In May the death of Osama bin Laden raised the question of what was the appropriate way for Christians to respond. At the time I was somewhat disturbed by what I considered excess celebration. “We must never forget that the evil comes not from the actions of ‘subhuman vermin’ but from the heart of a fallen, sacred yet degraded, human being,” I wrote. “If we are to preserve our own humanity we must not forget that our enemy differs from us in degree, not in kind. Like us, they are human, all too human.”
The night after I wrote that post my wife and I watched a news story about Bin Laden’s death. When she made a remark that seemed to express glee over the event, I chastised her for rejoicing in a man’s death. She responded that she was not rejoicing in the killing but rejoicing in justice having been done.
I realized she was right and her reaction was appropriate. In my concern for policing the borders of Christian ethics, fearing that we might be stepping over the line into bloodlust, I had forgotten that rejoicing in justice being done is a natural and healthy reaction.
I was reminded of this fact after reading my friend Rod Dreher’s post, “The ugliness of cheering for capital punishment.” My natural instinct was to agree whole-heartedly with Rod’s take on the issue. But after watching the video and seeing the context I believe there may be a more charitable interpretation:
Notice the statement made by moderator Brian Williams that precedes the question (and that leads to the applause):
Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times.
Was the audience applauding the death of criminals? Maybe. But a more charitable interpretation is that they were cheering what they considered to be Perry’s willingness—unlike most other governors—to mete out justice. Most murderers, even in Texas, do not receive the death penalty for their crimes. Those who believe, as I do, that the death penalty is the appropriate sentence for murder are often frustrated by the fact that justice is rarely carried out—even in Texas.
If justice is to be applauded (and I think it is) and the death penalty is the appropriate level of justice for murder (and I think it is) then I’m not sure why we should not applaud a politician when they have done their duty. It certainly doesn’t mean that we are gleeful about the deaths of Texas inmates. Some people are indeed so perverse that they would cheer the taking of a criminal’s life. But I think most decent people—even most Republicans!—are simply pleased that a justice is being carried out.
Even Perry recognizes that this is why the audience was applauding. When Brian Williams asked the governor what he thought of the mention of executions receiving applause, Perry answers, “I think Americans understand justice.”
Indeed, they do. And if justice was meted out more frequently, it is likely that Americans would not feel the need to cheer a state executive who was merely doing what his role requires.