Over the weekend, U.S. Special Operations forces trapped terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who then killed himself with a suicide blast. The world is safer with al-Baghdadi no longer planning terrorist activities. But that doesn’t mean we should cheer his death.
In announcing al-Baghdadi’s death, President Donald Trump offered a clear example of how not to respond. He said al-Baghdadi’s death in a military attack meant the terrorist leader had been brought “to justice.” Such a view of justice jumps past the judge-jury-trial-rules stage and right to the execution. That’s not justice, but vengeance.
Former President Barack Obama made that same error as he announced the death of Osama bin Laden. Obama claimed the killing of bin Laden in a military operation meant “justice has been done.” But Trump went well beyond Obama or modern presidents in gloating about someone’s death. Trump claimed al-Baghdadi “died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.” He added that al-Baghdadi died “as a coward, running and crying.”
“He died like a dog. He died like a coward,” Trump added as he kept returning to his taunts. “He was screaming, crying, and whimpering. And he was scared out of his mind.”
“He died like a dog. He died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming, and crying,” Trump said again.
Although Trump kept repeating those statements as if he found it to be particularly important, military officials have not confirmed that information and some Trump officials admitted they weren’t sure where Trump heard that claim. If it’s not true, it’s particularly problematic. But even if it is true, Trump’s macabre celebration embodies an attitude far from that taught in the Bible.
“Do not gloat when your enemy falls,” we are told in Proverbs 17:17-18, “when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.”
“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” God asks in Ezekiel 18:23 before answering with another question: “Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”
God makes the claim again a few chapters later in Ezekiel 33:11: “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!’”
Sure, our natural reaction is probably to cheer. But Paul reminded us to die to our fleshly thoughts and instead take on the mind of Christ.
Perhaps the most telling biblical example comes in the first chapter of 2 Samuel when David learns about the death of King Saul, who had repeatedly attempted to kill David. It’s not a perfect analogy with a president talking about the death of a terrorist leader, since Saul was the ruler and at times viewed David as the terrorist leader, but it still is quite a striking difference from how Obama or especially Trump responded.
David punished the one who told a story — that may not have been true — about how Saul died. And then David wrote a song of lament for the man who had repeatedly tried to kill him. In the song, he said they should not proclaim the news in a way that led people to “be glad” or “rejoice.”
Imagine a president punishing the messenger, or writing a song. We might be tempted to invoke the 25th Amendment or, at the very least, question his patriotism.
Rather than laughing and reveling in how someone died, perhaps we should humbly repent of our own wickedness. Rather than celebrate al-Baghdadi’s death, we should mourn his life.