Several Christian pacifists have warned against celebrating the death of ISIS terror chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who blew up himself and several children as US Delta Force soldiers cornered him in a Syrian tunnel.
“Christians should never rejoice in anyone’s death,” tweeted author and pastor Brian Zahnd. “Not ever.”
“We should never rejoice in death,” likewise tweeted activist Shane Claiborne, quoting Ezekiel about the Lord not delighting in death of the wicked.
Apparently the mother of Baghdadi victim Kayla Mueller disagreed with Zahnd and Claiborne. “I just want to say how grateful we are to this administration, to the military, and to the special forces that went in,” Marsha Mueller told CNN. “My hope is that this will help us get answers to what really happened to Kayla and get her home.”
Kayla Mueller was an American relief worker and Christian whom ISIS captured in 2013 and who died in captivity in 2015. Among other horrors, she was reputedly raped repeatedly by Baghdadi himself, under whom ISIS took thousands of women as sex slaves. The crimes of ISIS over half a decade are incalculable. Hundreds of thousands were direct victims.
To commemorate one victim, the US strike against Baghdadi was named for Mueller. So his death is vindication and justice for her and thousands of others whose names will never be known.
According to historic Christian teaching, the just punishment for murder is death. The Lord instructs Noah so after the flood, and Saint Paul effectively reaffirms when declaring the state’s ordination for lethal vengeance against the wicked. The US Delta Force sent against Baghdadi was, according to church teaching, divinely ordained, as are all just pursuits by the state against the wicked.
Christian pacifists like Claiborne and Zahnd of course dissent from this historic church teaching about government’s core purpose. They insist that God rejects all violence, which is a tool of earthly empire, never of Christ’s peaceful kingdom. Militaries, police, judiciaries, and all governments relying on them, which is every government, are effectively operating outside God’s intent.
Within this context, Claiborne and Zahnd reject any celebration of Baghdadi’s demise. But their perspective rejects any force against ISIS. Even capturing Baghdadi for trial would be wrong, as the process of apprehension and detention involves armed lethal force. According to their absolutist brand of Christian pacifism, justice can only be pursued nonviolently through mediation and persuasion.
Under the Claiborne/Zahnd version of Christian political theology, Baghdadi would still rule over and torment hundreds of thousands, and he still would be raping captives like Kayla Mueller. Many admirers of Claiborne and Zahnd perhaps don’t fully understand the logical outcome of their perspective. And most Christians are not pacifists. Most Christians would share the gratitude of Kayla’s mother that her daughter’s chief tormentor is extinguished.
But should Christians specifically rejoice over the death of Baghdadi? There was a similar question over Osama bin Laden’s execution. We should celebrate that their evil acts are finished, but may we, should we celebrate their deaths?
To the extent their deaths were righteously executed, satisfy justice, and provide for public order, preventing their further crimes, and perhaps deterring imitators, yes. In the case of Baghdadi and bin Laden, the government of the United States, with its unique powers achieved precisely that for which God chiefly ordains government. Christians rightly celebrate when God’s will prevails on earth.
In Exodus 15, the Hebrews celebrate God’s having drowned Pharoah’s pursuing army: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.”
Perhaps we can say of the demise of ISIS what the Hebrews said of the Egyptian chariots: “Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy.”
Of course, the defeat of Baghdadi doesn’t have the same cosmic, salvific, and eschatological significance as the Hebrew escape from Pharoah. But it was just and godly.
“When the wicked perish, there is singing,” recounts the Proverbs. But there is also tragedy. God’s original intent was for humanity to live in direct communion with Him. His intent remains for fallen humanity, even the egregiously wicked, to repent. But even as He seeks repentance, He judges, and He ordains consequences for wickedness. God created states not to proclaim the Gospel’s message of salvation but to restrain and punish evil, in ways that ideally model divine justice.
We can rejoice over Baghdadi’s demise and over vindication for Mueller, among many other victims who perhaps themselves now rejoice in Heaven. We also can rejoice that the children Baghdadi murdered in his last moments will be his last victims.
At the same time, we mourn the horror of those children’s deaths, and we mourn that many more will die in the disorder that follows ISIS. We pray for an eventual peace there, even as we know complete peace comes only with the parousia. In mourning, we still hope, and we act, in pursuit of justice, with the limited available tools, amid tragedy and mystery, leaving ultimate justice to God.
Claiborne, Zahnd, and other Christian pacifists warn against celebrating Baghdadi’s death because of their wider agenda against traditional church teaching on government’s calling. But they also miss the wider drama of God’s actions in the world among rebellious humanity, which entails celebration, mourning, patience, faith, and hope.