Monday, May 2, 2011

When mercy seasons justice

(Cross-posted at And Sometimes Tea)

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.


  1. And when do we pray for his 3000+ victims? More if count the deaths of Muslims in the Middle East that were "acceptable sacrifices" in his eyes? ( I see that it is mentioned in passing at the end, but the focus of the post is really OBL.)

    Personally, I do not rejoice in this situations where human justice (the need for social order) called for his death. But if one calls for Mercy, it *must* be fairly applied. It was not Mercy to the victims of 9/11 or their loved ones that OBL survived for so long and for most of them the death is bittersweet.

    In my mind, one cannot pray for OBL without praying 1000 times over for the unnamed innocents who simply boarded a plane or went to work on 9/11.

    And as a thought about the last paragraph: Do you not trust God to make proper judgments about His creations? Is the point of prayer so that God tallies up the prayer "points" on Judgment day and see who makes the cut and who doesn't?

    Prayer is powerful (and selfless) when we're talking about the hope that someone will turn to God and improve their lives. I'm highly doubtful, however, about extended, "Mercy" prayers for arguably one of the least worthy people within our lifetime (perhaps to the exclusion of those who both need and deserve the prayers more) in hope others will be on my "team" on judgment day. It doesn't sound selfless or very trusting to me.

    I trust God knows what to do about OBL and all the rest of us in His care. My prayers are more in the hope that we prevent as many people as possible from falling so far from the light of God's Love.

  2. Amy, I pray for his victims every Sept. 11, and whenever I think of them. But the idea that we pray for the souls in purgatory and hope they will pray for us is a very old Catholic notion; there's a sort of "Do unto others" about it. It has nothing to do with not trusting God, anymore than asking the saints to pray for us does.

    Hope that helps.

  3. That the victims of 9/11 ought to be prayed for isn't in dispute, so it is a bit unfair to jump on someone for not mentioning a point that everyone agrees on. Unless of course one thinks so ill of Red that they actually believe she thinks OBL deserves more prayer than the 9/11 victims in which case they ought to find another blog to read.