Monday, May 2, 2011

When mercy seasons justice

(Cross-posted at Coalition for Clarity)

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the heart of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
-- William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

When I first learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed by a United States military team, I felt...surprised. Bin Laden has been such a shadowy figure for so long that I suppose it didn't seem very real to me, to think that a military operation had been carried out successfully in such a cut and dried manner against someone who somehow seemed less than real. But there was no denying that news of his death was...good news, right?

I visited a few places--Facebook being one of them--and felt a little uneasy by the enthusiasm in some quarters for the news, especially for that enthusiasm as shown by fellow Catholics. Surely we could be glad that the terrorist mastermind of 9/11 has left this earth before committing any new crime of a comparable level without openly celebrating his killing, couldn't we?

The statement from the Vatican's spokeman seemed to strike the right note:
Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions for this purpose.

In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.
A far cry, this measured, reflective tone, from some other things I saw here and there on the Catholic blogosphere which seemed to rejoice in Osama bin Laden's death, and which actually credited either yesterday's celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday, or the newly Blessed Pope John Paul II, with the success of the operation in killing the terrorist mastermind. Two things come to mind: one, that yesterday was Divine Mercy Sunday, and that no one living could survive "Divine Justice Sunday" should God ever decide to hold such a day; and two, that the author of Evangelium Vitae--the Gospel of Life--might admit sorrowfully that the death of an aggressor who could not be safely captured might be necessary, but would never celebrate such a fact.

It is possible, though we will not know in this life, that Osama bin Laden was not beyond the reach of God's mercy; certainly the fact that he remained alive for so long after the events of Sept. 11, 2001 was a mercy in itself, since the increased amount of time was time for him to repent. If he did not avail himself of repentance--if he did not seek forgiveness--if he will reside for all eternity in the flames of Hell--that is not something to rejoice about, either. That fate awaits all of us who turn our backs on God and refuse to listen to Him, who spurn His repeated offers of that Divine Mercy without which none of us has any hope at all.

A few Catholic bloggers and writers have mentioned that they have prayed for bin Laden and those killed along with him (and, indeed, some of them may have been innocent of everything but relationship to an evil man, which is not always something one can do anything about). Some said such prayers came naturally; others admitted to struggling with the idea, which is perfectly understandable given the situation. It did not occur to me to pray for those killed until after I'd read those posts, but I did pray once I had read them--I prayed that the mercy I hope for myself would be extended to those who died yesterday, and that if by their own choices they were beyond the reach of redemption, that my prayers help other poor souls awaiting liberty from purgatory. It does not matter if that sort of thing doesn't come naturally to us; it only matters if there is some person for whom we would absolutely refuse to pray--because that refusal would mean real hatred, which is what would cause us actually to wish someone were in Hell and to refuse to pray that they were not beyond redemption.

It may be objected that Osama bin Laden's crimes against humanity already prove him beyond redemption. Blessed John Paul II wrote this, though, about the world's first murderer, the first man guilty of such a crime against the tiny handful of humanity then born:
And yet God, who is always merciful even when he punishes, "put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him" (Gen 4:15). He thus gave him a distinctive sign, not to condemn him to the hatred of others, but to protect and defend him from those wishing to kill him, even out of a desire to avenge Abel's death. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. And it is precisely here that the paradoxical mystery of the merciful justice of God is shown forth. (Evangelium Vitae, 9)
It is justice that a murderer be stopped, even if stopping him ends up demanding the use of lethal force. But it is mercy to pray for his soul and the souls of those who perished with him, and further to pray for those tempted to commit acts of violence in retaliation, that they will heed the voice of God and turn from evil. And as we pray, so we hope that others will one day pray for us; as we cry to God for mercy even upon the soul of a man whose life was characterized by great evil, so we hope that others will shout for mercy for us when our days on this earth have ended.


Magister Christianus said...

You have written a faithful, thoughtful piece, Red. For a long time, when I was younger, I was an ardent pacifist, seeing no difference between murder and killing on the battlefield. I have changed my thinking considerably over the years, recognizing the right of nations to defend themselves.

Bin Laden had plenty of time to repent, and he did not. He asked for no mercy when confronted by US troops, but fired against our forces and tried to find defense by a woman. In the fallen state of the world before the return of Christ, I cannot imagine how this could have ended differently.

Yet even so, it is right for rhe one who pulled the trigger to pray for forgiveness. It is right for us to pray for Bin Laden's soul. It is the one thing Christians can do this side of heaven, and so we should.

Anonymous said...


I have been watching people post on FB and blogs today how wrong it is for Christians to rejoice in the death of OBL. They have been quoting the statement from the Vatican as they call these people out. I have been wondering how, exactly, they have been able to read the hearts of those they have seen in videos or read about online, and to discern what their intentions were. It is possible that they are relieved that this man is no longer a threat to their families, or believe that this means an end to terrorism, however misguided. It is possible they are thankful that justice has been done for the horrific death of a loved one. My husband was there on 9/11, although he was not hurt, but I won't pretend to know how I would feel about justice if I was raising my four boys alone. It is possible they believe that a son or husband or father will now be coming home safely from overseas. No one knows anyone else's intentions. I could be jaded by the time our family wasted in Regnum Christi, but this just smacks of the holier than thou, judgemental, I'm a better Catholic than anyone else garbage we were so sick of when we left RC. And the fact that they quote the Vatican statement to back them up makes me ill. I was just wondering what you think.

I want to be clear that I am not objecting to the Vatican statement, just the use of it to sit in judgement of others.

Red Cardigan said...

Magister, thank you.

Anonymous above, let me be clear: I was responding to specific celebratory statements I read online, some on blogs, and some on FB. I was not judging the jubilant crowd in front of the White House nor anyone else. In particular, the idea that this killing was "the last gift of Pope John Paul II," (some variation of which I read in more than one place) or statements to the effect that Divine Mercy Sunday was somehow a spiritual "cause" of the death of OBL (because, hinted writers, mercy and justice are twins, etc.) were specifically things I disagreed with and wanted to respond to.

Now, in the secular blog and news world I've seen plenty of "Woohoo! We got the bleepety-bleep son of a blank! Hope he's rotting in Hell!" comments. But I would hope no serious Christians would speak so frivolously about the death of another person.

Anonymous said...


I am sorry for not being more clear, I was not referring to you at all! I would not read your blog, let alone bother with a comment for you if I thought you were capable of that type of a post.

I have been watching Catholics all day judging people they have never met, and it just makes me sad. I am also not referring to "Rot in Hell" comments.

I asked you because I have subscribed to your blog for a long time and after seeing this happen over and over today, I was interested in your take on it. I guess after our RC experience, I have a low tolerance for anyone who does whatever they want and distorts the Church to make it seem like a good and holy action.

Please forgive me for not explaining better! I asked you because I respect your opinion, not to confront you for anything.

Red Cardigan said...

Anonymous--no worries! You had me scared for a second; I thought I'd made some slighting reference to the crowd at the White House, or something. :)

Actually, I saw a funny FB exchange. Person A said, "At least *we* don't riot in the streets like *they* do at a time like this.

Person B said, "No, we just do it on FaceBook."

Person C: "Look! There's a crowd in front of the White House now!"

The truth is, the temptation to strike a "holier than thou" pose is a common affliction, and I'm not immune to it--but this time around, I'm trying to be good. And so I focused on what people said, not on my sneaking but really unworthy suspicion that a lot of Catholics are secretly baking "We Killed Osama bin Laden!" cookies, or something.

(And don't ask me about the woman interviewed in the news media who helped her children understand this news by telling them Osama was basically Voldmort. Um...)

Red Cardigan said...

Ooops. Voldemort. I guess it's better than misspelling Osama's name as "Obama," which some news outlets did, to great chagrin, last night.

melanie said...

I agree, I find it hard to rejoice in someones murder even someone admittedly as evil as Osama Bin Laden. I wish I felt safer, but they'll just be another crazy to come take his place. I do understand that those directly impacted by 9/11 may feel a sense of releif that he is dead. Mostly I focused our discussion last night on JPll and what a different kind of human being he was than Osama. Not catholic vs. Muslim. Just humanly speaking how much more meaningful JPll life was as he strove to bring peace and love to the world vs a man who hid in caves all his life and had people killed. Such a stark contrast humanly
speaking. Strange that these events intersected. Not causally or anything, just strange timing.

John E. said...

I was brought up to only say good things about those who are deceased.

OBL is now deceased.

Good thing...

Siarlys Jenkins said...

A measured, reflective tone... very well said Erin. I must admit that I also found John E.'s presentation amusing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for writing this! I couldn't quite put into words my discomfort watching our country's general reaction yesterday and the night before but I found it quite out of character. I still think it was out of character; we are Christians and we are better than that.

John E. said...

Shucks, thanks Siarlys...

TJ said...

Erin, one of your best posts. I linked on my own Facebook page, so hopefully you got some extra hits.

Red Cardigan said...

Thank you, TJ! I appreciate it. :)

Charlotte said...

You completely misinterpreted that Facebook post, for the record.

Anonymous said...

I just watched on O'Rielly Factor, a Catholic Priest attempt to argue this perspective so ineptly it was painful. The guest following him claimed that it wasn't a Catholic perspective but a liberal one. I am as far from being liberal as possible and I believe it is wrong to celebrate a man's death. We celebrated on V day not a man's death, but the ushering in of a hard fought peace and defeat of evil. This celebration was generally over vengeance won.

Red Cardigan said...

Charlotte, I'm not sure we're talking about the same post. The person under whose comment thread I saw those remarks has the initials J.G. Perhaps it's one of those things which occurred in various forms all over FB--wouldn't be the first time.

Red Cardigan said...

Okay, Char, I just reread the conversation I thought I'd seen that exchange in, and only parts of it are there; others are in the thread I think you're referencing. I must have conflated the two different conversations in my mind.

Apologies for any misinterpretations, and for my weird sense of humor that is probably responsible for the inaccurate recall.