Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, November 06, 2006

Thoughts on the fate of Saddam Hussein

Our two tabloids, the New York Post and the Daily News, had photos of Saddam with these huge headlines:

Good Noose
Next Stop Hell

It is my belief that Saddam Hussein is that rare thing, a human monster of epic proportions. Perhaps not on quite the same scale as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or Mao since, unlike them (from what I know of them), he shows some features of mental illness—-but still, monstrous. What does this imply about our attitudes toward him and his pending execution?

On V-J Day sixty years ago, when I was a child of eight, we were spending the summer in Charlottesville with my grandparents. We went out into the streets where there was cheering, horn-blowing, shouting, every kind of exuberant demonstration never to be forgotten. My grandfather was hollering out the window, "Hoop-la-hoop! Hoop-la-hoop! Hirohito's in the soup!" There was something else, though, that I have never forgotten. Even in the very midst of the celebration my remarkable mother was muttering that we shouldn’t have dropped the atomic bombs on non-combatants.

When we began to bomb Afghanistan after 9/11 and there was real anticipation that we would find Osama bin Laden, I began to imagine a day when we would hear the news that American troops had found and killed Osama. How, I have been wondering, should Christians receive this announcement? Not with celebrations in the streets, it seems to me, but rather with:

--Solemn thanksgiving to God alone
--Awe that such a monstrous evil mind has been among us and is now gone
--Repentance for the state of the world that such a thing should be necessary
--Solemnity befitting the power of Death over us all
--Certainty that he, like all the rest of us, will answer to a righteous God
--Knowledge that this had to be done but that, as Ecclesiastes says, "it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with."

The disturbing thing about the tabloid headlines is that they bring out the worst in us all. We love to think of someone else going to hell but never think that we or any of our favorite people might go there. There is nothing more certain about the human being than our universal propensity for dividing up the human race into good guys and bad guys, with ourselves always on the right side of the divide. Paul warned against this in explicit terms in Romans 14:

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God...

It is true that Paul speaks here of the Christian community, but in view of the care he takes in chapters 1-3 to establish the fact that "there is no one righteous, no, not one," and the universal implications at the end of chapter 11, it is clear that ultimate judgment belongs to God alone ("Vengeance is mine," says the Lord, "I will repay"--12:19). Human judgment in this life, therefore, is not ultimate. It does not determine heaven or hell. Only the Crucified and Risen Lord does that (Luke 23:43; Matthew 25:31-46).

I have been arguing against the death penalty all my life and I have not changed my mind. I believe all Christians should be against it for everyone in every circumstance. Yet I must admit that if anyone should hang it should be Saddam Hussein. My concern at present is not for him. My concern is for us who are Christian leaders, that we are not communicating successfully about the meaning of the judgment of God. When people gleefully consign other people to hell and regard their deaths with levity ("good noose" is a parody of the evangel), it is clear that something very basic about human nature is not understood by this nation of millions of "Bible-believing" Christians. Lord, have mercy upon us all as we shall stand at the dreadful day of judgment. That, after all, is the theme of the church season now about to come upon us.