Navigating the Death of a “Notorious” Public Figure

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on September 18, 2020. She was an incredibly polarizing public figure. Her followers branded her, “The Notorious RBG,” in praise; her opponents would have applied the word notorious to her in a more traditional sense.

Since her passing, I’ve seen two very different and very vocal responses to her death on social media by members of the church. Some have mourned her passing, shared her image with a positive quote or two from her, and praised what could be praised of her life. Others though have celebrated her passing as a victory for conservative and/or Christian values in the government, denounced her legacy, and in some cases gone so far as to pronounce judgment upon her soul. As is typical for issues such as these on social media, I’ve also seen these two groups come into vicious verbal conflict with each other.

As a minister, it is important for me not to stray too far into political or social discussions. If I speak too loudly on these issues, my voice might drown out the voice of God speaking in His Word or might drive people away from His Word before they ever even have a chance to hear it. Jesus, pictured in prophecy as a Rock of offense (Isaiah 8:14; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:8), is hard enough for people to receive without me getting in the way. However, it’s hard to be silent when I see brothers and sisters who not only aren’t being silent but who are publicly fighting with one another. Further, it is not as though the Bible has no guidance for us when a public figure like Ms. Ginsburg passes away, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t declare all of God’s counsel for each moment to the best of my ability (Acts 20:27).

So, first, when anyone passes away, it’s important to realize that he/she is in the hands of God. Nothing that anyone says, good or bad, can change what that person will encounter when he/she stands before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). While God will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15), no man can come to the Father without Jesus (John 14:6), and God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). The Bible gives me no reason to hope for the salvation of those outside of Jesus, and part of my mission in life is to prepare myself not only to stand approved by my Lord but to stand in agreement with His judgment (harmonizing Acts 17:31, Romans 3:6, and 1 Corinthians 6:2). The fact that I must stand with my Lord in judgment on that Day does not mean that it is necessary or even advisable to attempt to stand in judgment here.

The Bible doesn’t frequently record Christian responses to the death of notable opponents, but the two that spring to my mind are definitely worth considering. It didn’t take much detective work for the disciples to draw a straight line from Judas’ departure from the table at the last supper to Jesus’ crucifixion. Notice though Peter’s very measured words, perhaps mingled with Luke’s inspired commentary: “Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus… purchased a field with the wages of iniquity…by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place” (Acts 1:16, 18, 25). Peter knew the truth well enough to know that what Judas had done was wrong and to know where he was headed. However, Peter evidently didn’t feel that it was good or necessary to overtly pronounce “hell” as Judas’ destination.

The second example that springs to mind is perhaps even more relevant as relates to recent events. Herod Agrippa was not a follower of Jesus like Judas; he was a provincial king and an open enemy of Christianity. On a whim he subjected members of the church to violence (Acts 12:1) and killed the apostle James (12:2). When he saw that some people liked it, he arrested Peter and probably would have killed him too had God not intervened. Herod even went so far as to receive praise as though he were a god, which ultimately led to his death (12:20-23). The church’s response to this great enemy’s death is summed up by Luke in one sentence: “But the word of God increased and multiplied” (12:24).

The church evidently understood that their mission was to preach to the living, not to preach about the dead. And in the course of preaching to the living, they doubtlessly had to consider the impact of their words on the non-Christian community, some of whom perhaps still regarded Herod as a god (12:22; note: historically, Herod was not the only government official to be regarded by a god in the Gentile world and death did not necessarily stop people from worshipping these officials; in fact, for some, that’s when worship began). They had a responsibility to preach a message that would have categorically condemned Herod when he was alive. However, now that he was dead, they had a responsibility to preach it in such a way so that the living would have the best chance to receive it, even those who viewed Herod favorably.  

If we zoom out to bring the Old Testament into our view as well as the New, there is more to help us find our way during times such as this.

First, it is not inherently wrong to find good in the death someone who was in other ways wicked. The ruler of Tyre was a godless, prideful man who said, “I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods” and who was guilty of a “multitude of… iniquities” (Ezekiel 28:2, 18). God took great issue with him (as He did with Herod), and said, “You shall die the death of the uncircumcised by the hand of foreigners” (v. 10). However, after being given this news, Ezekiel is then told, “Son of man, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre” (v. 12). What follows is Divine praise of a man who was wicked. It doesn’t read like sarcasm (vv. 12-19), and it isn’t the only example of this kind of thing happening in the prophets.

Second, it’s not inherently wrong to rejoice over the death of an enemy. While we should join our God in never rejoicing over the eternal death of the wicked and in never desiring for anyone to perish (Ezekiel 18:32; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9), we can praise God when He has defeated an oppressor. In Psalm 64, the psalmist begs God for preservation from an enemy (v. 1). When “God shoots His arrow at them” (v. 7) and “They are brought to ruin” (v. 8), the Psalmist says, “Let all the upright in heart exult!” (v. 10). One need only to look to the song of Moses (Exodus 15) or the song of Deborah (Judges 5) to see how joyous and, to modern sensibilities, tactless this praise could be. While it should be noted that this rejoicing in Scripture is personal and/or communal (i.e. amongst God’s people), it is there in Scripture and recorded for our learning (Romans 15:4).

So, while I can’t in good conscience categorically condemn either category of response that I’ve seen over social media as relates to Ms. Ginsburg, there is one thing I can categorically condemn: the harsh interactions I’ve seen between some of those on both sides. When last I read, “fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, [and] divisions” appeared in a list alongside of “sexual immorality” and other things that Ms. Ginsburg was sadly guilty of upholding during her tenure in office (Galatians 5:19-21). So, “you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself” (Romans 2:21)?  

Earlier in Galatians 5, Paul said this: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:14). Loving your neighbor began at home for the Galatians; they couldn’t love a stranger if they were biting and devouring a brother or sister in Christ. Satan loves nothing more than to see God’s people divided, because it is only through our unity and demonstrated love towards one another that people will be drawn to Jesus (John 17:21). We must not let the death of Ms. Ginsburg be a cause of division amongst us.  

Any article of this nature would be incomplete if I didn’t say one more thing: Pray. Start by praying for Ms. Ginsburg’s family, friends, and colleagues and in specific their wellbeing (first spiritual, then emotional). Pray then for wisdom to know how to evaluate Ms. Ginsburg’s legacy and death and to know how to reach out to those who think the way she did about moral issues. Don’t forget to pray for God to open doors of opportunity to reach these people and for boldness to enter these doors. Pray next for God to in some way use her passing, first for His glory, then for our good. Finally, pray for the things you probably thought of first: pray for a justice to replace her who will protect the innocent, uphold Biblical morality, and protect religious freedoms so that the Gospel can freely spread.

Remember though, freedom of religion means little if we are not doing all we can to help people find freedom in Christ.


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