The Death of Osama bin Laden

Spectrum published a pair of essays on the death of Osama bin Laden. I made a number of contributions to that conversation. I’m posting a couple here, edited.

The question was how are we to respond to the death of bin Laden. Steve Moran says we should celebrate. Jared Wright, on the other hand, quoted the Scripture that came to my mind: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown” (Proverbs 24:17 English Revised Version).

I said that I think God does use human instruments to wreak vengeance (Romans 13). I think we can indeed praise God when he delivers his faithful people (Exodus 15).

But God is above us. His ways are not ours. He can still forgive when we demand wrath (Jonah). He who washed the feet of Judas and Peter still kneels before his enemies and gives himself over to them freely.

We cannot gloat. We cannot presume that our nation is righteous and on the side of God. We must not rejoice in the death of any … we can only take that as a remembrance that we, too, must stand before God’s judgment seat.

Better for us to take a deep breath and await the next action from Al Qaeda–and pray God deliver us from what they are truly capable of. We will not be rejoicing if they detonate a 10KT nuclear device in an American or European city, something experts expect within the next few years.

Steve says, “I find it hard to understand why it is not worth rejoicing when evil is destroyed.”

Because Scripture says not to. Prov 24:17 is pretty clear.

This, too, is why in the Passover Seder, ten drops are spilled from the cup. God is saddened at any loss of life, and our rejoicing even in God’s acts of deliverance must be diminished when we think of the loss of life it took.

My starting point will always be Scripture. And there are texts that lead us in apparently different directions, but can be clearly harmonized.

On the one hand, we have Jesus’ teachings to his disciples as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

He taught an absolute non-violence. Not civil disobedience, not non-violent resistance, but non resistance. This is the basis for the Seventh-day Adventist position on non-combatantcy.

But Jesus also affirmed a role of government. He lived in the time of a brutal regime–a regime that killed him–a regime portrayed in Bible prophecy as having teeth of iron, destroying all in its path. But Jesus never once called on its citizens to revolt, to rebel, to disobey. He never complained about paying tax to support its machinery–he said, “Render unto Caesar.” He never said Rome couldn’t punish offenders. He told his disciples to go two miles with those soldiers who forced them to go a mile. He never told soldiers to resign their position (and the only advice John had for them was not to extort, not to accuse falsely, and not to complain about their pay). Paul elaborated on these points to develop his teachings on the role of the state in Romans 13. But note–this is the job of the state.

So, while preaching a radical kingdom ethic to his disciples, Jesus, and Paul following him, saw the state as having a legitimate role. We, as Christians, are citizens of two kingdoms. That can put us in a difficult position when both lay a claim on us. It means our thinking must be dialectical.

Our church position was developed in the reality of war time. When members were drafted, we encouraged them (in the US) to declare themselves 1-AO, meaning they would serve, but in a non-combatant role as medics. In the time of a volunteer military, we counsel our members not volunteer for military service. They will not be able to keep the Sabbath, and, unless they are chaplains, will not be able to refrain from carrying weapons. We see the military has a proper role—but it is not our role as disciples of the non-violent Christ. Nevertheless, we will support our members who do volunteer. We send chaplains to be with them, and to minister with them.

That’s the real world in which I operate. I’m not an armchair theoretician. I live in a world where I minister to pilots of AH-64 Apache helicopters and their support personnel. I live in a world where I will be mobilized and will minister on the battlefield. I live in a world where I minister to veterans who bear the scars of wars. I minister in a world created by one who taught a different way. I minister in a world where I am called upon to preach the words of Jesus, not my own emotions. Scripture speaks clearly of both the responsibilities of governments and the call of disciples. The two are not the same.

As a chaplain, one of my duties is teaching soldiers the ethics and law of warfare. All is not fair in war. There are restraints on who can conduct war, under what conditions, and using what means. The Law of Land Warfare is guided by the traditional just war theory, as developed by Christian thinkers. One of the first prerequisites for the justness of any military action is that it be done by a competent authority. Governments can punish wrongdoers, and governments can wage wars. Individuals may not do that in their own capacity. it would be chaos if we suggested that individuals could take matters into their own hands. That’s vigilantism. It’s a crime in every society.

The case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was mentioned, and I was asked whether he was right or wrong in joining with attempts to assassinate Hitler. I think he was wrong on two counts. As a Christian, he was called to follow Jesus. As a citizen, he was bound to universal laws that prohibit individuals from taking the law into their own hands. Nowhere can you find in the New Testament anything that says private individuals can rise up and assassinate their leaders. Romans 13 gives the sword to governments only. To disciples, Jesus says “follow me.” And, “All who live by the sword will die by the sword.” He was not a Zealot. He did not preach rebellion against Rome. He did not countenance the Zealot’s assassination plots. In fact, his teachings must be seen against this background—he was teaching a radically different approach than they advocated. Bonhoeffer would have done well to heed the Word of God to Ahaz in Isaiah 7: Keep faith. Do nothing. A baby is going to be born and before he is eating solid food that threat will be gone. The rightful governments of the world were responding to the threat. But Bonhoeffer lost faith.

Finally, I noted, we need to keep in mind Jesus’ teaching, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If we want an effective counter-terrorism program, we need to start by treating people right. We need to make our foreign policy, and our trade policy, and the actions of our representatives align with our core values. We need to show America at all places to be a land of true freedom and justice, so that folks are attracted to our virtues, and not alienated by our vices.