Wednesday, May 04, 2011

"Justice" and Osama bin Laden

The death of Osama bin Laden has created quite a stir in the broader Evangelical community. While nationalistic reactions have been fairly consistent: joy, satisfaction, and patriotic sentiments; the reaction hasn’t been quite as consistent with American Christians. Reactions ranging from “rot in hell”, to “judgment day Osama!” to “justice was served”, to “love your enemies” all have been proclaimed. In the death of someone considered to be an evil person, it is amazing to see how those indwelled with the Holy Spirit have responded.

York Moore, at Urbana Missions Conference in 2009, shared his testimony with a stadium full of Christian college students. He described vividly his conversion, but even more vividly his “conversion within his conversion”. Meaning, he found Jesus initially…and later began to see injustices in this world and had a conversion experience within his conversion, as an already Christian, that changed the course of his life. When I share my testimony, I have a similar conversion story to tell. I was saved…and then as God began to change my heart, I learned things He was passionate about anew. I can remember it vividly, that is, my “conversion within my conversion”. I was in an empty restaurant at like 11pm reading the Sermon on the Mount. And the words of this most famous sermon Jesus gave jumped out at me like I was reading it for the first time. Things like, “You heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’… But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” I read, “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” I read many other things…and at the end of this sermon Jesus says, “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock.” My world changed then and there.

The Sermon on the Mount was pie in the sky. Nice statements with abstract truth, perhaps..but nothing to build your life around. Unrealistic. Too hard. Too bold. But Jesus changed my heart that night. Little by little, He began to show me that these things can be followed through His power and Spirit. He used that last verse: whoever hears these things I am saying (i.e. love your enemies, bless your enemies, etc.) and actually practices/does them, I will liken to a wise man as a catalyst for seeing that His teachings can be followed. He later says, whoever doesn’t do these things is a fool. That night my “conversion within my conversion” started. And still continues to this day.

How does this have anything to do with Osama’s death? To me, it has everything to do with it. The mandate in Scripture is clear.

If a choice between love or hate..its love.
A choice between mercy or judgment…its mercy.
A choice between loving our enemies or killing our enemies..its love.
A choice between unconditional forgiveness or ‘just’ retribution…its forgiveness.
A choice between an eye for an eye or grace…its grace.

Many said that they were initially “joyful” or “happy” or “satisfied” or felt a sense of “justice being executed” when they heard of Osama’s death. Honestly, I didn’t feel that at all. Of course I am eager to rid the world of evil, however, I am sober in how that is done, who does it, and why they do it the way they do it. And what it boils down to is this: I never want anyone to die apart from God...furthermore, I don’t want someone to die at the hands of other humans on their dictated timetable, and that goes for “good” or “bad” humans alike…I hurt when I hear a child is aborted. I hurt when I hear someone dies accidently prematurely in a car accident. I hurt when a soldier is killed defending a country, or when an Afghan civilian is killed by a bomb that missed its target. I hurt when someone on death row gets executed (and later is found to be innocent). I actually hurt when Osama died. Death hurts because there are no do over’s. No second chances. And if any of the situations I mention above happens…that person’s chance to repent and be saved has ended.

But regardless of my desire that “none should perish, but all repent and live”, I have serious questions about having any ounce of celebration, or a sense of justice, or a sense of joy/satisfaction from someone dying…even someone like Osama. And here is my biblical understanding of why I have a hard time with this.

1. The Gospel. The heart of the gospel is this: we are all enemies of God, separated from Him but through the blood of the only just person who has ever lived: Jesus. This is clear in Scripture. I am an enemy of God apart from Jesus. Osama is an enemy. It’s a level playing field. Furthermore, the Sermon on the Mount highlights just how depraved and sinful we are. Jesus says that if we have hate in our heart, we have murdered. If we have lust in our heart, we have committed adultery. Not one of us is exempt from this, not one of us have fulfilled this. Only Jesus has. And that’s the point. I am a murderer. I am a liar. I am an adulterer. And this is true whether or not I have actually committed the crime, so to speak. I am guilty because my heart has done it. I am no more innocent, or less guilty, than Osama. So when we say that Osama got “his justice”, “his just judgment”, we fail to see the evil and depravity in our own hearts. We are no different than Osama. This is radical, I know. But this is biblical.

2. God is the Just Judge, Not Man. The Bible is clear: its not our place to judge. Again in the Sermon of the Mount we hear Jesus say, “Do not judge, lest you be judged….how ever you judge will be given back to you…why do you focus on others..take the plank out of your own eye.” Romans 12 says, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but [rather] give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance [is] Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Here we see that vengeance (i.e. retributive justice) is for God to handle, not you or me. Instead, keeping consistent with the ethic Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount of “loving our enemies”, God tells us to actually take care and provide for our enemies. This is radical. This is revolutionary. By doing this we take the higher road and leave it up to God to satisfy judgment. It further highlights that God alone is truly just to judge. Not me. Not you. James tells us in the second chapter of his epistle that: “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Even Jesus (who is the only earthly person who ever lived that is just enough to judge) says this: “I did not come to condemn (i.e. judge) the world, but to save it.” I really could go on and on, but this will suffice for now.

What’s my point? Death is the ultimate form of judgment, correct? If God alone is only able to execute “just judgment”, how can we be pleased, happy, or satisfied when anyone dies, or gets murdered, assassinated, or killed, by man. No matter how “just” it is perceived. God alone should be the author and finisher of life. Not man. God executes retributive justice (because he alone is just), we are called to mercy, love, and grace and to leave the rest to God. The choosing of taking life: whether through abortion, through capital punishment, war, or assassination is taking the job of God into our own hands. And the twisted part about this is that we feel ok about doing this because we feel justified in doing it. If a mass murderer is executed on death row, we think that is justice. An “eye for an eye.” But what about the guy on death row that gets executed that is later exonerated by new evidence. Is that just? We think it is justice when Osama, the brain behind the killing of thousands of people, is taken out. Its justice!, we proclaim! But when hundreds of Afghan civilians die in order to deliver on this end, is that justice for them? Is the killing of Afghan civilians, who had nothing to do with Osama, just? Do the ends always “justify” the means? Jesus ends the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” moral standard. He ends it because no one can satisfy or live up to it. As Gandhi once said, “eye for an eye, the whole world goes blind.”

Of course the argument can be made that the killing of Osama was God executing his judgment on him. Perhaps. But how do you know? What lens are you looking through to determine something only God knows? And what deaths are God’s judgment, and what others are “unfortunate” and not God’s judgment? Especially when Jesus lays out the playing field for us that all are enemies of God. If this is true, and the Bible says so, wouldn’t all death then be considered God’s judgment? If so, why are we quick to say that Osama’s death was God’s judgment, but the people who died in the Twin Towers aren’t God’s judgment? This argument drawn out to the only really logical conclusion (except if you take the “holier than everyone else” approach), is that God would have also been executing judgment on people in the Twin Towers too. Or in Darfur. Or anywhere else when death has happened.

3. Ability to Repent. People often ask me why I am against the death penalty. And besides the arguments I have already laid out above, its simple: anytime death is determined by man, it takes away time and the ability of someone to repent. God desires that “none should perish, but that all would repent.” That person on death row that gets executed today is unable to repent tomorrow. Osama is unable to repent today. My personal feeling is that every human, “good” or “bad”, should have the longest time possible to repent. So I feel terrible when someone gets murdered and wish that person had more time to live and repent if they hadn’t already. But continuing the cycle of violence and taking of life, to then execute the murderer (eye for an eye), we take away that same opportunity for that person. Death is the ultimate form of judgment.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against executing some form of justice for people who do things wrong, or commit atrocious acts of evil. I am all for punishing an evildoer through whatever government system is in place to do that (conditionally that is). However, I am only in favor of punishment up to, but not including, death. Once death is a part of punishment determined by the government or by man, we cross a line we are never meant to cross. Incarcerate someone for life? Fine. Execute them? Not fine.

Let us refrain from using the term “justice” for the death of anyone. Unless we use it for everyone.

My mentor, Shane Claiborne, once said something that has never left me. I know my argument above seems lengthy, but I know I could even say more…but I will leave you with Shane’s thoughts for now: If we think anyone, like a terrorist such as Osama (my add), is beyond the grace of God, we need to rip out half of our New Testament because it was written by a converted terrorist, Saul. Just think if Saul got his retributive, eye for an eye punishment due him before he had the chance to convert. Paul was a terrorist who killed Christians. Osama was a terrorist who killed Americans. I am a depraved sinner too. None of us are beyond God’s grace.


Joanna said...

Thank you, for saying this out loud and so eloquently. Mark and I had the same conversation in the car on Monday, but I don't think I could have expressed my tension and struggle with biblical mercy so well. These are the words that give flesh to my own convictions as we watch the global story unfold this week. This is not the kind of "justice" I want to live for (die for) and this is not what I desire the world at large to believe that "justice" is.
Jesus was radical. Thanks for being like him and encouraging me to be too.

J. M. Richards said...

I wish this was the prevailing attitude of Christians today.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts; it's encouraging to hear such an impassioned case for mercy.

Unlikely Oilfield Wife said...

Such beautiful sentiment that I couldn't agree with more. Thank you so much for this post.