Osama Bin Laden is dead – killed by Navy Seals in a secret operation of the US Military ordered by President Barack Obama. This is an attempt to speak theologically about these facts. For some people the event and the emotions surrounding it are too fresh. It is not our desire to hurt feelings or aggravate open wounds, and so we urge discretion. This is one attempt to speak as Christians in this time and nothing more.
Firstly, a response to the emotional outbursts of last night and this morning. Understandably there were many different emotional responses to this event. Some were washed with gratitude, others with relief, some with grief. It dredged up emotions tied to traumatic events for people in America and around the globe since, following 9/11, the chain of events have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings. There are celebrations in the streets and social media have been flooded with commentary from all angles.
What shall we say about this? Scripture contains many examples of people celebrating the misfortune of their enemies. The prophets in places gleefully pronounce God’s judgment against the nations. (Isaiah 13, 15-19; Jeremiah 46-51; Ezekiel 25-30; Joel 3; Amos 1-2:3; Obadiah; Nahum 3:18-19; Zephaniah 2) The psalms are replete with imprecatory prayer (Psalm 35:1-8, 83, 109), even hoping for the day when the babies of the Babylonians will have their heads dashed against the rocks (Psalm 137).
Human lust for vengeance is not censored in scripture, but we would be wrong to think that it is given divine sanction. Vengeance belongs to God. (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19) The very prophets who sometimes celebrate God’s wrath being poured out on the enemies of Israel point out again and again that God’s judgment rests heaviest on Israel (Isaiah 1; Jeremiah 3, 5-8; Ezekiel 5-7; Hosea 4-5, 8-10; Joel 2:1-11, Amos 2:4-3:13; Micah 1-2:11; Zephaniah 1) is subject to being overturned by mercy (Jeremiah 4:1-4, 31:31-37; Ezekiel 33:10-20; Hosea 6:1-3, 14; Joel 2:12-17; Amos 9:11-15; Jonah; Micah 7:18-20; Zephaniah 3:14-20) and ultimately results in the salvation of the nations (Isaiah 25:6-10, 42:1, Micah 4; Zechariah 8:20-23) not their destruction. Furthermore, Israel at her wisest knows not to rejoice over the death of an enemy. (Proverbs 24:17-18; Ezekiel 33:11)
Vengeance is the appropriate frame for consideration of Bin Laden’s death. Though the President and many others have used the term justice to describe this outcome we do not believe that is an accurate description. Justice is the restoration of a right order of affairs. It is perhaps true that Bin Laden’s actions merited death, but it is also clear that the death of Bin Laden does not in any sense restore right order. If this were a just act there would not be danger of retaliation. We would not need to be immediately cautioned that the War on Terror continues without pause. Bin Laden’s death, in other words, changes nothing. Were his death a just outcome it would change everything.
Those who died in the acts of violence perpetrated by Bin Laden cannot be restored to their families by killing him, any more than the innocent victims of our recent wars can be thus restored. Furthermore, the surviving victims of Bin Laden’s actions have now been robbed of the possibility of reconciliation. We concede that there appeared to be a vanishingly small chance of Bin Laden ever repenting, but it is nevertheless the case that only the perpetrator of a crime has the power to make redress to the victims. In no sense does killing Bin Laden accomplish justice for victims of his hatred, rather it may accomplish a brief emotional catharsis for those who desire vengeance. Since we understand God’s purpose to be the reconciliation of all things (Colossians 1:15-20) we mourn the loss of the opportunity to seek reconciliation even with our most hated enemy.
That brings us to a consideration of who is our enemy. The majority of responses from Christians in America to the killing of Bin Laden have uncritically assumed that Osama is “our” enemy. That is the position of a citizen of the United States of America. Just as President Obama assured us that Bin Laden was not a representative of Islam, Osama was not an enemy of the Kingdom. We recognize that this is a scandalous thing to say, but Osama Bin Laden was a beloved child of God for whose sins Jesus the Christ died. To conflate the enemy of the nation-state in which we live with our spiritual enemy is to participate in the idolatry of the powers and principalities, which tries to convince us that our security rests in military might and economic advantage rather than the grace of God.
Even were Bin Laden an implacable enemy of Christians we could not choose to respond to him with the mechanism of violent reprisal. We have been ordered to put away our sword (Matthew 26:52; Luke 22:49-52; John 18:10-11) even when violently persecuted. The followers of Jesus turn those who persecute them into friends (Acts 9) and where that is not possible they are called again and again to endure (Revelation 14:12) with the certain promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8)
Therefore we say to those Christians who believe that the death of Bin Laden is justified based on a moral calculus that it will lessen the threat of future terrorist acts that you have placed your trust in the wrong power. Those who live by the sword will also die by it (Genesis 9:6; Matthew 26:52; Revelation 13:10), and those who cheer Bin Laden’s death and then try to comfort themselves and others with the belief that it will bring security are crying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14) Death can only yield to more death and violence can only lead to more violence. Trusting in the power of guns and bombs is the worship of the beast when we are called instead to throw ourselves on the mercy of the lamb that was slaughtered. (Revelation 13:1-10)
Though we empathize with the intense emotions of our friends and fellow disciples we cannot be silent at this time because we are commanded to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27; John 13:34), to bless those who curse us (Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14), and to return good for evil (Proverbs 25:21; Romans 12:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:15) – and these commands are meaningless if not practiced precisely when it is hardest to do so. Jesus did not wait to pronounce his forgiveness on his enemies until after he had undergone the ordeal of the cross and received God’s magnificent gift of resurrection. Jesus called from the midst of his anguish for God to show mercy on those who were even in that moment in the act of murdering him (Luke 23:34), and his followers have striven to emulate him in this ever since. (Acts 7:60)
The history of the early church shows us that enemy love is not an act of heroism within the capability of only a select few saints. Rather from the suffering deaths of most of the original 12 apostles and countless martyrs who chose faithful obedience over security and believed that in truth we must lose our lives in order to gain them (Matthew 10:39; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24, 17:33; John 12:25) that it is the responsibility of every Christian to follow Christ in this regard. It is not a concern for personal holiness that moves us, but a conviction about how God moves and works in this world.
Furthermore, we are convinced that the Holy Spirit empowers us for precisely this manner of crucial witness and is capable of bringing repentance out of the hardest of hearts, light out of the blackest of nights, and victory out of the most ignominious death. We do not believe we have chosen a path of weakness and fragility, but that we are siding with the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and we look forward with certainty to the day when nation no longer takes up sword against nation and neither do they study war any more.