Ministerial Musings: Is Any Death A Cause for Celebration?

“USA!”  “USA!”

This chant bellowed from my television in the waning hours of May 1. CNN reported that Osama bin Laden had been assassinated in a secret Pakistani bunker by a covert, United States military task force. A few dozen people gathered outside the White House waving Old Glory and singing "The Star-Spangled Banner.” The ad hoc gathering swelled as fast as the news spread nationally. Similar celebrations took place in New York City, near Ground Zero, and others erupted in bars across America. Napkins shredded into confetti. Pints of beer hoisted for a toast. Beaming smiles carved into patriotic faces.

The chants rang through the midnight air. They sank into my soul like lead.

I was grateful that the world was now safe from this Al Qaeda henchman. I breathed a sigh of relief that night, even though I know that neither this country nor any other is immune from terror. At least there was one less lunatic seeking to kill innocent people in the name of God.

However, the celebratory refrain rang hollow for me. Actually, it rang less than hollow. This wasn’t about justice or some newfound peace. It was a celebration. We were rejoicing over the death of a human being, albeit a sinister one. Was he the enemy? Yes. Was he crazy? I don’t know how anyone could call him sane. But should news of his demise hang from our mouths as if it were the carcass of a gazelle dripping from the jaws of a cheetah?

Something was not right. I felt ill.

I remembered a story from 2004: the charred bodies of four American contractors were dragged through the streets of a town west of Baghdad. The throng of onlookers cheered. Similar spectacles occurred in Mogadishu a few years later. We chastise such actions as obscene and barbaric--and they are--yet we join the chorus and condone such behavior when it is done to our enemy.

No, Bin Laden’s body (riddled with bullets) was not dragged down Pennsylvania Avenue. But I wonder: how many of the May 1st revelers would have welcomed such a sight? How many of them would have been pulling a rope with one hand and waving a flag with the other given the opportunity?

Death is death--it does not matter whose death it is. Carnage is carnage--no amount of nationalistic jingoism will convert it into justifiable pageantry.

The sickness that damped my soul that Sunday night was not assuaged by the relief I felt. I was not shouting, “USA! USA!” I went to bed with a whimper.

I am grateful for the women and men who serve in our armed forces. My brother is one of them. These brave soldiers provide me with the freedom to write articles such as this. How could I not be obliged? However, we honor their service best by not only striving for peace (so that they do not have to risk their lives), but by being the people we are called to be: civil, generous, compassionate.

My counterparts on the right often claim that America was founded to be a Christian nation. If that were true, then we need to ask ourselves that timeless question: What would Jesus do? I do not think that this itinerant rabbi, who taught us to pray for our enemies and to turn the other cheek, would exult over any human being’s death. Maybe we should start there.

Written in honor of Col. Douglas A. Tamilio.

The Rev. Dr. John Tamilio III, Ph.D. is the religion columnist for The Lakewood Observer. He is also the Senior Pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. JT3 lives in Lakewood with his wife and their three children.

John III Tamilio

John Tamilio III is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, an accomplished guitarist, and a nationally published author. His first book of poetry, Blind Painting, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters in 2003. He and his wife, Susan, live in Lakewood, Ohio with their children: Sarah, “Jay” (John IV), and Thomas.

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Volume 7, Issue 10, Posted 10:37 PM, 05.17.2011