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The Quiet Dignity of Life Between the Times

May 2nd, 2011 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

When the news of Usama bin Laden’s death broke on Twitter last night, I was preparing with my wife to settle in to watch the latest episode of one of our not-so-guilty pleasures, Friday Night Lights. We paused to feel the weight of the moment and watch our President give a very fine address, and then deliberately turned our faces toward the somewhat less serious matter of catching up on the news from Dillon.

Since that moment, the Christian community has been inundated by chatter about appropriate response to the news.  And no wonder:  the spontaneous catharsis that went on at the White House and in Times Square last night was a bit unnerving, especially to educated evangelicals trained to distance ourselves from the slightest bit of emotional excess.  Is it appropriate to so celebrate the death of an enemy?  Only, according to consensus, when accompanied by a healthy dose of mourning for the brokenness of our world and a sober assessment of our shared humanity.

But such is the challenge of spontaneity, especially when played out in public:  when we lack the cultural forms for expressing such realities, propriety rests upon a people whose passions have been trained in other contexts.  And the temptation is always strong to let the temper get the best of us, to let the celebration of justice overwhelm our sense of the brokenness of sin.

Let me be perfectly clear: the good of justice is a good, and the sort of good that we can approximate in this world.  I have little interest in the lazy abdication of our pursuit of justice through moral equivalency or the suspension of judgment for what I might call a theocentric nihilism.  Let’s not speak of sex approximating the goodness of God’s love while denying our ability to imitate his justice.  To do so is to arbitrarily select which attributes we prefer to claim as human, and leave the rest to the abyss .

But the good of justice is seen clearest in its tragic context:  we are only appropriately grateful for the good of the justice achieved toward Usama bin Laden when we weigh appropriately the heinousness of his crimes.  But the latter leads to sobriety and–for the Christian–inevitably to the judgment of Good Friday and the victory of Easter.

What’s more, we should remember that for all the cathartic good it does us, there is relatively little joy in beating up a smaller foe.  And despite the awful strength of their opening punch, the opponent has proved considerably weaker than we originally might have thought.   Finding them turned out to be more of a challenge than we had imagined, but that says more about the size of our world than the quality of our enemy.  We ought not to give the fellow more than he deserves, even in our satisfaction that justice has been served.

Excess celebration is a forgivable lapse, no doubt, and one not close to the level of the offenses perpetuated by al Qaeda.  But  reflective deliberation must extend to ourselves as much as to our neighbor, and it’s helpful to remember that levity is hard to get right.  No reason to berate ourselves, any more than anyone else.  As one fellow put it to me, best to say, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner,” and then get on with it.

And so I did.

It’s a bit of a paradox to turn to the mundane world of Friday Night Lights on a night that, like 9/11, many of us will remember for a long time to come.  But it is somehow fitting, as the show exemplifies precisely the sort of debauchery and moral seriousness that swim in the the undercurrent of the American ethos.   It is an imperfect world, Dillon, but one that celebrates the hope of redemption while routinely chastening us to remember the tragic weight of sin.  And while void of any of the trappings of triumphalism, there was a very real triumph last night in the joy I felt watching a bit of Americana in the relative safety and stability of my own home.  It is a freedom that I realize not many in the world enjoy, and if those of bin Laden’s mind had their way, considerably fewer would.

Which is to say, perhaps a possible Christian response to the death of a terrorist half a world away is to pause and consider the deadly seriousness of the world, pray the Maranatha and for those who are in leadership, and then return to seeking a life of quiet dignity, to seeking to live at peace with all men and cultivating a heart of gratitude for the many blessings that we have been given and the many liberties that we enjoy.