Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Death of a monster

Now that Saddam Hussein has actually been hanged, I am bringing forward a blog I wrote just before Advent because it seems even more relevant now. Last Sunday the New York Times "Week in Review" section featured an article about the execution by John F. Burns, the prominent reporter who has covered Iraq for years. He took stock of Saddam's cruelties and lack of remorse, yet said that he had a few seconds of feeling sorry for him because his demise was conducted in such a sordid manner. Yet Don Imus (a very intelligent man when he is not fooling around) observed that in his very last moments, Saddam had maintained a dignified, even heroic posture (though he was shouting imprecations shortly before) and that this was a marked contrast to his black-hooded, thuggish executioners. Imus wondered if this image on the worldwide Net was not going to be fodder for extremists, who would now be more inclined than ever to think of Saddam as a noble martyr.

Burns wrote that his moment of pity was scorned by his Iraqi friends and colleagues as a sign of profound moral weakness on his part. Perhaps. The Wrath of God has to be in here somewhere. I stand by what I wrote back in November:

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, 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:

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...

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 Advent.