How ought Christians to respond to the killing of someone so monstrous that their death seems to be a net gain for the world, a victory for the goods of justice, order, and peace? Is celebration appropriate? Thanksgiving? Lamentation?
The question featured among the minor storylines of the recent killing of Qasem Soleimani. Providence editor Mark Tooley took on one kind of response representative in content—if more intellectually egregious in character—of many who argue Christians ought never to rejoice in, sanction, or approve of the death of anyone. With this pacifistic view, people of goodwill have disagreed throughout history. To continue with the example of Soleimani, you can bet the mothers of those killed by his Revolutionary Guard during anti-government protests in 1999, 2017, or 2019 are plenty happy with his demise. Likewise, more than a few Syrians are equally pleased. The list of those who think the only problem with his death is that it did not come soon enough is long. Waiting for justice is impatient work.
Moving beyond Soleimani, it’s timely this week to think about the death of the wicked. This Monday we observe the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi concentration camp operational from 1940–45 in German-occupied southwest Poland. I will be there for the commemorative event, as I was there 25 years ago. Then Elie Wiesel, the late Romanian-born American professor and Holocaust survivor, addressed a congregation gathered for prayers at the ruins of one of the Birkenau crematorium.
In a voice quivering with emotion yet unbreaking, he implored us to never forget the lost. “Remember the nocturnal procession of children, of more children, and more children, so frightened, so quiet, so beautiful,” he said. “If we could simply look at one, our heart would break.” His voice, then, dropped a register, “But it did not break the hearts of the murderers.” And with that in mind, Wiesel then addressed God:
Oh, we know that God is merciful, but please, God, do not have mercy on those who created this place. God of forgiveness, do not forgive those murderers of Jewish children here. Do not forgive the murderers and their accomplices.
Wiesel was standing not simply in a place of judgment, but in a long theological and linguistic tradition. The Hebraic language and derivatives of the people of God are not always easy for the squeamish. For example, Yiddish—a German-based vernacular fused with Hebrew and much else—is rich in impressively evocative insults. There’s “trinkn zoln im piavkes” (“let leeches drink him dry”). And the delightfully inventive “migulgl zol er vern in a henglayhter, by tog zol er hengen, un bay nakht zol er brenen”(“he should be transformed into a chandelier, to hang by day and burn by night”). Nor should we miss the theologically astute—if slightly cynical—”zoln dayne beyner zikh brekhn azoy oft vi di Aseres-Hadibres” (“may your bones be broken as often as the Ten Commandments”).
It’s not all so jocular. What Wiesel invoked there in the shadow of the crematoria is something much more. In Hebrew there is a curse—the curse of curses: yimakh shemo. The phrase originated with Haman—the attempted destroyer of Jews—from the biblical book of Esther, though it hearkens in spirit back at least to Amalek. It translates, “May his name be obliterated.” It is the awful antithesis of the joyous invocation offered for a righteous person: “May his memory be for a blessing!” Instead, yimakh shemo is a killing phrase. It asks that the rasha—the evil one in view—be forgotten, blotted from the book of life, erased forever. It is used more generically throughout the Hebrew scriptures to signify the wicked, but as a curse it is used for the Jewish people’s worst enemies. In the context of this week, we think of Adolf Hitler, Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Höss, and near-countless goose-stepping others.
It’s not clear to me how much such a curse has a rhetorically hyperbolic dimension. Certainly, it’s not a literal intention to forget the names of the wicked—if it were so, the Deuteronomic “Obliterate the memory of Amalek!” would be rather counterproductive. As would, of course, such important mnemonic prompts such as Holocaust Remembrance Day. Reminders such as these are essential antidotes to sentimental drivel about human benevolence. But the curse carries an educative value of its own. There is surely something amiss, for example, when we know the identity of so many of the killers, but too often cannot recall the names of their victims. The same error is at play in any of the too innumerable contemporary crimes: the mass shootings, the serial killers, the malevolence of despots and potentates.
And while there is a soft part of me that is unsure whether I have so much hate in me to demand of God that he never forgive the truly monstrous, I am aware that a part of this is because I do not fully understand the demands of justice, love, and holiness. Mercy always costs somebody something; the cross teaches us that, if nothing else does. When we show mercy to monsters, very often it’s the victims who pay. While victims, too, have responsibilities, and while true repentance can make uncomfortable claims on those who would rather crush than reconcile, it remains true that justice—and love—requires that the innocent be vindicated.
The desire we have to see the wicked punished is not inherently wrong. Emotions can become confused. Our sense of relief that the wrongdoer has been stopped, the innocent are now safe, victimizers will be retributed, evil will be deterred, and some approximate measure of justice, order, and peace might be rekindled can sometimes mutate into a desire to see the wicked suffer, per se. In such cases, such desires must be mortified. But the spark that ignites them must never be quenched. Nor must we quench the spiritedness with which some go about the business of justice. Those who wear the cloth of our nation and stand on freedom’s wall must not be ushered off to just wars with slumped shoulders. When the cause is just and their motives true, they should fight with happy hearts. Not for the sake of the fight itself, but because they are willing and able to fight them.
History sometimes requires that we do things that make us complicit—in some sense—for adding to the evil in the world. In saying this with the death of the wicked in view, I am acknowledging the privative view that killing another human is always to cause an evil because it deprives the victim of the good of life. This passes all the way down from not just the slaughtered victims, but to their vanquished victimizers as well. But to cause an evil is not, necessarily, to be morally guilty. Touched on here is the distinction I have presented at other times between non-moral evil and moral evil. Only moral evil incurs guilt to the doer of evil. What accounts for the disjunction is the sad fact that there exists in our world many conflict situations where an evil can be avoided or a more or less necessary good achieved only when another evil is caused.
All of this ought to be something of a grief to any good man. There is a rabbinic tale recalling the moment when the Israelites passed through the Red Sea with Egypt’s army bearing hard upon them. All seems lost. God and the angels watch, the latter breathless at the plight of the covenant people. At the last of moments, just as their pursuers are about to overtake them, the Israelites achieve dry land, and the Lord reaches out and closes his fist over the sea. The liquid walls shiver and collapse; water rushes. Men are crushed amid equine screams. The sea ceases its boil and stills. The angels, ecstatic at the salvation of Israel, break into riotous song; but at once the Lord God wheels on them and silences them with a lugubrious roar: “My children drown!” He thunders, “And you would sing?”
“The internal condition of God’s external expression of wrath,” writes the theologian and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is grief.” To the best I can deduce, therein is communicated the complex disposition of the just warrior. God, we are assured, even in necessary vengeance, takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather that they all be saved. Nevertheless, we are equally assured that not all will be saved. And that by nobody’s choice but their own.
I do not rejoice that I worship a God who kills. I only rejoice that I worship a God who is willing to.