This week saw the demise of thousands of people around the world. The rough statistics, as I understand them, are that there are approximately 8.37 deaths per thousand people per year. That means that taking a very conservative world population of 6 billion, there are about 138,000 deaths per day.
And while each of those deaths mean that scores of people around the world are bereaved, only a few deaths made it into the newspaper headlines this week. Three in particular—Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel, and Kim Jung-Il—have dominated the headlines.
Christopher Hitchens’ brother Peter provided the most compelling response to his brothers death—a response which raises important questions regarding our response of the death of Kim Jung-Il. Writing on the paradoxical discomfort and comfort that comes from the public nature of this brother’s death, and his own reaction to the death of a brother who he both loved and disagreed with deeply, Peter Hitchens writes:
Much of civilisation rests on the proper response to death, simple unalloyed kindness, the desire to show sympathy for irrecoverable loss, the understanding that a unique and irreplaceable something has been lost to us. If we ceased to care, we wouldn’t be properly human.
I’ve been reflecting on how this very poignant and true statement compares to our—or, at least, my—instinctive response to the death of the less loveable in our world. Is the expression of “simple, unalloyed kindness” an appropriate response to the death of a tyrant so heinous as Kim Jung-Il? By all accounts he did his best to destroy everything that is good and beautiful and true in his country by making a god of himself, torturing Christians, starving his people, using young women, and telling lies of epic and, worse, microscopic proportions. Would it be so wrong to rejoice about the death of someone whose actions showed such complete disregard for humanity?
The South Korean government answered this question in the strangest of ways by cancelling its annual display of Christmas lights along the demilitarized border. The lights, which are set up at Christmas by South Korean Christians, are considered a provocation and a tool of “psychological warfare” by North Korea.
The inner contrarian in me—the part most like Christopher Hitchens—wants to tell those church groups to go to South Korean Tire and pick up a few extra sets of high-watt bulbs for their Christmas trees. Why shouldn’t South Korea shed as much light as its energy infrastructure can bear into the dark despotic state of North Korea?
But, the actions of the South Korean government (even if they were motivated by realpolitik) are in line with Scripture, which tells us not to “gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” The cancellation of the light display is also strangely more in line with the hope of Christmas. Gloating over someone’s downfall—even their eternal downfall—is not a hopeful act; it is certainly not God’s response to our downfall. Gloating contains either full grown pride or the seed of despair. The proper, civilized response to death is most powerful when it projects unalloyed kindness—love—to the “evildoer [who] has no hope“.