On Sunday US forces killed Osama Bin Laden. This was immediately followed by jubilant celebrations and praise for the President and the men who carried off a brilliant mission without a single casualty.
This was followed on the social networks by numerous posts quoting the Bible and Martin Luther King, Jr. (with embellishment) that suggested people were wrong to exult in the death of an enemy. The most quoted was Proverbs 24:17: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” It seems to me there is considerable confusion on a number of fronts, and I’d like to attempt to sort through a few of them.
First, the Bible says a lot about enemies and about the execution of justice. In some places it commands love and goodwill toward enemies; in other places it suggests their frustration and defeat are a source of joy. When justice prevails, we are to be glad; but when we ourselves are the victims of injustice, we are to patiently endure, and appeal to God for our cause.
We run into problems trying integrate all these ideas if we have a one-size-fits-all definition of “enemies,” if we neglect the context of a given passage, or if we cherry-pick the verses that suit our mood.
We may also be tempted to think we’ve got the holier attitude by simply falling back to a default position of love and mercy. Navy SEALS aren’t in the love and mercy business, nor is the President of the United States, at least in the way most people think of love and mercy. But from another point of view, killing a certain kind of person may be selfless, heroic, righteous and yes, just.
In the Bible, murder is a sin, a serious one. Osama Bin Laden was the perpetrator of murder, but not a victim of it. He was killed. If you’re going to use the Bible to make your point, please recognize that killing in warfare or the execution of criminals is the taking of a life, but it is not murder (the Commandment says, “You shall not murder,” not “kill,” Ex. 20:13). If you don’t agree with that, fine, but do not then selectively use Scripture to support that point of view, because the Old Testament and the New Testament both agree that governments rightly wield the sword, the power to take human life.
So this raises some interesting questions.
Should Osama Bin Laden have been killed?
If he was our enemy, shouldn’t we (Christians) have loved him and blessed him?
Since killing, even if just, is at best a necessary evil, how can we (Christians) be happy about it?
Let’s take these one at a time.
Should OSB have been killed? A perfectly moral and rational case can be made for killing Bin Laden. It hardly seems necessary. He was a mass murder, by his own confession. He bragged about it. 9/11 gave him a big belly laugh. He killed thousands, in numerous countries, innocent people of all nationalities and religions, especially his own. He declared war on our country, which makes him an enemy combatant, not just a criminal. He would not have willingly surrendered. His ongoing campaign against innocent civilians of the world made him a continuing threat. Capturing him for arrest and trial would have made about as much sense as arresting Hitler or Tojo. Have him blow himself up as our men closed in? Have him lawyer up and use the Southern District of New York courtroom as his pulpit to the world for three or four years? Thank you, no.
The value of human life argues for his killing, not against it. It is precisely because the value of life is so high, that the one who murders others – or makes war on a peaceful nation - forfeits his own. It’s not that his life suddenly has no value, it’s that he has lost his right to it. This is the biblical basis for justifiable killing. By the way, this is not revenge. The US has a Department of Justice, and a Department of Defense, but we do not have a Department of Revenge. This killing was morally just – he had relinquished his life when he made murdering innocent civilians his life’s aim – and a justifiable military action undertaken for the defense of our country. But it was not revenge for his attacks on our country. If it was revenge we were after, he would have gotten much worse than a couple of bullets in the head. We would’ve started with his family. There would have been pigs and dogs involved. That’s not how we roll. And we’re following the Bible on that, by the way.
If he was our enemy, shouldn’t we have loved him and blessed him? Bin Laden was undoubtedly an enemy. Of you, me and every decent person on the planet. If that is the case, and we want to uphold the commands of Scripture, and the very words of Jesus, what should our attitude be to this enemy? Is he an enemy in the sense that Jesus had in mind when he told us, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you…” or Paul when he wrote,
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ”Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)
Jesus and Paul speak of personal enemies, individuals who set themselves against me. But there is another kind of enemy in Scripture, like the enemies of King David. David faced attack from the Philistines, Saul, the Amalekites, the Ammonites and Syrians, and later his own son, Absalom. Deborah, after a victory over the Canaanites, sang, “Thus let all your enemies perish, O Lord! (Judges 5:31).
These are national or collective enemies. The question of how I relate to them is not merely personal, because their actions are not against me alone. I don’t have to kill in self-defense, though it is certainly not wrong to do so. But I don’t have the same kind of choice when an enemy attacks my neighbors. Then the obligation to defend others is in play. To do so, I might have to kill an enemy, even if I personally love him and bear him no ill will. I am in effect choosing the life of his intended victim over his. Biblically speaking, this would be the right thing to do. When all is said and done, I may have blood on my hands, but not innocent blood, and I didn’t stand and watch a wrongful killing happen that I had the power - or at least the responsibility to try – to stop. I can’t let a revulsion toward violence keep me from defending the defenseless, or think I am too good to meet evil with force. In our world, we engage soldiers and police to undertake this, but we shouldn’t think we are morally above the fray: they do it for us.
I think the New Testament has two different issues that it addresses, and we should ask whether either of those properly apply to the killing of Bin Laden. One is the matter of personal enemies. The neighbor who steals your newspaper or poisons your cat is a personal enemy. The matter of forgiving, loving and blessing that person is mine alone. Regarding our personal enemies, I shouldn’t retaliate against them. I shouldn’t delight in their misfortune. I should repay good for evil. Furthermore, we do not make enemies of others, they make themselves our enemies by their choice. “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peacably with all men” (Romans 12:18).
The other issue is our relationship to a government that rightly has the power to punish “evildoers” (Rom. 13:3-4). Peter describes governing authorites as ” those who are sent by him (God) for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Pe. 2: 13-14). This makes a category of enemy that is against the community, the state, the nation, not just against me or my cat. The state has no obligation to forgive, though it can grant pardon; rather it has an obligation to justice . We as individuals can show love and mercy, but we’d be in a world of hurt if the state did the same. Likewise, I can decide for myself to accept injustice at the hands of the government, or even a foreign enemy, but what right do I have to make that decision for my fellow believers or my fellow citizens? When someone murders 3000 of my fellow Americans, or 200 Africans or 460 Indians – what standing do I have to forgive them? Rather I must stand with my nation in defending itself. If I don’t, my so-called love and mercy is a joke. At that point, to whom do I owe my love and mercy more? To the thousands throughout world who are threatened by this killer, or to the killer? To put them on an even moral plane, as if his murders and the response of the civilized world to those murders is the same, is absurd and makes a mockery of the notion of love and of justice. Such moral equivalency has no justification.
If the government justly punishes a person like Bin Laden, then the killing is by definition just. In what case should such justice make us sad? Some have said that we should pray for such a person, and lament him going to his grave without having repented. I would suggest you don’t have much business praying for him until you have spent a lot of time praying for the thousands of people around the globe who have been devastated by his campaign of terror, death and dismemberment.
Since killing, even if just, is at best a necessary evil, how can we be happy about it? Let’s consider this idea that Bin Laden’s death should make us sad, at least somber. The corollary to that is that his every day of life on the earth ought to have brought us some joy and relief and gratitude to God. I wonder, those of you who think it is shameful that anyone would celebrate his departure from this world — did you thank God every new day that Bin Laden was given? Have you been glad these last ten years that the US was not able to take his life? If it is a sin to exult in his demise, then are we not obliged to exult in his extended life? Or have you been indifferent to whether he lived or died until he was dead? Do you believe he was entitled to live? Do you really value his life as much you value his victims? The thought is ludicrous, especially if you consider that he was responsible for his own actions, that we reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7), and that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (MT 26:52).
It’s Osama Bin Laden’s life that we should mourn, not his death.
Lastly, do we truly love justice, as every religion and legitimate ethical system tells us we should? This killing was either just or unjust, and not some gray area in between. So let’s have it. If it was just, why may I not be glad, or at least relieved? And if unjust, how so? Really. Let’s save our tears for the dead and wounded and heartbroken. God is on the side of the victims, survivors, soldiers and others sworn to protect and defend them.
None of this is to say this death makes up for any others. We’re not them: We reject revenge. We don’t lust for blood. We’re not haters. We are not happy that fighting Al Qaeda has cost us so much. Unlike Bin Laden and the Islamicist death cult, we don’t sacrifice ourselves and innocent victims to a god of hate. The difference should be clear. And we must guard it.