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.
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