by Matthew Raley
The killing of Osama bin Laden is being hailed as a thrilling feat of heroism. We are witnessing a rare outburst of vindictive jubilation that has swept young and old, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat — that, indeed, has revived talk of national unity. Justice, we feel, has concretely been done.
This is a good moment to consider the pressure of God’s justice.
To see why so many are jubilant, it might be helpful to peruse this piece from New York Magazine, “September 11 by Numbers.” It makes jarring reading even 10 years after bin Laden’s crime.
The total number of people killed in the twin towers was 2,819. I vividly remember an admonition from Walter Cronkite the next day, that journalists should cite the exact number and not use round figures. “Those are people.”
The estimated number of children who lost a parent in the attack was 3,051. Fully one-fifth of all Americans knew someone hurt or killed.
This magnitude of loss on a single morning, graphically recorded second by second, painstakingly studied by government commissions, and endured day after day ever since by the bereaved, cries out for recompense. No one should expect detached objectivity about justice from one of those 3,051 people who spent the last decade grieving a parent. We shouldn’t expect them to feel mercy toward bin Laden because the expectation is, among other things, inhumane.
Payback is their due.
But the fury of 3,051 children cannot actually be appeased by bin Laden’s death, much less the fury of an entire nation.
The man who took 2,819 lives at the World Trade Center only had one life to yield up in payment. And he took many more lives besides, including that of the wife he used as a shield in his last moments. His instant experience in death cannot balance the experiences in grief over lifetimes. Most tragically, his death does not restore life to those he killed.
So the imbalance remains. Even after all bin Laden had is taken from him, the losses his caused are still on the books.
Let’s add another complication.
Is there any basis upon which bin Laden could have repented? What could he have done to gain enough mercy to keep his life?
Perhaps a public apology, combined with a life of social work. Maybe a religious conversion. Or he might have liquidated his wealth to fund the education of all 3,051 children through graduate school.
Assuming you could get 1,512 of those children the sign off on bin Laden’s repentance, you still wouldn’t be able to look the other 1,539 in the eyes.
The simple reason is that repentance without payment is worthless. That’s clear enough when the enormity of the crime is too ugly to whitewash.
Bottom line: one man’s payment is never enough to compensate for his sins, and no repentance will restore him if he cannot pay.
The pressure of divine justice is that the tabulation our sins is ongoing at God’s throne. If we admit today that justice demanded satisfaction in bin Laden’s case, will we also admit that it demands satisfaction in our own?
Such are the problems that lead to the cross.