enemy. His followers, therefore, must be hesitant about the extremity of war, cautious about collateral damage and harm to innocent civilians among the enemy, opposed to torture and any maltreatment of prisoners, respectful of the image of God present even among those on the other side, and so on.
Some people criticized the Obama administration for affording bin Laden a Muslim burial, albeit a burial at sea. I had my questions at first, too, but now I think it might have been a really wise move. We made our statement on bin Laden’s moral state by killing him. We don’t need to spike the football by desecrating his corpse or displaying gruesome photos of it for public consumption. Doing so would violate basic regard for the human being—even the murderer who got what he deserved—as bearing God’s image. Burial at sea also had the advantage of getting it done right away (which just happens to accord with Muslim tradition) and preventing the creation of some shrine or memorial to bin Laden. We act in a civilized fashion and we avoid prolonging this part of the drama.
So we have some measure of closure and perhaps we can look at the demise of bin Laden with the same balanced wisdom that our tradition applies to the demise of Pharaoh. We celebrate it as a victory of the God of Israel, but we recognize it as a victory necessitated by sin and resistance to God—and that’s nothing to celebrate.