Image via nytimes.com

Osama Bin Laden was killed last night. My wife and I were just about to go to bed when one last cursory glance at Facebook and Twitter told me the news. We turned on the television in time to see President Obama finishing his speech, and then it was back to the social networks for commentary.

I know why Americans were celebrating. I’ve seen the pictures of the people outside the White House, and, just over a mile from my apartment, I know there was a large group gathered at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. Bin Laden has been America’s enemy for over a decade, and now he is no more. It feels like justice, and certainly it is a form of human justice. We understand justice to be giving someone what he deserves. But, for Christians who believe that the wages of sin are death, this is a precarious definition.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, an editor for Christianity Today, put up a very quick roundup of Christian responses she’d gathered from around Twitter as the news unfolded. The posts were predictable, Derek Webb in his measured way tweeted, “Don’t celebrate death, celebrate justice.” Jordan Sekulow suggested some celebration music, and Mark Driscoll wrote that the cheering crowds should remind us that “justice is glorious & comes ultimately through Jesus cross or hell,” before taking an ill-timed and shameless jab at Rob Bell, “Justice wins.”

It is clear that, from all angles, the killing of bin Laden is understood as justice, but I am going to suggest that we’ve conflated our human understanding of justice with God’s justice. That Osama bin Laden is dead does not make the world a better place. It does not make us safer. It does not somehow magically remove a quotient of evil from the face of the earth. Russell Arben Fox, writing on the religious and moral implications of bin Laden’s death for Front Porch Republic says it well, “The moral plane of the universe is not somehow improved by the killing of a man.”

Death begets more death. Killing creates more killers. True, bin Laden will never again mastermind a plan to kill anyone, but someone else will. Someone else just did in the time it took to write that last sentence. And again. And again.

If we could accomplish God’s justice by killing people, if the death of an evildoer at the hand of another human is what would bring about justice, Jesus would not have come to die, but to kill. If we could eventually eliminate evil from the world and mete out justice by the sword, Jesus could have wielded it wildly during his brief stay on earth and then, rather than leave us with the Holy Spirit, he might have empowered his disciples with some futuristic weaponry.

But that’s not how God’s justice works. And it’s a good thing, too. If the punishment for evil was physical death, we would all be dead. In fact, death is the consequence of evil, but for saving grace in the person of Jesus. Death at the hands of another human is not God’s justice. It was Jesus himself who warned, “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” This is not metaphorical language. This is a truism that was true before Jesus came, and remains true long after.

Thus, we don’t exercise God’s justice by issuing out the death we believe evildoers deserve. In fact, we hardly ever exercise God’s justice at all because it is so counterintuitive to our construction of the concept. I’ll be the first to say that I fail in this regard, so I’m not going to ask any readers to do better. But, I believe that what I can ask, what we can do, is understand the difference, and stop conflating the two.

Osama bin Laden was evil. I still twinge with pain when I remember the way I felt for months after September 11, 2001. Here on earth, he deserved to die. But, then, here on earth, so do I.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

Editor | Follow him on Twitter.

0 Responses to Osama Bin Laden at the Nexus of God’s Justice and Man’s

  1. Thanks for the link, Jonathan. Your final four sentences are powerful and true.

  2. Dustin says:

    About as well said as one can imagine. Such a weird day. I keep thinking “if this is what justice is for Christians, then those assured of God’s justice being done to them should be very, very afraid.” I hope sincerely this is human justice, and Jesus is still saying “But I say to you…”

    thanks for the thoughts.

  3. Ryan says:

    “That Osama bin Laden is dead does not make the world a better place. It does not make us safer. It does not somehow magically remove a quotient of evil from the face of the earth.” – I understand you meant this in the most broad, biblical sense. I hope.

    Good thoughts on what our reaction to this should be as a group apart, as a group of believers. But should we hold governments and military to the same standard?

  4. Jim says:

    I was sickened by the wacky celebrations I saw last night, as I read one tweet,… By people who may be headed to the same destination as Bin Laden.
    However, I kinda disagree with your take on justice, God uses man at times to bring about His just will.

    “4 for she is God’s servant for your 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.” -Rom. 13:4

    I wonder if you guys at Patrol read your bibles much?

  5. Jonathan says:

    Good article. We should be saddened that Osama’s life turned out the way it did, a man who thought the death of others was important and holy work (though I sometimes think his religious zealousness is overdone). Jesus very specifically told the zealous Jews (Pharisees) of his day that they would not be slaughtering the pagan Roman dogs, but rather it was their job to sacrifice everything to save them. Would anyone have leapt in from of the line of fire to same Bin Laden? If one reads the “bibles” this is a real challenge that Jesus presented, and why it angered people so much. When we hear Jesus say “if you have anger in your heart…” then is it too much of a stretch to say that anyone who celebrated the death of Osama is guilty of murder? I feel like that’s something Jesus would say and it just wouldn’t really go over that well.

    • Jim says:

      Well I would have “same(d)” him if I was there. 🙂
      Anger does not equate to sin, that is ridiculous. God gets angry.

  6. John says:

    I think that you have some very valid points, and our failure to realize that we are equally deserving of justice is truly horrendous, but I do believe that God has given government a role in punishing certain evildoers on this earth.

  7. Sara says:

    I am pleased to come across an article focusing on the moral implications of the death of Osama Bin Laden and the celebration that followed. I am proud to be a Canadian, on this day especially; for I would be horrified to call myself part of a nation that would celebrate the death of a man by dance, cheers and intoxication. The death of a man should never be celebrated. This is a sad day indeed! Where has the integrity of the American people gone? I sincerely hope more folks begin to realize the moral dilemma they’ve been placed in. Back to prayer!

    • Joshua Keel says:

      Sara, I have a couple of thoughts on your comments.

      1. A lot of the celebrants have been (rather immature) college students.
      2. I think it’s a very different thing when your home (city, neighborhood, block) is attacked than when you’re watching such an attack from the outside. I was honestly astounded at some of the emotion I heard from a guy on the radio this morning. He was apparently a New York City resident. The 9/11 attacks haven’t affected by personal life much at all, but there are very deep wounds in the hearts of those who have been directly affected by the attacks. Some compassion is in order.
      3. I totally agree with you that rejoicing over the death of anyone is abhorrent. I was distressed by news of these celebrations when I heard about it this morning.
      4. I love my country, even with all its faults.

      Josh

  8. Sarah says:

    I don’t really understand how you can talk about death not being justice in God’s eyes when he himself ordered the Israelites again and again to KILL many thousands of people who were evil. He himself also directly killed many thousands of evil doers…the red sea and Sodom and Gomorah are 2 examples and also said that some are beyond redemption as they have turned their hearts completely away from God. Evil and death are a part of life and I think it’s ridiculous of Christians to make such a big deal about Osama Bin Laden because he was such a public figure but we know and accept that war and killing evil men is a part of life.

  9. William says:

    Christ himself only approaches us through a salvation history soaked in the blood of Israel’s enemies. A large part of OT theology is determined by an event where God “delivers” and “saves” by taking the lives of little children (among other things). The biblical picture of justice isn’t all that clear to me at all.

    .

  10. Lisa says:

    I wonder if you would feel the same if a Republican president had been in power when Osama was killed. Somehow i think your spin would be that it was a great thing.

    • Scott says:

      Lisa –

      If you are replying to the author of this article, you should probably read this blog for a while. I highly doubt that a reasonable person could read this blog for any length of time and then come to the conclusion that the author would give a Republican the benefit of the doubt over President Obama.

      In other words, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

  11. glenn says:

    ‘crowds are fickle. they cheered Jesus then a week later laughed as he was killed. don’t be the crowd.

    • Scott says:

      Not to be a pedant, but those were two different crowds.

      This doesn’t diminish your point about crowds being fickle, however.

  12. Courtnie says:

    This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be suprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in HIM…1 John 3:11-15
    People, we can throw scriptures around all day long and cast stones and pass judgement all we please…This is the very simple, basic bottom line: To be a CHRISTian means to be like CHRIST. Where in the bible can anyone find an account of Christ killing someone with HIS own hand? War and hate are sins and displeases God. Unfortunately it is part of humanity and we will experience it carnally despite how devout we may be in Christian faith. But I don’t feel like we should rejoice in this event…This is a very hollow victory for those who are truly Christians.The armor of God is not a literal sword, but rather HIS WORD. Which as a nation, we need to be spending more time in…We have become a very Godless nation in our morals, values, and separation of church and state…Christians are a minority and we are the ones losing our rights to express religion. So keep up the good work, jonathon…look forward to more articles like this!

    • TJ says:

      Courtnie, question…

      “To be a CHRISTian means to be like CHRIST. Where in the bible can anyone find an account of Christ killing someone with HIS own hand?”

      Are you now separating the Trinity, as if God or the Holy Spirit can do anything outside of the nature of God? To say that the Old Testament God is a wrathful one who kills people, but Christ is a loving friend who just loves everything all the time is ABSURD. Your anti-trinitarian comments remind me of Marcion, good luck with that.

  13. Scott says:

    Just War Theory? One of Augustine’s (Who shaped this theory) achievements was replacing radical refusal of Christian pacifists with the active ministry of the Christian soldier. His view allowed (and still does) Christians to fight on behalf of the worldly city, ONLY for the sake of imperial peace. Doesn’t this help bring about imperial peace? Rejoice in the peace that this brings, not the “justice served” to one man.

  14. […] that I’m conflicted about it.  I didn’t even read much on the topic today, but for this post from a friend and this post from someone I admire and respect (but don’t know).  I’m […]

  15. […] Fitzgerald says “Osama deserved to die. But here on earth, so do I.” (brilliant post, check it […]

  16. […] the victims, than any sense of rejoice over OBL's death. This article says it better than I can.. Osama Bin Laden at the Nexus of God’s Justice and Man’s | Patrol – A review of religion … […]

  17. Matt Baker says:

    Fitz, you did some common moral flatlineing. Some of your points we’re great but we need to be cautious against the type of thinking that all sin is the same. With the Bible as the rubric, that view is inconsistent.

    God says he detests certain things more than others. Jesus doesn’t treat all sin the same and neither does Paul. A child telling a lie ought to be consider as morally better than Osama orchestrating the death of thousands. Men are judged according to their works by God and other men, biblically speaking. The wages of sin is death, while we were still sinners he died for us, I don’t doubt we WERE all guilty but once redeemed by Christ, and because of Christ, we are guilty no more.

    You are a better man than Osama Bin Laden and the Bible tells me so.

  18. […] was turned on to DeBoer’s thoughts by the men of Patrol. Jonathan Fitzgerald had some good observations of his […]

  19. […] Osama Bin Laden at the Nexus of God’s Justice and Man’s and Celebrating bin Laden’s Death in a Black and White World – Jonathan Fitzgerald is the editor of Patrolmag.com […]

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