I do not think it means what you think it means…

I went to bed last night.

My husband, awake an hour earlier than I this morning, was the one who told me that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. operatives. I read the headlines and watched the President’s speech, and skimmed through Twitter, and began to develop a nasty, sickly feeling in my stomach. Cheering and celebration and glad shouts of “justice!” and “peace!”

As Inigo Montoya would say, “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I was relieved, however, when I looked at my Facebook friends’s feed, to see so many people expressing mixed emotion, relief mingled with sorrow, dismay at our fellow countrymen and countrywomen’s jubilation. As I wrote and as I read so many times today, I cannot celebrate the death of another human being, no matter how cruel, horrid, or vile. I can’t call killing a just solution, or a means of peace. And while I can acknowledge that, for some, there may be a measure of healing in closing this chapter of bin Laden’s evil legacy, any jubilation at another’s killing rings painfully familiar to me.

I remember the cheers from places around the world in the wake of 9/11, as men, women, and children gave thanks for the deaths of American civilians. I wonder if, to God’s ears, our cheering now sounds the same. I imagine our claims of justice must seem so provincial and narrow.

My friend Jeremy has written a wonderful post about “justice,” and what we might mean by justice, whether retributive justice or restorative justice. I highly encourage a reading of his thoughts, especially where he turns his reflection back on what we do to build justice in all kinds of situations.

Myself, I think retributive justice is a bit of an oxymoron. I don’t think retribution is just; I don’t think killing is just. Add this to the very long list of why I would make a terrible President; I can’t condone death even for the worst of our “enemies.” I see that perhaps it “had” to happen. I congratulate and thank the team of people who worked to have it done effectively and relatively safely. But I can’t go so far as to call it justice. And I certainly can’t call it peace.

In a lucky or unlucky coincidence, I had been asked to lead the opening devotions in the Vermont House of Representatives today. I often use props or clever alliterative verses. Not today. I thought about the many quotes I’d seen batted around today: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11); “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” (Martin Luther King, Jr.), and the many calls for peace.

Peace. Now there’s a word I think we misuse. Only one death I know of has ever been a cause for peace, and even there, my theology of atonement gets a little shaky when we call his death “Good.”

And so this is what I prayed.

O Life and Hope, Holy One. Today we breathe a sigh. A sigh of relief, perhaps, for the death of a violent and brutal man. A sigh of fear for retaliation that may lurk around the next bend in the road. A sigh of resignation that the work and danger have not passed, only changed. A sigh of hope that we may know peace.


We pray for peace.

More than the absence of violence, of terror, of danger, of bloodshed.

The presence of justice, kindness, forgiveness, and hope.

Peace for our nations. For weapons to be laid down. For men and women to return home from the battle fields. For us to learn the craft of war no more.

Peace for our world, for the places where hatred is bred, where oppression and violence and extremism forge killers out of children. Peace that is hope and tenderness and compassion, that is Shalom and well being and goodness. Peace that does not subdue violence, but renders it obsolete.

Peace for the dead, for all who died, civilians and soldiers, Americans and allies and combatants and enemies. Peace for those who died in towers and on planes, in military operations and in bombings and raids and suicide attacks. Peace and rest for those who have died.

Peace for loved ones who mourn: for all who have lost a mother, father, son, daughter, sibling, spouse, friend. For those who feel that the death of a man can bring long-awaited justice– peace. For those who feel that adding to the dead cannot bring back the dead– peace. For all who mourn and grieve and seek healing not in headlines and history, but in the slow agony of living– peace.

Peace. Deep Peace. Your Peace.

Peace, Jesus told his disciples, divine peace, holy peace, is not the world’s peace.

And peace, the song says, must begin with us, with me. As I take and live each moment in peace, in hope for a better world, in compassion and care for all around me. Peace.

May it begin with me.


(i don’t think i’d ever heard the representatives voice “amen” in response. until today.)

10 thoughts on “I do not think it means what you think it means…”

  1. Oh this was a beautiful prayer and an awesome post. I think this was my favourite line: “Peace that does not subdue violence, but renders it obsolete.” Thank you, Becca, I’m-ah post this link around the intertubes cause I like it that much. 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading, commenting, and re-posting. I do like that particular paragraph. I think, of all the kinds of peace I seek, that kind– the proactive kind– is the one for which I long the most.


  2. Your prayer is balm for my soul after seeing so many arguments about whether killing a mass-murderer is an act of justice to be celebrated or whether any death should be grieved instead. Peace.

    1. Thank you Jen. Hope you’re soul is feeling a little brighter today as rhetoric (hopefully!) cools and love begins its work.


  3. I am sad that it had to end this way. I had often wished that same fate on the Mexican and Columbian drug lords that I wished on bin Laden, and yet would not rejoice at their demise either. It is not so much that I wish death as I wish the pain to stop for so many people.
    And now, I fear more – thousands more -will pay the price for the one life taken. Violence only escalates violence.
    I feel saddened and dejected. I have been sighing all day. It seems like it will never end.

  4. Thanks Becca. (IMO) Yours is among the best of the responses I have seen. I intend to borrow your prayer, and I am posting a link to this page. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, Dave. You may certainly borrow, “steal,” link, and share away! Blessings to you this week.


  5. Thank you, Becca, for your superb prayer. I came across it by a fairly circuitous route but having found it I will reproduce it in my church newsletter this Sunday – in Melbourne, Australia. I hope you don’t mind. Thanks.

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