Stop the Hand-wringing and Start the Bell Ringing!
When it goeth well with the righteous, the city rejoiceth: and when the wicked perish, there is shouting. (Proverbs 11:10)
The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. (Psalm 58:10)
Since I first heard the news reports last night of the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US Navy Seals conducting a special forces operation under the nose of the Pakistani government, I've been rejoicing in the news and bewildered by the bizarre response of many Christians to this development. My Face Book page lit up with predictable joy, but also with comments condemning those celebrating the death of the Terrorist leader and architect of the 9-11 attacks (as well as others), together with other comments ranging from exhortations not to rejoice in the death of the wicked to instructions about loving our enemies and not pursuing a path marked by vengeance. It seems to me that such comments often arise only from theological confusion, often inflicted on congregations by hand-wringing, guilt-tripping preachers, or from being more informed by a bizarre sentimentality than Scripture.
"What? How can you say such a thing when we Christians are supposed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, just as Jesus said?"
I'll come to that matter. But lets begin with a look at the big picture, and make sure we consider the whole range of Scripture rather than isolated verses here and there - something one might accuse me of doing if all I offered were the texts quoted at the beginning of this article.
First of all, whatever motives may be in the hearts of fallen people, the act of killing Osama bin Laden was an act of justice and mercy not revenge. It is crucial to recall the proper place of the civil magistrate in the execution of God's justice in a fallen world.
Here's what Scripture says about the necessary place for the sword-bearing civil authority in our fallen world:
"For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also (F)for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: (H)tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor." - Romans 13:3-7
The civil authority 'bears the sword' as a servant of God to protect the innocent and punish evil doers. Private vengeance is thus criminal and not allowed to the Christian, while civil magistrates may - and indeed must - discharge the duty of 'avenging' when such action is called for.
Many Christians take Jesus words with regard to turning to the other cheek in a civil way rather than in a private way. Jesus was speaking of a personal persecution ethic - how we respond to the state or individual persecution for what we believe - rather than the duty of the state to punish wickedness and protect the innocent. The confusion over the civil and the private runs right through large sections of the Christian community. I may not as a private citizen take vengeance; I may not as an individual Christian respond to persecution for my Faith with violence or hatred, but rather with mercy, prayer, and a willingness to continue to embrace suffering - the way of the Cross in order that the sacrificial and merciful love of God may be seen by his enemies. On the other hand, I cannot as a private Christian citizen refuse to acknowledge our need for the state's proper place under God - bearing the sword to mete out just punishments on wrong-doers and serving to protect the citizenry from evil.
This can be clearly seen in the work of contemporary police officers and our system of courts. If a man violently assaults another man, woman, or child, the civil authority has a responsibility to apprehend him and bring him to justice, inflicting an appropriate punishment, and rescuing from attack others who might have suffered were such an assailant allowed to wander about freely. The person so attacked may well forgive the assailant, but the state must punish and restrain him to protect the innocent from further suffering. Thus an act of justice is also an act of mercy; justice for the offender, and mercy far and wide for those rescued from his hand. I have some personal experience in the need to forgive an assailant while praying for his arrest and detention so that others would not suffer as well.
In the realm of international relations and the actions of state or state sponsored terrorist organizations, civil authorities are still responsible to protect their citizens from the violent and punish those who wrongfully and criminally inflict on citizens suffering and death. They do not always do so with wisdom or restraint, and the same could be said for local law enforcement as well! Yet this does not diminish the demand that such actions be taken, however imperfectly in this sad, fallen world.
The capture and killing of Osama bin Laden was the correct response of a civil authority to a man and movement bent on destroying people around the world, and who had already murdered thousands. We should rejoice that the President had the willingness to give this order and the military the sword to carry it out. This is simply one more example of a Christian worldview informing the way we think of state actions, even when that state has forgotten the theology that is at the foundation of its very existence and the form it has taken.
No civil authority can execute eternal justice however. The wrath of the Lamb awaits the nations and all who refuse his rule. That is an eternal matter, and it is why even the executed are at death committed to the mercy of God. I cannot pronounce Osama bin Laden's eternal sentence of divine justice, nor can any state. All that can be said here and now is that because he carried out murders he was subject to the death penalty, rightly administered by the properly constituted authority. The rest we can leave with the wisdom of the Almighty.
It is in this sense that the Scriptures say that God does not delight in the death of the wicked - another verse often quoted by those who would temper or condemn the celebration of Osama's execution by Navy Seals. God doesn't rejoice in his death, so how can we? On the contrary, we must rejoice in his death because that is the will of God being carried out. We must also acknowledge that the everlasting judgement of the wicked is in God's hands alone; he does not rejoice in carrying it out, as he has already been 'pleased' to crush his Son as the sacrifice for all sins that secures eternal life. God does not wish for any to perish, just as the Apostle taught. This however is not the same thing as saying that God does not desire justice, whether now, as can be only partially and always imperfectly carried out, or in eternity when it will be wisely, perfectly, and fully brought to bear upon all.
Finally note the need for paying taxes, mentioned in Romans as well. The next time you pay your Federal Taxes, pause and give thanks for the privilege of writing that check, and offer thanks to God for the legitimate use of those funds. You think some of the uses are illegitimate? OK, and you might be correct. But while you have that debate, pay them with joy and pray for the soldiers who are putting themselves on the line so you and your family don't have to live in a war zone. The sword is being carried forward, and I for one am celebrating the fact that it was terrible and swift in its onslaught last night against Osama bin Laden. You're damn right I'm happy about it. Thanks be to God.