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?
- Killing in the name of – Christianity and the death penalty
- Trimming the Archbishop’s tongue: should Christians stay out of politics?
- And did those feet? ‘Jerusalem’, patriotism and the Kingdom of God
- Justice, mercy and the love of God
- Books: Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright