Christian responses to Osama bin Laden’s killing

So, what’s everyone making of the unfolding story of how Osama bin Laden was killed (or was it assassinated?), and of the widely varying reactions and responses to the news?

I’m particularly interested in the difference between the ‘Christian’ response in the US – where most seem jubilant about the removal of their great nemesis – and the UK, where senior church figures like Rowan Williams and Tom Wright are sounding a note of caution and moral discomfort about how the operation was carried out.

Raising difficult questions

The events do obviously raise a hornet’s nest of difficult and emotive questions – issues of vengeance, justice and morality, of the death penalty and the rights of wrongdoers and their victism; issues of how the rest of the world views America and its foreign policy compared to how America views itself; issues of perception and language (freedom fighter or terrorist? execution, assassination or murder?).

Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke out yesterday and said that, though Osama was undeniably a war criminal who should be brought to justice, nonetheless the shooting of an unarmed man in a covert operation made him feel deeply uncomfortable. He seemed to feel that in such a case justice needed to be seen to be done in the right way; that arresting bin Laden and bringing him to trial would have been vastly preferable to what in fact happened. I agree. Few would deny that the US government had a right to bring bin Laden to justice for what he’d done, but in the manner of their actions they’ve muddied the waters and lost much of the moral high ground in this case. (Of course, how much moral high ground America had in any case is a matter for debate, given some of their foreign policy record. But that’s another matter.)

Then Tom Wright (of Surprised by Hope) voiced his concerns today in a comment piece written for the Guardian. He criticises ‘American exceptionalism’ and describes the operation in terms of vigilante vengeance inspired by the American myth of superheroes and Wild West gunslingers who act outside the law to rid the world of the bad guys. He warns that in the real world such actions ultimately only inspire further retaliation and that ‘proper justice is designed precisely to outflank such escalation’. Again, I think he has a point.

Justice, hell and forgiveness

On the American side, unsurprisingly, few such doubts seem to have been expressed (at least, not openly). Indeed, 61% of Americans apparently believe that Osama is currently in hell, according to one poll. Charles Wolf, who lost his wife Katherine in the 9/11 attacks, expressed this view very strongly when he spoke to BBC reporters yesterday: “to have that evil man gone, and to know that God has thrown his soul in the depths of hell and he’s being tormented and it will get worse and worse and worse – that is justice. No court on earth could mete out the kind of justice that our Maker metes out.”

This is of course an entirely natural and understandable human response towards the person responsible for the murder of a loved one, and none of us who haven’t been placed in such a situation have a right to criticise him for feeling this way. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with Mr Wolf’s beliefs about hell and justice though. I for one am very uncomfortable with the notion that Osama bin Laden is burning in hell – for a start, I don’t believe in that kind of hell, and similarly I don’t believe in that kind of justice. That’s simply not what the God revealed in Christ is about, in my view.

I can’t help comparing Mr Wolf’s words with those of Gordon Wilson, who saw his daughter Marie die as a result of the IRA bombing in Enniskillen: “Forgive them, no retaliation, please forgive them” and “I shall pray for these people every night”. Few of us could aspire to such a level of forgiveness and compassion as this, but there’s no denying that it’s an incredibly powerful statement. Where Mr Wolf’s response was natural and human, Mr Wilson’s was Christlike. True justice – Christ’s justice – is served not by retaliation, vengeance and rejoicing in the suffering of our enemies but in their redemption.

So – what do you think?

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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22 Responses to Christian responses to Osama bin Laden’s killing

  1. Rosie Edser says:

    Reminds me of when Saddam Hussein was killed amidst mockery and jibes. Justice was kind of done but not done very well.

    Tho I’m generally against capital punishment, when so so many lives have been ruined and so much calculated murder, suffering and bloodshed it does seem kind of fitting.

    But what’s the alternative? For his trial to become a focus and al-Qaeda rallying point? Although with a trial comes the public acknowledgement of crimes which kind of helps the healing and reconcilliation process.

    So of the alternatives a trial has major pluses and minuses and the death penalty does too…
    Hmm, no easy answers


    • My feeling is that when justice is done so badly – as arguably in Saddam’s case and in this case – it’s not really justice at all.

      I’m against capital punishment in all cases (I think)… particularly when it’s done outside the law.

      I agree that a trial had the potential to become a rallying-point – but then so does his killing (‘martyrdom’ or ‘assassination’).

      As you say, no easy answers.


  2. Lex says:

    I think it’s far too early to conclude that justice was done “badly” in this case. More importantly, we need to remember that sometimes, the only route to justice at all is the least-bad option.

    Osama bin Laden murdered thousands of innocents and had been quite clear about his intention to murder many more. There was absolutely no reason NOT to take his statements at face value.

    Thanks to the near-certain collusion of the Pakistani government, it took a long time and a lot of money and lives to arrive at the conclusion that there was even a 60% probability that he was in the compound where he was found. Had he escaped, we might have waited years for another opportunity.

    WE DO NOT KNOW at this point whether Osama resisted capture; accounts have varied.

    The fact of the matter is that the killing of Osama has — improperly — become a proxy in the mind of many Americans and much of the rest of the world for the behavior of the U.S. government since 9/11. Had that government, and Bush and his cronies in particular, not launched a war against Iraq under false pretenses, tortured prisoners, wiretapped its own civilians without warrants and carried out other gross abuses of law, the complaints we’re now hearing about the killing of bin Laden would be far less common, far more muted. Indeed, given the world outpouring of support for the U.S. immediately after 9/11, had we somehow found and killed him within days or weeks of the terrorist attacks, without the Iraq war and Camp X-ray and all the rest of it, I’m pretty sure the world would have rejoiced with us.


    • Thanks – all fair points, and I understand that your perspective from across the Pond will be very different to ours here, both for cultural reasons and because this issue has affected your country and people directly (not that we haven’t been subject to terrorist attacks here, but not quite on the same scale).

      But still, I’m not sure that the accounts of the capture are all that unclear – it seems (from here) that the only sense in which they are ‘mixed’ is that the initial reports simply weren’t true! Perhaps that’s not fair – that’s certainly how our own media are presenting it. Yours may be different.

      I do agree that the killing of Osama has become a proxy for the behaviour of the US govt since 9/11. I also understand that an operation of this nature is going to be difficult, and that there’s a strong chance of things going wrong. Nonetheless, I think it’s a shame that things turned out the way they did; whatever Osama had done and was planning to do the manner of his killing doesn’t sit well with many people’s notions of justice, honour and right. It’s not that he didn’t deserve justice – it’s just that in appearing to take justice into their own hands, his killers have (in my view at least) lost much of their moral high ground and made Osama into a potential martyr.

      But yes, it’s not a simple matter of right and wrong. A lot of it is a matter of perspective and perception, and our different cultures and situations will play a huge rule in shaping that. I would certainly have rejoiced at Osama’s capture and trial, and I’m not in the least sorry that he’s unable to continue his plots and operations. But I’m not sure the end justified the means in this case, or indeed in any other.


  3. RAY RAY says:

    There is no doubt this was an assassination. This both shames me and yet makes me proud. It shames me because it’s not the American way. Although I feel certain this kind of thing was committed, although covertly, in the past. No we are not better than the devils responsible for the attack on 9-11. One murder is no less wrong than three thousand. Maybe it should have been a suicide mission. This is just one more incident that makes me feel disgust for my country.

    On the other hand, I am proud this individual has been waylaid, although his death came too quickly. I kind of feel like he should have been taken to the World Trade Center site and everyone who lost a loved one in that attack perform a little Moslem justice on him. A good stoning would have made it more satisfying. These feelings make me doubt my own moralities. I hesitate to say more.


    • Ray, I think your ambivalence does you great credit as a human being! There is a part of all of us that wants to see the baddies get their come-uppance – and I don’t think that’s wrong, though the manner in which that justice is carried out matters. There’s also the part of us that is sickened by killing of anyone, and I’m sure that’s right too.

      I agree that bin Laden should have been faced with the reality of his deeds – like you say, a little trip to Ground Zero might not have gone amiss.


  4. David Holland says:

    As you say the question of how much moral high ground there was to lose is open.

    My perspective is that I feel no remorse for the termination of bin Laden by whatever means and in whatever location. I am thankful that I did not have to make the decision or carry out the command, but I utterly support those who did.

    If there were a question of innocence it would be a different story, but I do not think anyone could argue that point. On the other hand the arguments for and against whatever the notion of a “trial” would have looked like were made on Ian Paul’s blog as well as other places to be sure. I can honestly say I am relieved it will not happen.

    I am doubtful this action will result in additional risk in terms of retaliation or attack as Bishop Wright voices concern over. If someone is trying to kill you already where is the additional risk? Maybe the will try harder to kill you, but they are still trying (and now without this particular leader). Again if justice is not the goal of your opponent trying to satisfy him with it is pointless.

    The idea that the murder of innocents is equivalent in some way to the murder of the guilty (if you must classify his execution as murder) is actually contrary to the concept of Justice IMO.

    I was saddened that some here in America found the event a cause for celebration (or as I’ve seen in other posts National Pride 😦 ), but I could not say “I forgive him”, I did not.

    Lucky for all of us I’m not the one making that call.


    • Well, I guess this is one we’re not going to agree on. I don’t believe that the killing, or termination, or whatever term you choose, of anyone is ever anything but sad and regrettable.

      I also believe that – even if it is justified because of their actions – the manner in which someone is killed is important. If it’s right that Osama was unarmed, this was arguably an illegal killing – murder in other words. International law specialist Benjamin Ferencz has said “Killing a captive who poses no immediate threat is a crime under military law as well as all other law”. Now, we still don’t know the full facts and this may not in fact be the case. But if it is, the murder even of a terrible terrorist and murderer is not the way of international law and even less is it the way of Christ.


      • David Holland says:

        But I think we do agree it is both sad and regrettable.

        My perspective is likely somewhat skewed as a result of having family in law enforcement. If someone kills a police officer in the commission of a crime, they have no right to expect the protection of law IMO. If they get it, great, if not, gee that’s too bad. Osama was in that category AFAIK.

        It is both sad and regrettable, but way down on the list of things that keep me up at night.


        • Yes, I’ll admit that Osama’s death doesn’t keep me up at night – though imagining its potential consequences might!

          I see your point about terrorists not expecting the protection of the law, but I’m not sure that’s quite the same as saying they can expect to be exterminated outside the law. I guess if you live by the sword you can expect to die by the sword, but that still doesn’t justify it – the old ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ maxim springs to mind.

          I’m a bit ignorant – what does AFAIK stand for? 🙂


  5. JimPruitt says:

    If you want to know about the resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth I would refer you to NT Wright. He is brilliant. He cites the “virtual unanimity” among first century believers in the resurrection both of Jesus and the Christian believers. He notes that “whatever other beliefs Paul revised following his conversion, resurrection (of people) remained constant.” With a gift for reducing complexity he notes that I Thessalonians 4:14 is “a succinct summary of virtually the whole of I Corinthians 15.” “For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.”
    But he is embarrassingly out of his element judging the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden and he veers into standard-issue anti-Americanism. He natters on about an American “hero” (the quotes are his) talking vengeance without considering another possibility: this young American soldier was in a foreign land facing a deadly enemy.
    This soldier doesn’t need the faculty lounge judgments of NT Wright. In fact, he and his comrades should be compared to those of the Royal Air Force fighting the Nazis of whom Churchill said “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
    Finally, those American soldiers surely did a better job than did the British and French forces trying to kill Muammar Gaddafi at about the same time. They didn’t botch the job and they kill any children. Prediction: the US will have to clean-up that mess.


    • Yes, I’ve read Wright on the resurrection and I agree, he’s brilliant.

      There’s a danger when any academic or public figure speaks outside their subject area that they will be completely off-beam and just reveal their ignorance – look at Dawkins on religion! But I have to say that – on the whole, with caveats – I’m with Wright on this one. The comparison with the RAF fighting the Nazis just doesn’t work for me – and even then, though our nation owes much to them, we can now question whether in fact some of their actions in bombing German civilian targets was morally justifiable.

      I think there’s a danger in cross-Pond miscommunication here. You are of course right to support your country and to celebrate its victories, but you also need to be able to criticise it and hold it accountable where it falls short of standards of humanity, morality and justice. We need to do the same for ourselves here, including our actions in Iraq and Libya. Perhaps it’s unfair for clerics over here to criticise the US, but when you’re the top power in the world whose actions indirectly or directly affect everyone, you probably have to take a bit of flak for debatable foreign policy decisions.


  6. JimPruitt says:

    Of course I can criticize the US. Americans are better at that than any one. My issue is with a prominent cleric in England presuming without the facts that this soldier took vengeance. This should not lose anything in cross-cultural communications.

    Whether those in England will admit it or not, that soldier was protecting you. In fact, Wright does acknowledge this when he muses (because he may not really know) whether England has any aircraft carriers. He comes across as an unconverted Eustace Scrubb, somewhat of a know-it-all depending on others’ good will.

    But you need us. As your Paul Johnson has said: “For want of any alternative, it looks as if America will be obliged to continue in its role as the ultimate guardian of the peace…” We’re doing this as best we can and NT Wright can continue to write great books.

    Here are some examples:
    From P. 276 of The Resurrection of the Son of God Christian Origins and the Question of God Volume Three (Minneapolis: Fortress Press) 2003 is this pearl: – “…however much (Paul) criticizes other (Christian) teachers, however much he develops his own thought in his own way, he hardly ever has cause to disagree with anyone on the basis point that the Messiah had been raised from the dead.”
    I also recommend the book he wrote with our Marcus Borg: Marcus J. Borg and NT Wright The Meaning of Jesus Two Visions (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999 First HarperCollins Paperback Edition Published In 2000.


    • Hi Jim, I sense we’re not going to come close to agreeing on this issue – but that’s okay. As your own book highlights, diversity and even disagreement have been features of the church since its earliest days. And where would be the interest and challenge if we all thought alike?

      You say that ‘we [the UK] need you [the US]’; this may be true in some ways, but I don’t see its relevance to what we’re discussing about the manner and morality of Osama’s killing.

      And even if it is true, it’s not something most of us in Britain wish for or rejoice over. You describe it as the relationship between an indulgent parent and an irresponsible teenager; to many of us here it feels more like the relationship between an addict and their pusher, or a co-dependent spouse and their more powerful but unaccountable partner. There may be a need, but it’s not necessarily a healthy need.

      Perhaps a more relevant analogy would be to our relationship with the banks in the current economic crisis. We do undeniably still need them and rely on them; but that doesn’t mean we aren’t justifiably angry about their actions, how they’ve been managed and the impact it’s had on our lives. Needing something or someone doesn’t mean that you can’t question, criticise or hold them accountable when you feel they’ve stepped out of line.

      So I simply repeat – in the current case, many of us in Britain wish to express our sense of moral disquiet at the manner of Osama’s killing, as well as the jubilation that’s followed it and the rejoicing at Osama ‘burning in hell’.

      At this stage, we simply can’t tell whether we in Britain or you in the US will benefit from Osama’s death or whether we will suffer as a result of reprisals and long-term grudges. But even if the long-term result is in our favour, the end does not necessarily justify the means.


  7. Rosie Edser says:

    Hi Jim
    a couple of points in response to your last.

    I don’t think the discussion is about any particular soldier, the brave and skilled SEALS team were doing their job presumably following very specific orders from a higher authority. I’ve just read NT Wright’s quote and I don’t see him Eustace Scrubbishly “presuming without the facts that this soldier took vengeance” but maybe you’ve come cross a more expanded version of his comments.

    In objecting to his criticism while depending on others’ good will you seem to be saying ‘how dare NT Wright criticise us when he is kept safe through our actions’, is that a fair summary?

    I’ve not come across this Paul Johnson that you quote and I don’t want to engage in a ‘the UK needs the US ‘ kind of debate. I think we’re all agreed that it’s a good thing that bin Laden can kill no more. Everyone is entitled to their opinion about the virtues and consequences of ways and means. Personally I would have preferred his capture and some kind of trial where justice could have been seen to be done but I admit it’s hard to imagine what that would look like in practice.

    An Iraqui Muslim friend whom I was disicussing this today was glad that he was killed thus and has been buried at sea so there’s no focus for some kind of shrine. She holds him responsible for much of the war in her country.


  8. JimPruitt says:

    NT Wright has written an anti-American screed. Consider this: “America is subject to different rules to the rest of the world.” Or this: He speaks of “Captain America”, “The Lone Ranger” and “Superman.” Or this: “In the present case, the ‘hero’ fired a lot of stray bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan before he got it right.” (In the case of Iraq, I would probably trust the views of your Iraqi friend more than I would those of NT Wright.) Here is NT Wright’s dumbest remark: “What’s more, such actions invite retaliation.” Really? Have our enemies ever needed an excuse to slaughter the good people of England, Iraq, the US, etc.? Do the Muslim governments really give a damn that we got bin Laden – or, like Iraq, are they very glad?
    If you are British I am sure that you don’t want to engage in the “the UK needs the US” debate because it isn’t much of a debate. Our relationship is becoming like a dysfunctional family. We are the indulgent parent and you are the irresponsible teenager. We carry the military burden to protect you and without our help you would be very vulnerable whereas without you we might save some money. So as a US taxpayer and now trying to be your responsible parent let me address you in the spirit of Provberbs 27:6 (to switch the metaphor.)
    When NT Wright describes our actions as vigilantism and when he closes with an appeal to Christian pacifism he sets himself apart from the work of brave people who are protecting him. You’re wrong when you paraphrase my view in the “how dare he” category. He can say anything he wants – at least he can in America with the First Amendment to our Constitution – but he can be challenged and that is what I am doing. If you want to defend Wright, ask yourself how by his standard could we be going after bin Laden with guns in the first place and killing his armed guards? (Or how could you be killing Muammar Gaddafi’s grandchildren?)
    P/S: I recommend all books by Wright and these by Paul Johnson:

    Napoleon (New York: Viking The Penguin Group, 2002)

    Churchill (New York: Penguin, 2009)

    A History of Christianity (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Simon and Schuster, A Touchstone Book, 1976)

    The Quest For God: A Personal Pilgrimage originally published in Great Britain in 1996 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Orion House (New York: HarperCollinsPublishers) 1996

    The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-30 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991). A favorite quote: P. 41 – 1814 – “The Treaty of Ghent (of 1841) was one of the great acts of statesmenship in history.” John Quincy Adams: “I hope this will be the last treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States.”

    A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1997)
    Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties Revised Edition. (New York: HarperCollins and Perennial Classics) 1983 2001.


    • Jim, you say:

      Here is NT Wright’s dumbest remark: “What’s more, such actions invite retaliation.” Really? Have our enemies ever needed an excuse to slaughter the good people of England, Iraq, the US, etc.?

      Well, that’s just where many in the rest of the world do differ from you in the US. You often seem to feel that people hate and attack America for no reason other than perhaps jealousy or ideological difference. Much of the rest of the world believes on the contrary that America’s attitudes, behaviour and foreign policy decisions (and sadly also the UK’s in Iraq and Afghanistan) have indeed invited retaliation and have helped to foster some of the extremist responses that we’ve all been subject to.

      I don’t deny that there is anti-Americanism in the UK and much of the world, nor do I believe that this is a helpful attitude. But such attitudes are not always without underlying causes and reasons, and some of these may in fact be valid. When you’re the top power in the world it’s not always easy to be self-critical or to hold yourself accountable. We in the UK all too aware of this (in retrospect) from the many evils of the British Empire, which at the time we thought was God’s gift to the world!


      • JimPruitt says:

        I’ll leave it to others to defend the positive aspects of the British Empire (Clue: No Gandhi arose in the USSR.)

        Instead, I am going to tie up my ideas on the NT Wright controversy by trying to comport to the purpose of the Evangelical Liberal which “is a blog to discuss and debate ideas around a more open and liberated way of being a Christian.”

        The following is about 1900 words:

        Throughout history, there have been those that took the teaching of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, as a guide for all of life. I call them – and the term is not original with me – the “Red-Letter Christians.” The term derives from modern editions of the Bible which have printed words attributed to Jesus in the color red. Red-Letter Christians tend to associate with such values as promoting peace talks, eliminating poverty through government action and fighting racism by new laws and regulations. In the United States, Red-Letter Christians tend to be more associated with liberal Democrat prescriptions to these problems. They have a clear preference for the statements of Jesus over other statements in the New Testament. For example, Barak Obama as a candidate in 2008 defending his position on civil unions for gays said: “If people find that controversial then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.”

        The Red-Letter Christians are an early twenty-first century cohort with many antecedents. In history this type of Christian has embraced Luke’s version of the Beatitudes in Luke 6 which casts Matthew’s Beatitudes in a more socially progressive light. For example, the first Gospel’s “blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) is rendered in Luke 6:20 as “blessed are the poor.” The first Gospel’s “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6) becomes “blessed are the hungry” in Luke 6:21.

        Luke also includes reverse beatitudes which have been hurled at society’s elite ever since:

        “Woe to you who are rich,
        For you have your only happiness now.
        Woe to you who are fat and prosperous now,
        for a time of awful hunger awaits you.
        Woe to you who laugh now,
        for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow.
        Woe you who are praised by the crowds,
        for their ancestors also praised false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26.)

        Luke’s version of the beatitudes does not stand in stark contrast to Jesus’ other teachings. But the articulation is a proof text for those who see their faith as an ongoing challenge to society’s structures.
        So is the account taken from Matthew, Mark and Luke of the Rich Young Ruler (Matthew 19:16ff; Mark 10: 17ff; Luke 18:18ff.) This is a story about a man who came to Jesus seeking the path to eternal life. Jesus told him that he needed first to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. This story has had a stupendous impact throughout history. It led Anthony of Egypt, born in about 250, to found monasticism . Anthony lived to age 100. Constantine was said to have visited him for counsel. All subsequent monasteries stem from Anthony. About a thousand years later, the story of the Rich Young Ruler inspired the founder of the mendicant Waldenses. In 1176, a man known variously as Valdez or Waldo was a merchant in Lyon. He provided for his family and gave away the rest of his money. He tried to follow Christ’s instructions and gathered a group. His group was denied the right to preach and was eventually excommunicated. They attempted to literally follow the New Testament. They endured over centuries and many became Protestants. In 1996 Pope John Paul II met with a group of Waldenses, talked about composing any differences and blessed them.

        Another passage in Matthew inspired St Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226.) He was led by a vision of Jesus speaking from Matthew 10:7, 9 to him – “Go, preach as you go, saying, ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belt’.”” Francis founded an order and later visited the Middle East, where after the fall of the crusaders his order alone was allowed by the Moslems to remain. It has been said that “In Francis of Assisi medieval piety had its highest and most inspiring representative.” Pope Pius XI (1857 – 1939) officially designated Francis “the second Christ” or alter Christus.

        Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a nineteenth century precursor of the Red-Letter Christians. Like St. Francis six hundred years earlier Tolstoy resolved a spiritual crisis by his study of the Gospels, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. The message of his novel Resurrection (1899) was that the teachings of Jesus were to be read literally. His new understanding led him to a radical pacifism. He came to see his opponents as falling into two camps: “conservative Christian patriots” and “atheistic revolutionists.” He rejected most of the institutional church of his day writing: “So-called believers believe that Christ-God, the second person of the Trinity, descended upon earth to teach men by His example how to live; they go through the most elaborate ceremonies for the consumption of the sacraments, the building of churches, the sending out of missionaries, the establishment of priesthoods, for parochial administration, for the performance of rituals; but they forget one little detail, – to do what He said.”

        Tolstoy went on, saying: “According to the interpretations of the church, He (Jesus) taught that He was the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God the Father and that He came into the world to atone by His death for Adam’s sin. But everyone who has read the Gospels knows that Christ taught nothing of the sort, or at least but spoke very vaguely on these topics. …. In what, then, does the rest of Christ’s teaching consist? It is impossible to deny, and all Christians have always recognized the fact, that the chief aim of Christ’s teaching is to regulate men’s lives, – how they ought to live with regard to one another.” Tolstoy rejected war, the justice system and any type of coercion.

        Would Tolstoy or someone like St. Francis have been an effective leader of the church? Possibly, but it is difficult to see this type of Christianity suited for any era. One who failed was an Italian hermit named Peter of Morrone who in 1294 was elected Pope and took the name Celestine V. He was over eighty and his elevation was testimony to Franciscan ideas of a reformed church. As Pope he issued two decrees – one which had to do with the selection of future popes by confirming the decision of an earlier Pope that the College of Cardinals was to meet in a conclave; the second announced the right of any Pope to abdicate. After five months he exercised that right. His resignation letter stated “the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life.” For a pope to resign was unprecedented, and his resignation demonstrated the burden of the papacy, the need for more than merely idealism and honesty as job qualifications and the power of the college of cardinals. No pope since then has taken the name Celestine.

        To draw from your A.N. Wilson: the religion of Jesus – whether the actual religion or that constructed by the sentimentalists – could only have limited appeal to the human heart. The actual religion was localized. The versions of Francis of Assisi, Tolstoy or Gandhi systemize what is axiomatic.

        Yet, we have seen some practical effects of the Tolstoyan take on Christianity. In 1910, shortly before his death Tolstoy wrote a young lawyer whom the world would know as Mohandas Gandhi (1869 – 1948) about the contradiction between the teachings of the church and the teachings of Christ. In the decades that followed, Gandhi used passive resistance to contend with the British Empire. In turn, Gandhi’s influence was studied by a seminary student – the son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist ministers named Martin Luther King (1929 -1968). Dr. King later wrote about the Montgomery bus boycott: “When the protest began, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its sublime teaching on life, and to the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance.” When asked why he had not become a Marxist, Martin Luther King responded: “Because of the overpowering force of the figure of Jesus.”

        The relevance of the Red-Letter Christians in a nuclear age should not be discounted. Yet, the Red-Letter Christians are clearly not the only authentic voice of Christianity. President Barak Obama made this clear in receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009:

        “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
        I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago – ‘Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.’ As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naive — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

        But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

        In sum: the problem with NT Wight is that he urges a specific variety of Christianity – pacifism – and he uses it as a blunt tool to pose as a critic of a US military action. But he really has nothing constructive to say about how the US went about getting bin Laden. He is moot and he should have been mute. Bonhoeffer warned us about cheap grace. NT Wright, protected by the US, is engaged in cheap politics.

        Most of the above is from my book The Common Sense Diversity of Christianity.

        Final note: I love and respect England. I grew up with the stories of Churchill and as a young adult grew to greatly admire Margaret Thatcher. My ancestor Thomas Prewitt was born in Salisbury, England in 1616 and came to Virginia, probably as a Quaker. I have quoted several British writers in these posts. In the years ahead our two countries will need to maintain an alliance against terrorism and it is not helped by the sophistry and the disdain that NT Wright showed toward us at the moment we killed a terrible American adversary. As I tried to point out earlier your killing of Libyan children kind of puts the log in NT Wright’s eye, wouldn’t you say? I am liberal on religion and conservative on politics. You might look into it.


        • Wow Jim, when you do a job you do it properly! 😉 It will take me quite some time to read and digest all of your comment and I may or may not respond, as I’m now moving on to other topics. You’re right to draw me back to the core purpose of this blog, which isn’t really to debate politics or the strengths and faults of particular nations, interesting though that is.

          Unlike you, I’m liberal/conservative on religion (hence the title of my blog) and almost entirely liberal on politics (with left-wing leanings). I therefore don’t agree with you on most of your political views expressed above; I’m afraid I also don’t agree that America substantially protects Britain, or that the log is in NT Wright’s eye for the killing of Libyan children, which I’m pretty certain he is as morally opposed to as he is to Osama’s killing. But these are issues we can unproductively disagree on till the cows come home, without benefit to anyone. So I’m going to heed your wise words and get back to the main purpose of The Evangelical Liberal.


  9. Pingback: A Debate on the Christian Response to the Killing of Osama bin Laden | commonsensediversity

  10. JimPruitt says:

    Thank-you. Your words are kind. I won’t prolong things except to note that when Christians debate the killing of creatures like bin Laden or Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, we often get to the position that you ascribe as possibly belonging to NT Wright which asserts that one could somehow be “as morally opposed” to the killing of those Libyan children as to the killing of bin Laden.

    I know that there are Christians who believe that. That was the purpose of my longish blog. But they are decidedly in the minority and raise questions as to their own morality.


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