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On Christian Justice and the Death of Bin Laden

by Joseph W

The death of Osama Bin Laden has triggered a great degree of soul-searching  in Britain, and around the world.

News today comes from Germany of a Hamburg judge prosecuting Angela Merkel for her expressing her gladness at Bin Laden’s death. Der Spiegel reports:

The political and public fallout following Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement on Monday that she was “glad” Osama bin Laden had been killed was among the most hotly debated topics in the German media this week.

Politicians, including those within her own center-right coalition, said that no death was cause for celebration, and reproved the remark as un-Christian and vengeful.

But Hamburg judge Heinz Uthmann went even further. He alleges that the chancellor’s statement was nothing short of illegal, and filed a criminal complaint against Merkel midweek, the daily Hamburger Morgenpost reported Friday.

[...] In his two-page document, Uthmann, a judge for 21 years, cites section 140 of the German Criminal Code, which forbids the “rewarding and approving” of crimes. In this case, Merkel endorsed a “homicide,” Uthmann claimed. The violation is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine.

For the daughter of a Christian pastor, the comment is astonishing and at odds with the values of human dignity, charity and the rule of law,” Uthmann told the newspaper.

This story is surreal and stunning. I doubt the judge will get very far. Interestingly though, both the judge who is prosecuting Merkel, and the politicians who criticised Merkel for her comments, argue that Merkel behaved in an un-Christian way.

Are they right?

Is it un-Christian or immoral to be glad that Bin Laden is dead?

Here in Britain, many leading clergymen have responded strongly to the death of Bin Laden. People with religious beliefs, respect or reverence towards different faiths, or a cultural sense of being Christian, listen to clergymen and consider what they say.

Some are now suggesting that Bin Laden’s death, and the way people have reacted, reveal a moral and spiritual sickness in the West.

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Archbishop of Canterbury

Given that he is the spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, and has a prominent voice in society, we should start with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rowan Williams was asked:

Do you believe that the killing of Osama Bin Laden is justice for the 9/11 attacks and indeed other attacks? And was the US morally justified in shooting him even though he was unarmed as the White House now admits?

He replied:

I think that the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done, in those circumstances.  I think it is also true that the different versions of events that have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help here.  I don’t know the full details anymore than anyone else does but I do believe that in such circumstance when we are faced with someone who was manifestly a ‘war criminal’ as you might say in terms of the atrocities inflicted, it is important that justice is seen to be observed.

What strikes me about the Archbishop’s words, is that he does not actually deal with the issue of justice itself, but merely its appearance. I think the Archbishop often comes across as an intelligent and politic man who chooses his words carefully, so I find his phraseology particularly odd here.

Firstly, the Archbishop is not actually talking about justice, but the appearance of justice. He talks about ‘how it looks’ and ‘how it is seen’, to the point of tautology. I found this quite peculiar. Surely the Archbishop is interested in justice itself, and not merely how it appears to the world?

Still, let us consider the Archbishop’s words further. He says that the killing of Bin Laden will leave an “uncomfortable feeling”, because Bin Laden was an unarmed man. The issue, then, is whether Bin Laden had a weapon or not. If Bin Laden had been armed when Seal Team Six entered into his house, presumably the Archbishop would have no complaints about his assassination.

I think that the Archbishop can do better. Surely the issue goes beyond whether Bin Laden was armed or not. Surely he should be talking about the rights and wrongs of shooting Bin Laden, rather than worrying about whether it was a fair fight. Surely he should be talking about justice, and not the appearance of justice. Surely the Archbishop should be talking about truth, and not just how Bin Laden’s death makes him feel.

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N. T. Wright

To get to the nub of the issue, we could perhaps turn to the former Bishop of Durham N. T. Wright, who is surely the most influential Protestant writer in the world today. N. T. Wright does not shy away from discussing such weighty matters. His book Evil and the Justice of God was written as a response to the 9-11 attacks planned by Bin Laden, and the ‘new problem of evil’ that 9-11 created. As such, N. T. Wright is widely considered a Christian expert on how to respond to evil.

His response to Bin Laden’s assassination, is to bemoan American double standards:

Consider the following scenario. A group of Irish republican terrorists carries out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the US, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this seems plausible enough.

But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we’ve still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.

What’s the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is subject to different rules to the rest of the world. By what right? Who says?

N.T. Wright says that the US would not tolerate the British killing an IRA terrorist on American soil, so why should the US get to kill its terrorists on foreign soil?

But this misses the point. If the US government were to act hypocritically, it does not make their killing of Bin Laden wrong.

Imagine if two thieves were sentenced for stealing. The judge lets one thief go free, but keeps the other thief in prison. That would only prove that the judge was inconsistent. The guilty man would still be guilty, and therefore sentenced justly by the judge, whatever else the judge chooses to do.

N. T. Wright’s next point, is to castigate the USA for disregarding the UN. It is hard to take Wright seriously on this point, given the way the UN Human Rights Council conducts itself, for example. The UN is not a wholly just organisation, and I don’t think the US is morally obliged to obey it always.

Wright concludes, in The Guardian:

Of course, proper justice is hard to come by internationally. America regularly casts the UN (and the international criminal court) as the hapless sheriff, and so continues to play the world’s undercover policeman. The UK has gone along for the ride. What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us? And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?

Here, N. T. Wright is suggesting that the US government’s actions had nothing to do with the victory of Christ on the cross. But then, why should it? Not every action a secular government takes has to be linked back to the Christ event. Governments must act to protect their citizens, and not to worry about how theologians might interpret their actions.

I reject N. T. Wright’s implication that to assassinate Bin Laden is to disobey Christ. N. T. Wright offers no convincing reason, as to why this should be the case, other than two out-of-context Bible verses.

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Bishop Alan Wilson

The Bishop of Buckingham, Bishop Alan Wilson blogs on the negative press coverage following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments:

The moral relativism of some journalists about this (“Normally, of course, we should respect life, but he didn’t so we don’t have to”) is a real slippery slope, morally. It betokens not Conservatism, but Pelagianism — one of the oldest heresies in the book. They must not be surprised if bishops, including the Archbishop, do not collude with their Pelagian views.

Bizarrely, Bishop Wilson accuses secular journalists of committing, en masse, a Christian heresy.

“Pelagianism” is the teaching that Christ set a good example for humanity, and that by following Christ’s example, humans can attain perfection and a life without sinning at all. The Pelagians placed a great deal of emphasis on human choices and moral virtues, and were widely seen to be undermining the grace and goodness of God by their teachings.

It is hard to see what Pelagianism has to do with disagreeing with the Archbishop of Canterbury over Bin Laden. I disagree with the Archbishop of Canterbury about Bin Laden, and I am not a Pelagian.

But at least Bishop Wilson gets closer to the heart of the matter, discussing whether it was right or wrong to kill Bin Laden. In a later comment, Wilson says that on balance, Bin Laden’s death probably was necessary, but laments the fact he has been turned into a “war hero” not a “war criminal”, having been martyred for his cause.

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Stephen Sizer

Sizer titles a blog post on the assassination of Bin Laden “Getting Away with Murder“. He offers no explanation, as to why he thinks Bin Laden’s death was a murder.

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Angela Merkel

So far, much has been said about Bin Laden’s death by various bishops and Church authorities, who are widely considered to be knowledgeable on Christian justice.

But if you look closely at their words, they are not really saying much at all.

Deep down, these bishops are no wiser than the rest of us, in this matter. They are simply voicing a negative reaction to Bin Laden’s death (because he was unarmed, because America is hypocritical, because journalists are really heretics) without considering the weightier matter of justice.

Tellingly, they do not discuss whether it was right or wrong to assassinate Bin Laden, in a convincing manner.

Because of this new trend, I am sure we will see more clerics and politicians lining up to condemn the likes of Angela Merkel as “un-Christian”, for expressing her gladness that Bin Laden is dead.

The Bible does make clear God rejoices over the death of no man, and instructs us not to delight in the fall of our enemies. But I don’t think there was anything malicious in people expressing relief and gladness at the fact Bin Laden is dead, and that justice has been served.

Bin Laden was a man who committed mass-murder on an international scale, who preached hate and coaxed others to do evil. He brought death to thousands, grief to tens-of-thousands, and fear to millions. Moreover, had he lived for longer, he may have orchestrated the murders of countless others.

That is why, like Angela Merkel, I am glad that Bin Laden is dead.

I think that actually, Angela Merkel’s attitude reflects Christian justice, and does not disobey Christ.

I wonder what you make of Bin Laden’s death. Does your faith or philosophical tradition have a particular way of looking at the death of evil people like Bin Laden?