[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew's Cathedral in Sydney.]
“Ding Dong the witch is dead!” the placard above the head of a joyful woman announced. Other placards called her a bitch rather than a witch.
So Britain reacted to Margaret Thatcher’s death.
The sight of people singing and dancing in street parties celebrating somebody’s death immediately appalled me. Photographs suddenly were everywhere on the media. I had to remind myself that photograph journalism was usually deceptive: a close-up of 30 people in a city of millions hardly represents the viewpoint of society. It’s a vivid image, a powerful image, the kind of image that any subeditor will find irresistible. But is it a true representation of the community’s reaction?
Yet, even if it represents only a small part of society, I am still appalled.
It is not that I have particularly strong feelings concerning Margaret Thatcher. She was the British Prime Minister not the Australian. Her Falklands war was the 1st British conflict in over 100 years that didn’t involve Australia. Her battles with the miners, the Irish, the working class and socialism were on the other side of the world. She brought about significant change and so inevitably had admirers and critics. I do not profess to be in any of these camps. I can see the good that she did as I can see the damage as well. However, it was amazing to see the depth of hatred that was still in the community 20 years after she had left office. And I was appalled to see such gleeful hatred on the day of her death.
Pondering this phenomenon I remembered the joy expressed at a press conference when Saddam Hussein was executed. It may be a moral failure on my part but unlike my attitude towards Margaret Thatcher I did feel Saddam Hussein was a monster. But I recall being a little surprised that his execution should be greeted quite so joyfully and put it down to the immediacy of the hurt that those journalists had experienced.
Then suddenly the sense of my hypocrisy came home. I recalled the moment when I heard that Pol Pot died. I was alone at my desk when the announcement came over the radio. Immediately, as if in a knee-jerk reaction, I called out in a loud voice: “Good!” As soon as the word left my mouth, I wondered at my reaction. Yes, I had Cambodian friends who had suffered terribly at the hands of that atheistic monster. Yes, I had a developed attitude and strong feelings about his evil rule. But is it right to rejoice in the death of a sinner?
There is a long history of people expressing their hatred by defiling dead bodies. Apart from the grisly ugliness of the body snatching industry, history is full of the purposeful desecration of enemies. From Homer’s Iliad, with Achilles mistreatment of Hector’s body to Vlad’s appalling impaling of his foes, to the American marines in Afghanistan last year, the desecration of defeated foes has been condemned by all and sundry. The Muslims condemned mutilating dead bodies in the seventh century as the Geneva conventions declared that bodies must not be despoiled in the twentieth century. Yet such a tabooed activity is not limited to military action; political enemies have also suffered public exposure and denigration. Charles II had Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, posthumously executed, publicly hung until late afternoon and then put their heads on a spike above Westminster Hall; the bodies of Mussolini, his associates and mistress were abused before being hung upside down to public display and contempt. The Bible speaks of the horror of defiling corpses (Deut 28:26, 1 Sam 17:44-46). David rewarded Rizpah for protecting the bodies of her executed sons (2 Sam 21:7ff), just as God condemned the Moabites for burning to lime the bones of the King of Edom (Amos 2:1-3).
I doubt if anybody is planning to desecrate the body of Margaret Thatcher, but to rejoice in another person’s death stems from the same disregard of the commandment: “you shall not murder”. It’s very natural for people who have suffered grave injustice to wish the capital punishment of the perpetrators. We want vengeance, but “Vengeance is mine. I will repay; says the Lord” (Rom 12:19). Our sinfulness compromises our ability to sit in judgement on others. God alone can be trusted with death, for he has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the sinner would repent and find forgiveness (Ezek 18:23).
While death is the wages that sin pays (Rom 6:23), the desecration of the dead and the joy in somebody’s demise indicate the desire for more justice than simply death. Some Australians opposed the Indonesian execution of the Bali Bombers, not because of opposition to capital punishment but because death was insufficient punishment. The same disappointment was expressed when Pol Pot died without ever being brought to trial or punished for his crimes. If all that such murderers get is the death we all get, where is the punishment for their crimes or the justice for their victims?
However, nobody “gets away with it” with God. There is a judgement beyond the grave; as the Scriptures says “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement” (Heb 9:27), and “we must all appear before the judgement seat” of God and Christ (Rom 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10).
So should we rejoice in another’s death? It certainly is understandable in the extreme cases of evil or when we have been personally abused by somebody’s sinfulness. Yet it ill behooves sinners, such as ourselves, to clamour too loudly for justice. Our great need is not judgement but mercy. The great news of the gospel is that by his death and resurrection, Jesus has brought us not only forgiveness and pardon but also new and eternal life—for while “the wages of sin is death, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).