Should we celebrate Osama bin Laden’s death?

I don’t think we should. I think this is a moment to show the world how different Christian faith is – and what a difference Christ makes in the world. By the way, I don’t think the world is a safer place tonight. At least in the near future it’s just got a little bit scarier – especially since I am planning four trips to the USA in the next six weeks.

Two articles published today in Christianity Today helped me to think through this issue a bit more thoroughly, and I recommend them to you.

Firstly, Gideon Strauss, CEO of the Center for Public Justice, argues that “Yes, Justice Has Been Done in the Killing of Osama bin Laden”, but our response as Christians must be marked by knowledge of our own depravity. Read his article here.

His points are Biblical and theological. Proverbs 24:17 says: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.” And Ezekiel 18:23: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”

He understands that we have a desire for retribution, and acknowledges that God understands this (see Psalm 137). “But beyond this immediate response, understandable as it is, I believe it is necessary for Christians to pause, and to consider the death of Osama bin Laden within the deeper perspective of human sin and divine grace. In the end, no death should give us pleasure…. Our best next response, I believe, to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, after we have sought our own hearts for the wickedness that resides in all of us, and have thanked God for his amazing grace that has rescued us from our own evil, is to join President Obama on May 5, this year’s National Day of Prayer, ‘in giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy’ and ‘in asking God for guidance, mercy, and protection for our nation.’ And perhaps we can add a prayer for our enemies, that God may win them to himself and in his own good time bring into the relations between this nation and those who now seek her destruction some foretaste of the just peace of his world to come.”

But an even more profound response was written by Michael Horton, Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary, CA. He titled it: “The Death of Osama bin Laden: What Kind of Justice Has Been Done?” The news should again remind us of the difference between the City of Man and the City of God. You can read it here, or an extended extract below.

The Death of Osama bin Laden: What Kind of Justice Has Been Done?

The news should again remind us of the difference between the City of Man and the City of God.
Michael Horton, Christianity Today, 1 May 2011

Understandably, news of Osama bin Laden’s demise at the hands of U. S. Navy Seals provoked cries of celebration. The mastermind of terror, even against civilians (indeed, against fellow Muslims) has been brought to justice. But what kind of justice?

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush authorized “Operation Infinite Justice.” Especially after his comment that “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while,” however, the mission was renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Reportedly, the name-change was due at least in part to the concern raised by Muslims that only God can execute “infinite justice.” One would have hoped that the change had been provoked instead by Christian reaction.

Islam, of course, is not just a religion; it’s a cultural and even geo-political reality. As such, its strict adherents excoriate co-religionists like Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im who call for an “Islamic Reformation” that would make jihad into a spiritual struggle rather than an armed military conflict.

Unfortunately, Christianity has had a long and complicated history of its own on this score. On one hand, the fourth-century theologian Augustine responded to the sacking of Rome with a detailed scriptural argument for two cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Each city has its own origins, ends, and means. As citizens of both kingdoms, every believer is called to recognize the difference between them. Compared with the City of God, the City of Man is hardly a true commonwealth. It cannot ensure ultimate peace, security, justice, and love. Nevertheless, Augustine argues, it can still be considered a commonwealth in a limited, provisional, and penultimate sense. Out of these reflections (especially in the City of God) there arose a legacy of just war theory and a Christian realism about the legitimacy and limitation of human societies in this time between the times.

Nevertheless, the Middle Ages gave rise to a fusion of Christ and culture known as “Christendom.” In the name of Christendom, kings and their knights rode off to crusades with papal blessing, as David and the hosts of Yahweh redivivus, cleansing the Holy Land of infidels.

In spite of its own contradictions in practice, the magisterial Reformation sought to distinguish between the kingdom of Christ, which conquers by Word and Spirit, and the kingdoms of this age that are given the divine authority to defend temporal justice. Drawing on the New Testament and church fathers, especially Augustine, the reformers realized that there was no theocracy in the new covenant; all nation-states were “secular” in the sense of being common rather than holy. With no holy land, there can be no holy war. Only just wars, based on natural law.

But ideas like “Christendom” die hard. We saw that with the memorial service after 9/11. Held in a building popularly known as the “National Cathedral,” with military honor guards processing and the strains of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” announcements of a resolve to secure infinite justice in an open-ended “crusade” provided fodder for Islamic extremists in their effort to replay ancient battles. A romantic patriotism has always seethed beneath the professed separation of church and state, as in the famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Written by a Unitarian, the hymn confuses Union victory with Christ’s final judgment. Something very close to “infinite justice.”

Cultures are the most dangerous when they invoke holy texts for their defense of holy land through holy war. However, Christians have no biblical basis for doing this in the first place. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly abrogated the ceremonial and civil law that God had given uniquely to the nation of Israel. Now is the era of common grace and common land, obeying rulers—even pagan ones—and living under constitutions other than the one that God gave through Moses. As Paul reminds us in Romans 13, secular rulers are given the power of the temporal sword—finite justice—while the gospel conquers in the power of the Spirit through that Word “above all earthly pow’rs.”

What does all of this mean for our response to the news about the most notorious terrorist in recent history?

First, it means that we can rejoice that even in this present evil age, God’s common grace and common justice are being displayed through secular authorities…. Yet the divine wrath that rulers execute is temporal and finite rather than eternal and infinite. Such justice is never so pure that it is unmingled with injustice, never so final that it satisfies God’s eternal law. In view of the image of God stamped on every person, justice must always be tempered by love. Commenting on Genesis 9:6, John Calvin reminded us that we cannot hate even our most perverse enemies, because of the image of God in them….

Second, it means that we cannot rejoice in the death of the wicked any more than does God (Ezek. 18:23). We may take satisfaction that temporal justice has been served, but Christians should display a sober restraint…. [Christ] calls us to pray for our enemies, even for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). This is the day of salvation, calling sinners to repent and believe the gospel. We may delight in the temporal justice shown to evildoers, but leave the final justice to God.

….

So as we take satisfaction in the honorable service of U.S. forces in bringing a terrorist to justice in the court of the temporal city, let us never dare to confuse this with “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). In our response, let us use this opportunity to display to our non-Christian neighbors the radical contrasts between the biblical view of God, humanity, redemption, and the last judgment, and the religious and secularist distortions—even those that profess to be Christian.

Michael Horton is J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, and author of The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. “Speaking Out” is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.

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