Reactions to the Assassination: An Attempt at Some Elucidations

(I posted a version of this on Facebook, as a follow-up to a flurry of discussion there yesterday; but here it is without all the links and references to comments from my Facebook interlocutors that I had interspersed.)

My initial reaction to the bin Laden news yesterday, justly perceived as somewhat flippant (“So we managed to assassinate an old man on dialysis sitting at home, along with a few of his family members. The Greatest Nation on Earth never ceases to impress me”), was, more than anything, an expression that I really just didn’t think this deserved the status of obsessive headline news and discussion, that we all ought to chill and get back to our daily lives.  However, I found myself quickly entangled in half-a-dozen threads of discussion about it, and attempting to field all manner of objections to my patriotism, sense of justice, and theological competence.  As everyone and their grandma has now weighed in on the news from their blog and/or Facebook/Twitter soapboxes, and as the discussion doesn’t appear likely to die down any time soon, I figured I might as well try to sort through the tangle a bit for those who, like me, feel that the discussion is in danger of degenerating into chaos.   

At first it appear that there are roughly three positions–(1) “MWUHAHAHA!  We killed him!  Rock on USA!”; (2) “Settle down, let’s rejoice in the execution of justice, but without undue pride, giddiness, or vindictiveness”; (3) “Um, shouldn’t we be like God and not rejoice in the death of a sinner, but wish rather that he should turn from his ways and live?”  (Most Christians I’ve seen in the discussion, for the record, seem to be happily in some version of (2), though there are certainly some who sound disturbingly like (1), and a few others, including myself, who have said something like (3).) However, on reflection, it appears to be a bit more complicated than that, and I’m realizing that it’s somewhat sterile to carry out the debate simply in terms of “Should we be happy or not?”  So I’m trying to parse out more carefully the issues at stake, and it seems that there are at least eight different points that are being made by various people who want to qualify in some way our exuberance.  

  1. First, are simple concerns over due process.  Did we violate international law?  Were we appropriate in our violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty?  If we were in fact intending to kill rather than capture him, as appears to be the case (I have read at least one article purporting to directly quote an administration official that it was), was this appropriate?  Shouldn’t we instead have gotten him tried before the World Court or whatever?  
  2. Second, some are calling for sobriety in view of the cost of getting us to this point–we should see this as a Pyrrhic victory.  Ten years of war, a million killed, more than a trillion dollars spent.  Not to mention (and this relates somewhat to point 1) the fact that we only obtained the information to kill bin Laden by wickedly torturing dozens of people.  In view of all these matters, many have suggested, our celebration should be tempered at best.  (Matheson called attention to this angle in his comment on my previous post.)
  3. Likewise, some are calling for sobriety in view of the future cost of this action.  If this action offered little direct military or security gains (as appears to be the case), won’t it be, in practical terms, a net loss for us, inviting a further violent backlash among bin Laden’s followers?  (This has been the most frequent concern stated in mainstream media sources.)
  4. Among Christians in particular, one is likely to hear concern that we not put an overly Americanist spin on this accomplishment.  Let’s have none of these “USA! USA! USA!” chants, or act like this is somehow vindication that we are the greatest nation on earth and God’s gift to the world.  We’re still a corrupt nation, and inasmuch as this is a victory, we should see it as a victory for peace and humankind, not for us merely, the great US of A.  (A helpful instance of this perspective is provided by my friend Robin Harris, and to an extent, by Doug Wilson.)
  5. On a related note, some have called for us to use this as an opportunity to be mindful of our own sins, realizing that we as a nation deserve divine judgment every bit as much as bin Laden.  In such circumstances, crowing too triumphantly about bin Laden’s death–whether as our triumph or as God’s triumph, is a bit like dancing around with a golf club in a lightning storm.  (Robin’s post is particularly helpful in this regard, though for some reason, it appears to be the point of Doug Wilson’s post to dampen such sentiments, suggesting that this leads to an unhealthy moral equivalence.  However, I’m with Paul on this one, who had no hesitation in calling himself “the chief of sinners” even when he clearly was not.)
  6. Again, related to the two previous points, some will point out that, while we may justly give thanks for the punishment of bin Laden as God’s enemy, we should not take pleasure in a personal revenge–“Well, we sure gave him what was coming to him!”  Needless to say, the revenge mindset is the norm for natural man, and it is not surprising that a great number of reactions to the news have used that revenge rhetoric.  

Thus far, all six of these are more calls for sobriety and temperance amid celebration, than they are claims that any kind of celebration is unjustified.  The final two, while still allowing that there may well be some form thankfulness or rejoicing that is appropriate, seek to go considerably deeper in theologically attenuating that rejoicing.

7. First, the weaker claim is that while retributive justice (and that is precisely what the assassination was) is ultimately necessary and appropriate, it is not something to be gloried in, it is not, in any sense, a sign of “greatness.”  Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” puts it well: “For man’s grim Justice goes its way, / And will not swerve aside: / It slays the weak, it slays the strong, / It has a deadly stride: / With iron heel it slays the strong, / The monstrous parricide!”  In other words, perhaps it was necessary and just that we killed bin Laden, but such justice is a rather grim business, and not something that calles for dancing in the streets. (This was one of the initial points I made in the Facebook discussion that developed.)

8. The stronger claim goes further and suggests that in principle, retributive justice is not something that humans ought to pursue.  Since Christ has taught us to pray for the forgiveness and redemption of our enemies, we ought to seek that at all costs, not just as individuals, but in our public and political life as well.  This is not pacifism–it acknowledges that if an enemy is actively threatening the lives of innocents and there is no other option but to fight and kill him, then that is appropriate.  But it refuses to engage in purely punitive action–killing someone merely because he has done something wrong, when either immediate protection of innocents is not in view, or could be accomplished by means other than killing, is not an option after Christ, who has taken the full burden of retributive justice on himself.  Gandalf is worth quoting here: “Many that live deserve death.  And many that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment” (though this could be taken as a statement of the softer point (7) above).  (This was what one friend on Facebook accused me of saying, what another friend defended me as saying, and which I subsequently admitted to holding, to the consternation of many.)  


I hope this helps elucidate–the exercise, at any rate, certainly elucidated things for me.


On Facebook, some asked for further clarification about my own view on retributive justice.   So I add a couple remarks, which should be taken as somewhat provisional.  (By the way, for those interested, a discussion last year on this blog, about similar issues, and also arising originally out of a Facebook spat, can be found here.)  

I am concerned on all eight of the counts listed above, which seems to put me beyond most people I have interacted with, most of whom are unwilling to go beyond (7) at most. Of course, this is perhaps simply a symptom of the circles from which most of my friends and interlocutors hail.  It is certainly my impression that in many other sectors of the church, especially outside of the US, (8) would be non-controversial.  And of course, the line between (7) and (8) is not all that clear-cut, after all.  One might well say (at any rate, I might well say–whether this is coherent or not is another matter), that Christians are to seek to overcome and oppose expressions of retributive justice, without thereby saying that any expression thereof is wrong in the sense of sinful.  It is rather immature, regrettable (though still affirmed as an indirect expression of God’s righteous judgment), something we should try to leave behind, rather than confidently affirming.  This position does not, of course, rule out just war–it simply confines just war to acts of ongoing defence, rather than as a “redress of a wrong suffered,” which many forms of just war theory affirm.  In short, if you come upon someone in the act of killing your mama, you can stop them, even if that means killing them.  But if you come upon someone who did kill your mama three years ago, you love them and forgive them (which isn’t entirely passive, mind you–perhaps they’re seriously messed up, and need to be institutionalized; perhaps even restrained for a time).  

This, I think we will all grant, is how we should act as Christian individuals.  The question is whether it also applies to states.  Most are inclined to say it does not.  I continue to ask “Why the double standard?” and as yet, still feel that any satisfactory answer is lacking.  90% of the answer appears to consist in a citation of Romans 13, which I have been convinced after thorough study does not in fact make the claim that people say it does–viz., that the civil authority is supposed to act as God’s direct instrument of retributive justice, such that any failure of it to do so is a dereliction of duty.  On the contrary, Romans 13, in context, appears to teach that the civil authority, outside of Christ, functions as an indirect instrument which God uses to exercise retribution, but which he does not command to do so (e.g., note how Assyria is used as such a tool, but then actually punished for it), and which, when in the hands of Christians, he does not want to do so.  And inasmuch as Romans 13 might be read in the traditional way, it is sufficiently ambiguous that it is irresponsible to rest so much weight on it, in contravention of other Scriptures.   


But, the point here is not to open up a lengthy discussion or debate about that passage–for those interested, a smattering of thoughts relevant to my studies on the passage can be found here, and if I ever have time to finish the book, a great deal more will be forthcoming.  

4 thoughts on “Reactions to the Assassination: An Attempt at Some Elucidations

  1. Brad Littlejohn

    In the Facebook version of this note, I alluded a couple times to Jordan's take on the issue. The short answer is that I thought that anything of substance he might have wanted to say was so hopelessly laden down and overshadowed by his vituperative rhetorical excesses, that it was not worth trying to hear him out. I noted in particular that people like me are "committed to a pharisaical otherworldly sentimental gnosticism that makes them holier than God." (That is actually not what his original post said–I see that he apparently modified his post so as to soften his tone in this particular paragraph, if you can believe it.)The one point of substance I will engage with here, because Peter Leithart makes the same argument, as did one friend on Facebook, is that objection (1) above is invalid, because assassination of an enemy leader is an appropriate method of warfare with clear Biblical antecedents. I think I can grant this point in the abstract, without granting its applicability in this case, on the basis of two points:1) Assassination as a way of fighting and winning a war is one thing; assassination merely as an act of retribution is quite another. To justify this as an example of the former, as analogous to Jael killing Sisera or the woman dropping the millstone on Abimelech's head, one would need to show that OBL was still an active enemy leader in combat against us, rather than a semi-retired figurehead. I don't know the details well enough to adjudicate that question. One would also need to show that his death would actually help win the war, instead of making matters worse, as some have suggested it might.2) To say that something is justified a priori does not mean it is justified a posteriori–taking into account all relevant laws and circumstances. Even if the Bible contains no rule saying, "You may not assassinate an enemy leader on neutral soil" that does not make it inappropriate for international treaties to dictate that you may not do so. And if international treaties do so, then we ought, unless there is very strong reason otherwise, to respect them, in the interest of good order and loving our neighbor. So objection (1), in this case, probably stands. (And I dare suggest that Leithart would not, in view of these considerations, continue maintain that the method used was "commendable.")


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    That is what the much of the discussion is about in the post following this one ("Retributive Justice–Further Thoughts"), and the nineteen comments following it. On the whole, if you wanted a one-word answer "No." I think there are strong theological and ethical grounds for opposing it, and although I do not yet think they are at all conclusive, and there are strong theological grounds for endorsing it, I would much rather err on the side of caution (not killing people) when in doubt.


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