Last week I began a series of three posts responding to the death of Osama bin Laden — and to the discomfort many felt at the way in which that death was celebrated by Americans, including many American Christians. The first post considered the claim, “The people celebrating the death of bin Laden are like the people who celebrated in the ‘Angry Arab Street’ when the towers fell on 9/11.” The second post asked “What ought we to celebrate, and what ought we not to celebrate, about bin Laden’s death?” This third post responds to what some other folks were saying: “We shouldn’t celebrate that Osama bin Laden ‘got what he deserves,’ because God doesn’t give us what we deserve.”
It’s difficult to know where to start with this.
FIRST, at least according to traditional Christian theologies, God does give what is deserved to people who do not repent and take refuge in grace. To those who refuse the love and the grace of their Creator, God gives them over to death and to an eternity apart from him. In fact, there is a very real sense in which God gives what is deserved even to those who take refuge in him. The righteousness of Christ is graciously imputed to them, so that (through the work of Christ, not through their own work) they actually deserve the favor of God and the inheritance of God’s children.
SECOND, even if we grant that God gives out mercy and not justice — that is, that God does not give people what they deserve — does it follow that we should not? Should we not give people what they deserve? What about the oppressed, who deserve justice in a different sense? What about those who are wronged, who deserve restitution? What about the poor, who deserve care? What exactly is being suggested here? Are we only supposed to give what is deserved when a person deserves good things, and not when a person deserves bad things? So, were we not supposed to give bin Laden the worst of punishments?
One might object by pointing to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, in which a king forgives a servant but revokes that forgiveness when he discovers that the servant did not extend the same forgiveness to a person in need. So, should we have forgiven Osama bin Laden? Radically enough, if bin Laden had repented and sought our forgiveness, then yes, we should have forgiven him. But (a) there’s no evidence that Osama bin Laden repented, (b) forgiveness does not mean that there are no consequences, in the same way that a parent might forgive a child and yet discipline the child for disobedience, and (c) while it’s clear that God calls for individuals to forgive one another, and while God clearly calls for rulers to be merciful, God does not ask the state to forgive a horrendous lawbreaker to the point of never bringing justice upon him. We should always be careful when we assume that God would require the same thing of the state as he requires of the individual. The state, for instance, is not called to “turn the other cheek” when attacked. Any state that did so would not last for long, as it would ill serve its citizens and would be exploited by others.
THIRD, there’s a difference between eternal and temporal justice. Since God is ultimately the one who is wronged by sin, he is fully within his rights to grant forgiveness and to spare us from the fate we deserve. And individuals may choose to give mercy to those who wronged them, and not to demand justice. The state, however, is charged by God to defend its citizens and authorized to carry out justice on their behalf. In this case, if the state had failed to bring death to bin Laden then it would have failed in its obligations to its citizens, and especially in its obligations to those who lost loved ones on 9/11.
FOURTH and finally, and here we enter deeper theological waters, we can trust God to make the right decisions in what God “gives” (justice or mercy) to people, in this life or the next, because God (a) knows the hearts of all people and (b) foreknows what the effects if his justice or mercy will be. God’s intent is that all should be saved, and God knows precisely when to give mercy and when to give a person over to what he deserves. The state is not in such a position. The state must act on the basis of what it knows, but the state is not omniscient, so it must act according to principles of justice. Just as the state cannot say, “I’m not going to give justice (restitution — let’s say a financial compensation) to this person who has been wronged, because I know that this reward will make the person arrogant, or the person will use the money to buy alcohol,” so the state cannot say “I’m not going to give justice (punishment) to this person who did wrong, because I know that if I give him mercy it will lead to a change of heart and he will become a better man.” To be sure, individuals can do so, and justices are given some space for discernment and can exercise that discernment to a limited extent on the basis of what they do know, but the state writ large has to operate according to certain principles of justice.
Whether any person deserves death is another question for another time. But I don’t find much weight to this argument that we should not celebrate that Osama received what he deserved, when we have received grace instead.