Late Sunday night, while perusing Facebook, a friend on Facebook updated her status to announce that Osama bin Laden was dead. It took a few seconds to confirm the news on CNN, and by the time I refreshed the screen, her status had changed once again.
This time, she posted a prayer.
“O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace,” she wrote. “Let the design of your great love shine on ... the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
For hours, as the details of bin Laden’s death emerged, dozens and dozens of Facebook friends chimed in to share news and, moreover, their candid thoughts.
Relief. Satisfaction. Jubilation. Anger. Worry. And a certain mournfulness that left more than a few people struggling to find the “proper” context for what was happening.
Many people mentioned the names of loved ones who perished on 9/11 or in the armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, in a sort of litany of remembrance.
There were also variations of “Got him!” “Good riddance!” “Hallelujah!” and “Payback’s a bitch!”
Soon after, though, more nuanced and thoughtful comments began appearing.
“God would not allow the angels to join in the song of the Children of Israel after they crossed the Red Sea saying, ‘My creatures are floating in the sea, and you want to sing?’” wrote a Lutheran minister. “Even the worst of the worst are children of God. Let us continue to pray for peace.”
A journalist added the first of many quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. that appeared in dozens of status updates in the hours and days following the news: “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
And then came the Scripture references, some of them starkly conflicting.
“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” (Proverbs 24:17)
“When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness.” (Proverbs 11:10)
“As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn, turn from your evil ways!” (Ezekiel 33:11)
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15: 2-3)
One person seemed to reflect the spiritual/existential conundrum that so many others are wrestling with in the wake of bin Laden’s death: “There is a fine line between rejoicing in the destruction of a human being, and celebrating victory and justice,” he said. “Where that line is ... I have no idea.”
Is what we are feeling and thinking “right” in God’s eyes?
What would Jesus say or do? Would he celebrate the vanquishing of an evildoer, or would he mourn the death of a lost sheep?
Can God forgive bin Laden for the atrocities he committed on 9/11 and since? Should we? Can we?
As the world waited to see whether U.S. officials would release photographic evidence of bin Laden’s corpse, the spiritual grappling continued with little consensus.
One outcome, however, was imminently clear: There are many people who feel a renewed sense of community, the kind wrought by sharing a traumatic and historic experience together in a virtual place that somehow, at least occasionally, feels strangely like hallowed ground.
More than a shouting match or purely intellectual exchange of opinion about bin Laden’s demise, Facebook became a forum for authentic spiritual examination. It was fascinating ― and heartening ― to watch hearts and minds transform in real time as they responded to the shared thoughts of friends and acquaintances on Facebook.
For many of us, Facebook is a “Third Place,” a virtual gathering place where everyone knows our name and our story. It’s a place where we create, for better or for worse, an ongoing story together.
For people of faith, Facebook can be a very real sacred space, even ― or perhaps most especially ― in difficult times.
While we may feel uncomfortable or unjust thanking God for the death of a moral monster like bin Laden, surely we can give thanks for the grace that makes even a modicum of beauty out of ugly things.