Magazine article The Christian Century

Justice or Vengeance? the Killing of Bin Laden

Magazine article The Christian Century

Justice or Vengeance? the Killing of Bin Laden

Article excerpt

"FOR GOD and country. Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo!" These were reportedly the words the commander of the Navy SEAL team uttered in signaling that Osama bin Laden had been killed and his body captured. In a televised speech announcing this news, President Obama asserted that "justice has been done," and he concluded with lines from the Pledge of Allegiance, along with a parting "May God bless America."

Earlier on the same day, the second Sunday of Easter, also known as Divine Mercy Sunday, Roman Catholics and others around the world celebrated the beatification of Pope John Paul II.

I write neither to cheer nor to jeer about either the killing of bin Laden or the jubilant response by many Americans to his death. I pray that my identity as a baptized Christian takes precedence when the ways of the nation--including actions by the government and the military, but also attitudes and activities among many of my fellow citizens (and, alas, many fellow Christians)--are in tension with the ways of God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Is the God being invoked by the commander and the president the same God invoked during the beatification ceremony? What kind of justice was done in the killing of bin Laden?

Unquestionably, bin Laden was responsible for terrorist acts of mass murder of Americans and others, including fellow Muslims, around the world. Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi, S J, observed: "Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end." Nevertheless, as John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life"), because God "is always merciful even when he punishes" evildoers, "not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this."

I am well aware of how difficult it is to view a murderer as possessing dignity. As a former law enforcement officer in both corrections and policing, I have seen my share of evil. Yet there it is--the view that even murderers still have some dignity is part of a cornerstone of Catholic teaching about the sanctity of life rooted in our being made in God's image and likeness. Accordingly, in the Vatican statement, Lombardi added: "In the face of a man's death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred." I do not expect all Americans to share this view, but I do hope that Americans who are Christians allow it to shape their attitudes and actions.

Of course, for many Christians this teaching does not mean that a murderer should go unpunished or be allowed to continue to threaten people. Force may be used to protect the innocent. But it must be justified and employed in accordance with the criteria of the just war tradition.

Space does not permit me to conduct an analysis of the war on terror or of every angle of this particular action. (Was it legal? Was it an assassination? Was it the result of information gained through torture?) I'll focus on one aspect that relates to the attitude of celebration on our city streets and university campuses, and for this I'll turn to church father St. Augustine, who offered some important lessons for Christians who claim to embark upon just wars.

Augustine anchored the justice of war with God's divine will in creation, wherein God created humankind to live in a just and peaceable community. …

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