Osama bin Laden and the Value of Justice
Christians are already beginning to weigh in on the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Not surprisingly, Justin Taylor has a quick roundup of the first couple of internet volleys–both of which are very good. I’m sure there is more serious reflection to come. But since I’m a blogger, I’ll do what bloggers do, and that’s add my thoughts to the mix.
There are really two questions to answer: 1) Did Osama bin Laden deserve to die? 2) Did those who killed him have authority to do so? I believe the answer to both those questions is yes. Consequently, his death was a matter of justice for which we can be grateful.
1. Did Osama bin Laden deserve to die? Genesis 9:6 suggests he did: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Capital punishment for murder is not an assault on the image of God, but a defense of it. It is because human life is so precious, that the taking of human life needs to be punished so severely. The principle of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, wound for wound” (Exod. 21:23-25) was not a matter cruel and unusual punishment, but of controlled retribution as a means of protecting the community and valuing the dignity of human life.
At this point, some earnest Christian will object, “But we will all deserve to die. If God should mark my iniquities, I would be a goner too.” The objection makes sense on one level. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), and the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). And yet, even with this doctrine of total depravity the Bible never acts as if everyone deserves to die physically right now. Some have deserved immediate death, so God killed Nadab and Abihu and struck down Uzzah and inflicted judgment on the Egyptians, Amorites, Canaanites, Israelites, Assyrians, and Babylonians. We all deserve condemnation apart from God’s grace, but some deserve death now because some sins are worse than others and some sinners commit more egregious sins.
It is one of the half-truths of our day that every sin is the same in God’s eyes. On the one hand, every sin renders us liable to God’s judgment (James 2:10). On the other hand, not every bit of iniquity is equally offensive. Some sins are high-handed. Some are premeditated. Some are slip ups. Some are habitual. Some are contrary to nature. The Law did not demand the same penalty for every infraction. Neither did Jesus (Matt. 10:15). We do not promote the glory of the gospel by pretending that no one is more righteous or more wicked than anybody else. Some sins so destroy the image of God that those who commit them deserve destruction.
2. Did those who killed Osama bin Laden have the authority to do so? Only God has the authority to take human life. But God has ordained that he should exercise that right through the power of the state. Romans 13:4 says the governing authorities are God’s servants to do good, “but if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” The Navy SEALs that raided bin Laden’s compound did not violate the sixth commandment because, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, “Prevention of murder is also why government is armed with the sword” (Q/A 105). Surely, this was an instance where the U.S. military, by killing bin Laden, was acting in an effort to prevent more American citizens from being murdered.
Obviously, Jesus condemned private retaliation, vigilante justice, and hatred (Matt. 5:38-48). But there is no indication the Gospels mean to overturn the centuries long Jewish understanding that some warfare was justified. When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they needed to do to repent, he could have easily said, “Resign from the evil Roman army. You can’t be a soldier and a part of the new people of God.” But instead he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). Jesus went so far as to hold up a Centurion as a model of faith (Luke 7:6). It reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s quip: “There is nothing that throws any particular light on Christ’s attitude toward organized warfare, except that he seems to be rather fond of Roman soldiers.”
In the end, though there are mixed emotions from last night’s announcement, at least one of the attitudes should be thankfulness for the bravery of the men who, with proper authority in a just cause, killed a man who deserved to die. I thought President Obama’s remarks last night struck the right tone. There was a sense of gratitude without gloating. The dominant theme was justice. In our every day lives in this squishy pomo world, we have a hard time with justice. As a nation we feel sorry for people better than we feel joy over justice. But sometimes we need to be reminded that we live in a moral universe where actions have consequences. And when deathly consequences are merited by despicable actions, we should be glad the world is working as God designed.