Osama bin Laden, God the Violent Warrior, and Loving Our Enemies

Osama bin Laden, God the Violent Warrior, and Loving Our Enemies May 11, 2011


Jesus’ teachings are hard, especially this one: “Love your enemies.” Because this command of Christ feels defiant to logic and experience, many jump backwards to the Hebrew Scriptures.  Rightfully so… well, at least to some degree.

God as a conquering warrior is a primary image in the Old Testament.  CONFESSION: Many Christians, especially those of us who believe in nonviolence, minimize this fact. For several reasons, people find it difficult to understand how a God who, in the New Testament, teaches us to “not resist an evil person” and to “love our enemies” can also be the same YHWH who commanded acts of violence and at times, genocide.  In light of the recent death of Osama bin Laden, this issue is worth reflecting upon.

First, it seems that God comes down to the level and culture of the people that he wants to reveal his truth to.  I have heard this described as “incarnational flexibility”[1] or “biblical accommodation.”  Perhaps God chose to use humans within a barbarian culture with a willingness to accommodate his “ideal” for the sake of moving the narrative of redemption forward?

Clearly “redemptive movement” is present in the Bible.  In other words, God starts with culture but then transforms and moves peoples closer to his design for the sake of ushering in the new creation of peace.  By the time we get into the N.T. and beyond (and even in O.T. passages like Isaiah 65 and Micah 4.3), YHWH is revealing where he wants all civilizations to ultimately head: a new heaven and new earth that will be fully peaceful.  So, yes, the God-as-warrior motif is present, and at times he invites humans into physical battle during those days (never in the N.T.), but God’s destiny for creation and humanity is shalom (peace).

Second, God’s passion for social justice reveals the warrior motif as well.  Consider this passage in Isaiah:

Yes, truth is gone, and anyone who renounces evil is attacked.  The Lord looked and was displeased to find there was no justice.  He was amazed to see that no one intervened to help the oppressed.  So he himself stepped in to save them with his strong arm, and his justice sustained him.  He put on righteousness as his body armor and placed the helmet of salvation on his head.  He clothed himself with a robe of vengeance and wrapped himself in a cloak of divine passion.  Isaiah 59.15-17

YHWH is a saving God who does not tolerate injustice, especially against the marginalized, helpless, and poor.  In this passage we have a picture of YHWH who acts on the behalf of the downtrodden as a warrior.  Interestingly enough, when we get to the N.T. there is the all too familiar “armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6.10-18 (notice the clear parallels between these two passages).  Paul uses the divine Warrior motif to talk about God’s armor that is at the disposal of the church to fight spiritual battles against “principalities and powers.”

By simple inference, demonic powers are the source of the social injustice embodied in the Roman Empire at the time.   But, the key to Paul’s evocation of this image for God is that it gives us a clue into how to not “write this off” or ignore the warrior motif altogether.  Paul makes it clear that our enemies are not of “flesh and blood!”  Therefore, God is still a warrior but in the age of the church, only God may take physical life.  The church may only do spiritual battle against demonic powers, but never against even the worst of “flesh and blood” humans.  If someone has “flesh and blood” we are called only to love… yes, even enemies.

This raises a question about Christians and the recent killing of Osama bin Laden. If God is a warrior… and if his ultimate goal is peace… and if he fights for justice for the oppressed… and if he invites us to do the same while making clear that the ones we battle against are not “flesh and blood,” but spiritual powers of evil…  then what are the implications for Christians and violence in the present?

It seems to me that the killing of Osama bin Laden ought to be understood as something completely separate from any sort of Christian action or else we run the risk of going beyond the permission of the narrative of Scripture.  Any time we demonize and thereby dehumanize “flesh and blood” (aka humans) we are no longer acting on the paradoxical command to love our enemies and to take our stand against the devil.  The violent warrior God of the Old Testament is the same God who enables us to choose love as our greatest weapon of warfare as people of the new covenant of peace. Let’s do everything we can to keep the killing of bin Laden detached from anything having to do with Jesus and his kingdom.  If we fail in such a distinction, the cross may soon look more like a sword, and the kingdom of God more like an Empire of the world.

[1] For a great exploration of this “incarnational flexibility” see Greg Boyd’s talk on Love and Wrath in the O.T.

* A great post that I simply want to mention is at the Broken Telegraph called: Osama bin Laden is Dead, But This is No Time to Celebrate

"Thanks so much! When I discovered this it was so helpful for framing Paul!"

Name Change Myth: Saul Never Became ..."
"I am just reading this now, in September 2018. Thank you for posting it. Yes, ..."

Name Change Myth: Saul Never Became ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Great article. I agree with it as long as we are talking on an individual level. When it comes to nations, institutions or military forces it takes a different approach. God actually uses nations to correct peoples (i.e., Book of Habakkuk), armies to bring justice, etc. However, as disciples of Christ we should love and honor every single life, including our enemies and let God decide which method and at what moment justice should be faced by those who cling to do evil. In His sovereignty He uses nations and institutions to fulfill His purposes, bringing mercy to those who repent of evil and executing justice on those who continue to pursue evil.

    • @twitter-71864229:disqus , the only thing that I would nuance is that Christians and the “nations” are completely separate under the new covenant for our allegiance is the a peculiar kingdom that transcends borders. Therefore, on the individual level, I would go so far as saying that Christians ought not be in military service or at least not in a situation that may beckon them to use violence. That is clearly forbidden by Matthew 5 and Romans 12-13. (I know that this is unpopular in evangelical circles, but I believe it was the view of the early church prior to Constantine)… PS – I choose not to judge my sisters and brothers who do not agree with my reading of the text and who are in police / military roles. Christ’s love transcends differing theologies 🙂

      • Pf

        There is no substantive difference between Osama bin Laden and the heroes of the Hebrew bible (for example the genocide at Jericho, although there are many others). Either god sometimes tells people to kill evildoers or he doesn’t. Any sane, civilized person has to come to the conclusion that deities do not tell people to butcher people, either 3000 years ago or last year or today.

        It was just as gruesome and just as wrong to kill innocent people in OT times as it is today.

  • Shelly

    Thanks Kurt! Good to read something with a bit of ‘balance’. 🙂 Another example for redemptive movement that I thought of, for the USA in particular, is slavery. The OT and NT speak about this topic and this was obviously a huge issue for the USA…anyway, just got me thinking!

    • Shelly, for more on that issue, see William Webb’s “Slaves, Women & Homosexuals” and Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster?” Both have thoughtful and poignant discussions of the issue of Biblical vs. Colonial chattel slavery and why slavery in the US would never have existed if Biblical laws and NT commands had actually been followed.

    • Great thoughts Cuz and the book by Webb I am told is wonderful…

    • Cathybitikofer

      I recommend “Generous Justice” by Timothy Keller. He describes the OT God take on slavery, and it is nothing like what was practiced in our nation.

      Also, if we look at some of the more famous OT  battle victories, a common denominator is the power of God throughout, with an almost ridiculous lack of human firepower and military strength.

      I also find interesting the whole concept of a “Just War”. I think in America it has  been watered down to “anything we get involved in”.

  • Good thoughts Kurt. As an OT guy, I do believe Christians tend to lift Jesus out of His Hebrew Prophetic setting and end up with a Jesus who actually opposes the nature of God as revealed through His Prophets (i.e. Greg Boyd is guilty of this, IMO). I like your emphasis on holding the tension. I think that a key point gets overlooked about warfare in the OT–GOD is the one who initiates and/or orchestrates it, not human vengeance, pride or desire for conquest. It is one of His methods of Judgment (i.e. Habakkuk), and often against His own people!

    What we see in Jesus is the command to avoid trying to “help God out” when it comes to fighting enemies. If warfare against injustice must happen, so be it; but we can never claim it as the responsibility of individual believers or the Church in general (contra the Crusades, Cotton Matther’s horrible diatribes against Native Americans, etc.). It’s a tough subject and you are right to emphasize its paradoxical nature, I believe.

    • @facebook-837625581:disqus , I’m gonna make an anabaptist out of you yet! 😉

    • James, while I don’t fully agree with your interpretation of God’s OT perspective (I think particularly early OT texts may suffer from a certain jingoistic, one-sided pro-Israel filter), I think your conclusions regarding not trying to “help God out” or appropriating God to justify our own bloodlust are spot-on. I completely respect where you’re coming out on this.

  • Hillary

    Lots to meditate on in your article.

    As a Christian I believe no-one is beyond redemption and as New Covenant people we should pray that others are drawn into a loving relationship with Christ Jesus.

    Through Love real transformation takes place. Love is most powerful.

    Q: How many of us have prayed for Osama to have a personal relationship with Christ Jesus?

    …Matt 5:44

    • Great question. I can’t honestly say that I prayed for him often or at all… A lesson to be learned I think…

      • Hillary

        Rather that everyone start talking about a prayer for redemption than a dance on a grave. So sad.
        Thanks your thoughts!

  • Excellent post. First time on your blog (following you on twitter).

    I’ve been blogging about this too and have been wrestling with what it means to love our enemies. (Though I admire the path of non-violence, I am not a pacifist and I am frustrating my pacifist friends).

    In any case, I like what you are saying regarding God as warrior, love the idea of “incarnational flexibility” (it reminded me of when I discovered progressive revelation in seminary – I think I yelled Amen like a charismatic prodigal son but I digress.

    There is a context to loving our enemies and I think we need to be careful that we don’t sacrifice our neighbors for the sake of our enemies. Thus, sometimes the loving thing to do is bring our enemy to justice.

    I hear what you are saying about keeping the killing of people like OBL a separate Christian action but I think the case could be made that the Bonhoeffer’s attempted assassination of Hitler was rooted in his Christian faith (another point I try to make).

    Anyway, loved your post – thanks for the solid thoughts here.

    • @twitter-15597301:disqus , I respect your views here and your gracious response. However, I do not see any justification in the New Testament for protecting through violence. I would go as far as saying that Bonhoeffer chose the lesser of two evils, but certainly evil. I think that he disobeyed the way of Jesus’ nonviolence and unfortunately died as a result. That said, I wish more of my non-nonviolence friends were wrestling with the tension like you seem to. Please come back and share more thoughts in the future!

      • Thanks Kurt – I respect what you are saying too (though it pains me to read you say Bonhoeffer’s involvement was still evil. Dude was a double agent, working intelligence for the Nazi’s and letting Jews out the back door while trying to stop this madman!) Besides what happened to “incarnational flexibility” and “progressive revelation”? 😉

        I don’t want to be accused of trolling here, feel free to have the last word, I’m sure I’ll comment on a future post. But know that I appreciate the diversity, your generosity, and your sound words.

        • Thanks again. Let me add that incarnational flexibility does not apply to the new covenant as Jesus made clear that killing and using violence are wrong.

          Also, many times in the Christian life we face the “lesser of two evils” and Bonhoeffer chose what he felt was a lesser evil… that does not sanctify the violence he chose to employ. Violence is contrary to the way of Jesus.

          Please continue to chat with me on future posts! You are a gracious conversation partner. PS – if we are not connected on FB we should be!!!!

        • Actually, I remember another Christian non-pacifist I was reading–and I regret I can’t remember who and give credit where credit is due–saying that he thought the evil of the world sometimes compelled violence even though he saw Jesus commanding nonviolence. His summation was that if we find violence to be our only choice, then it must be done in tears and accompanied with/followed by vigorous prayers for forgiveness. That perspective holds the tension in a way I can comprehend…

          • @dwmtractor:disqus , that is probably Miroslav Volf or influenced by him, I suspect.

            I think there may be times when violence is needed… just never by Christians.

  • Lauren Sheil

    This is amazing. I’m going to keep this argument in my back pocket for the next time I get into a debate about pacifism and non-violence with my jewish and calvinist friends…

  • This was a really great article. It made me think a lot about this. When everyone around you is rejoicing that Bin Laden is dead it can be easy to lose perspective, but really the NT points towards peace and reconciliation and away from violence and suffering. I like it when you said ” Therefore, God is still a warrior but in the age of the church, only God may take physical life. The church may only do spiritual battle against demonic powers, but never against even the worst of “flesh and blood” humans. If someone has “flesh and blood” we are called only to love… yes, even enemies.” Powerful lines. Great post!

    • Jess… you are great. thanks for the encouraging words!

  • Pneumajohn

     “It seems to me that the killing of Osama bin Laden ought to be understood as something completely separate from any sort of Christian action or else we run the risk of going beyond the permission of the narrative of Scripture.”    It seems you are correct that there is an eschatological flow of old, to new testaments. But, what does that mean? Acts 12, God is shown as killing through and angel, the wicked, and evil despost, Herod! Was this heretical  action to the Michael Moore’s thinking? This  is NT text too! Maybe loving are neighbor is also protecting him… Passivity and inaction in biblical theology can be evil too. If your neighbor is being raped and killed and you say  I’am an advocate of non-violence therefore I will do nothing is a breach, and breaking of ” Love your neighbor as your self”, not a fullfillment. Boyd saying Bonhoeffer was wrong makes me wonder if he is not a practical theorist. Hitler is raping and killing, gasing, millions, you do nothing, you are not loving your neighbor are you?.  Is love sentitmental in nature or is it action toward neighbor as in Hebrew thought? When Jael, sends the tent peg through and evil despot, the spirit of this age, says she was wrong, but the Spirit, the narrator says she was a hero, ” most blessed of women.” Judges 5 These exceptions to your argument, both old and new make me wonder if the glasses of postmodernism, not biblical theology is the loudest voice. Another evil despot was taken, and it was right, it was moral, and it was just, to an evil soul famous for killing innocent civilians to be brought to and end, his evil has now stopped.  I would argue that it is  loving to stop cruel evil! Its the exception, to exceptional evil!

    • @32f59543d36874ec1c97e5a808dbdcfa:disqus , Your statement on Acts 12 is correct and flawed at the same time.  It is the most common rebuttal I get (protect neighbor) / look at these folks that God killed in the NT.  Here is the problem with your argument… it is GOD who had this king killed NOT a human being.  There are NO instances where God commands humans to kill or use violence in the NT.  This right is only reserved for our infinitely intelligent God.  Only God may take life (biblically speaking). 

      Also, bringing in Postmodernism as a louder voice than Scripture is not fair.  Were the Anabaptists of the 16th Century Postmodern???????  How about the first 3 centuries of Church history????

      • Pneumajohn

         Kurt, I recognized this, and did call it the great exception. I respect your argument of pacifism, but my point was,” justice, and evil” can we still call it that in a postmodern culture. Acts 12, God judged an evil man who had become a beast, ie, the book of Daniel etc.  When God kills a despot, we are to recognize it was justice, and attribute of God too. Seems many liberal thinkers in our time did not get it, ” When justice came to Ben Laden because that is foreign to there philosphy.

        These are times of the unusual judements, were God does challenge evil and does judge it.  It seems to me that you are close to arguing for passivity in ethics, is the greatest ethic, and this I do not believe is consistent with scripture, but would be to the glorious ethic of postmoderinism, which is ” the god Tolerance”…. If you have that, you are spiritual in our time.

         When Jesus whipped money changers, was that intolerance wrong in your theology? At what point, if there is any; should evil be challenged?

         Attacking Bonhoeffer by Boyd, from our comfy seat repulse’s me of his incredible challenge, I don’t think we can really see or understand the moral heart ache and dilema of Nazism,  

        Your response reminded me of a talk with an Eastern Orthodox theologian, and he belived that passionlessness to coin a word is the utlimate spirituality. We asked him about Mark 3:5 after looking at them with “Anger”… That is Jesus was reacting to evil, this passionless soul did not jive with his theology and Jesus incarnation. He tried in vain to exegete around this  but he more he tried, the more his theology seemed, peice meal, pick and choose.

         Howard Cater was the greatest of the early Pentecostals and refused to go to Word WarI, who was known as an unusual saintly person, so there are great Christians modern and early who held this view but in our time not sure it always leads to righteousness, acts of right, is to save the Jews from Hitler the monster, and the saddist Ben Laden…. Idi Amen chopped the heads off of his people, killing 100,000 -500,000 when evil rises to that level it forces exceptional wisdom, and not parreting the left wing or right wing thinkers talking points. 

         I still believe if some Christian had to step forward and stop the monster Idi, it could be considered in the eyes of God, justice and righteousness, not evil choices or the lesser of two evils but the good, the brave, and the act of loving neighbor…by stopping a devil and a monster!

  • So Kurt, Boyd would say something along the lines that God used violence as a means to keep in relationship with his people as a means of helping them choose the lesser of two evils. Maybe, this was Bonhoeffer as well. What do you see as a means of pre-emptive peacemaking for our relationships with Muslims with a potential backlash for this?

    • @facebook-173800256:disqus , Aren’t you a fellow Anabaptist? 🙂

      Okay, here is my thought.  With Bonhoeffer, I do not blame him for making the choice he did.  But, we cannot call this a “Christian” choice.  Whereas God in the OT chose to ‘accommodate’ via ‘incarnatioanl flexibilty’, in the NT we are not given any such permission.  Therefore there is no circumstance where the Holy Spirit will ever call us to commit violence.  That is a choice we make on our own.  Truly may even be the ‘lesser of two evils’ but is never justified religiously speaking.  But that is the beauty of Grace!  Even when we choose evil instead of the nonsensical upside-down kingdom way, God doesn’t abandon us (OK… not a statement of “once saved always saved” malarkey). 

      Now with pre-emtive peacemaking for Muslims.  Love the idea.  I have written pro-Muslim during the Ground Zero Mosque controversy.  But to be honest, I do not live around many folks of this faith at the moment.  I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on this Mike!

      •  For me, any preemptive peacemaking must come out of a mutual friendship, where we protect the image of the carrier (Imago dei) and allow the space for indifference (because if we can’t allow that we can’t make peace, at best, we can create a fire and become peacekeepers but that would not be very sermon on the mount like). My experiences with muslims have not been that much different than with anyone outside of Christians. All have perceptions of Christians (Both good and bad, right and wrong), but, and, this might be the idea of pluralism, we can create space for dialogue and listening, its hard to hate someone who is available and vulnerable. Hopefully, we are strong enough to keep our own identity but remaining open to others and respecting their image seems to me at the heart of any conversation?

        Have you read Allah by Miroslav Volf yet? Or Leslie Newbigin’s Gospel in a Pluralist society?

    • Actually, that’s the catch-22 that is often presented to people who advocate for peace.  What should the peacemaker do in the face of an evil that is in full bloom as a result of years–or even decades, of anti-peace activities?  Of course at that point, all choices available to the human mind are terrible…but while peaceMAKING necessarily has to start in a context of non-peace, the way of peace is not fairly critiqued because it does not have an instant solution to the endgame of war.

      Osama bin Laden did not become an enemy of the United States overnight.  Nor, to go back to the just-war advocates’ favorite war, did Hitler arise overnight.  If people lived lives of peace instead of lives of selfishness and violence, would Hitler or bin Laden have ever arisen?

      Nevertheless, we are called to make peace in the decidedly evil circumstances we find ourselves.  It’s a pitifully little attempt, but I am trying on my own blog, and in my own conversations with Muslims, to demonstrate that not everybody who calls himself a follower of Jesus, hates them.  I also try to validate some of Islam’s legitimate objections to the “Christianity” they see.  Maybe, just maybe, I can make a little peace with one or two.  My hopes don’t reach much higher than that…