A Further Perspective

Pacifism and the Bin Laden Killing

The absolutist convictions of today's neo-pacifists may never again face such a test.

By 5.16.11

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The U.S. military raid that killed Osama bin Laden presents a test case for the growing neo-pacifist wing of evangelical, oldline, and Roman Catholic Christianity. If the pacifists hold true to their convictions, then they must say that the strike against Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, cannot be justified. On the other hand, if they share the instinctive popular sense that, in the words of President Obama, "justice has been done," the pacifists will be forced to reassess the biblical interpretations and moral judgments that led them to their absolutist stance of non-violence.

So far most prominent Christian pacifists have ducked the question. They acknowledge that Osama bin Laden had much innocent blood on his hands; however, they do not say how he might otherwise have been held accountable.

The pacifists have expressed discomfort along all sorts of lines tangential to the main question regarding the just use of force. Popular author Brian McLaren, for example, wrote of his distress at seeing televised images of "American college students reveling outside the White House, shouting, chanting 'USA' and spilling beer." Many others have echoed similar misgivings about celebrating the death of an enemy that Christians are called to love.

But would the pacifists have been satisfied if they could have been assured that the crowd outside the White House was rejoicing at the end of the al Qaeda leader's crimes, not the end of his life? Of course, the two are practically inseparable, and mixed motives are inevitable in any crowd of people. The harder question is: Did the Navy SEALs who shot bin Laden do a good deed for which their countrymen could be grateful in some fashion?

Many pacifists (and others) have expressed the wish that bin Laden could have been captured alive and put on trial. It is the Church's godly prayer that every sinner have further opportunity to repent rather than perish. But the SEALs storming the fortified compound had to act quickly under fire, risking their own lives as well as bin Laden's. Again, the question presses: If lethal force was the only way to stop him, was lethal force justified?

Many pacifists have also noted that bin Laden's death will not end the threat of terrorism. Undoubtedly, there were be further cycles of violence. But if bin Laden's death was the appropriate payment for his crimes, and if it would diminish al Qaeda's abilities and appeal, was it not right for the U.S. military to bring about that death?

Jim Wallis of Sojourners tried to slip past the question by portraying the Abbottabad operation as a mere police action that pacifists might support -- "a very focused effort to bring one perpetrator to justice, rather than just another act of war." But, on the contrary, the raid on the bin Laden compound was an unambiguous act of war. Heavily armed U.S. troops entered a property in another country, without permission from that country's government, and opened fire. Osama bin Laden had declared war against the United States, and our nation was finally able to bring the war to him. Would it have made any moral difference, from a pacifist perspective, if the uniformed men with guns blazing had been police rather than Navy SEALs?

The crucial question for the neo-pacifists is whether Romans 13:1-7 -- written by the apostle Paul during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero -- applies to the U.S. government today. Does our modern democratic state rightly "bear the sword" as "the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer"? The bin Laden situation would seem to offer a straightforward case of the U.S. government acting in precisely that manner. The al Qaeda leader was harming, and threatening to harm, large numbers of law-abiding U.S. citizens. It was the government's duty to stop him -- by lethal force, if necessary.

This has long been the mainstream church interpretation of the Romans passage. Even classical Christian pacifists recognized the state's duty to defend its citizens, although they felt that as Christians they could not participate in the use of force. But more recent neo-pacifists, influenced by Gandhi, champion non-violence as the best strategy for the state to pursue. They leave no room for any actor to resort to force under any circumstance.

Would non-violence, however, have been the best strategy for dealing with Osama bin Laden? If the absolutist neo-pacifist stance fails in this one case, then it needs to be reassessed from top to bottom. Are the neo-pacifists right in taking Jesus' commandment, "Do not resist an evildoer" (Matt. 5:38), as a prescription for U.S. foreign policy? Or are they taking that verse from the Sermon on the Mount out of the larger context of Scripture? Is it possible that the commandment was given to Jesus' disciples in the Church, not to the officials of the state? Is it possible that the state has a distinct divinely imposed duty -- that God not only allows but requires governments to resist the evildoers?

The neo-pacifists may also have to re-evaluate their contention that "War is not the answer." Sometimes, unfortunately, war is the answer to a particular injustice. It does not solve all problems. It does not solve problems permanently or perfectly. It does not solve the deepest problems of human sin. But sometimes -- as in the case of Osama bin Laden -- a wise application of force does bring a certain measure of justice.

Today's neo-pacifists would not be the first forced by history to reconsider their absolutist convictions. World War II similarly tested the pacifists of an earlier generation. Some held firm in their opposition to any use of force, while others -- such as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr -- decided that justice sometimes did require the state to take up arms against a great evil. There will probably always be a pacifist current in the Christian community. But it will likely always be a side current, as the mainstream retains the larger biblical and historical view of the state's responsibility to see that "justice has been done."

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About the Author

Alan F.H. Wisdom is Vice President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and author of the monograph "Is Marriage Worth Defending?"