Christian Responses to the Death of Bin Laden, Part One: Christian Realism

I sense the tension here—as, I think, Niebuhr did—and yet the Christian tradition supports Just War and self-protection, if violence is the absolute last resort. My own favorite classical theologians (or philosophers, if you must), Augustine and Aquinas, formulated this idea of Just War, and to a degree, I assent to it, although it goes against my sense of Jesus' core teachings. What an individual might be called to, Augustine and Aquinas and Niebuhr suggest, a nation cannot abide by and continue to survive. A nation cannot, as it were, continuously turn the other cheek.

So it is that Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History that we must use power, but be honest with ourselves about that use:

We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized. (5)

As President Obama told us the other night, this action was about justice, and indeed, the pursuit of justice is the only thing that can justify such violence. President Obama's grim tone as he announced the death of bin Laden was, thus, exactly right. Christian realism suggests that sometimes as a nation we must use power in ways that feel personally un-Christian in the hope of achieving justice. This is not something to celebrate.

The Vatican acknowledged as much in its statement on bin Laden's death:

"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," Father Lombardi said.

"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," the spokesman said.

Christian realism is the tradition from which President Obama's actions emerge, but they do not account for all the ways in which people—including good Christians—are responding to this action. I'd like, next week, to consider the viewpoints of Holy War and Christian pacifism in detail, which will push back a bit my interview with John Fea on his wonderful book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? But I think all this conversation will give us a better context for that interview when we get to it later in the month.

Chime in and let us know how you are feeling and how your faith communities are responding. As a bridge between this week and next, I want to close with this Collect from the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

5/3/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Faithful Citizenship
  • Augustine
  • Aquinas
  • Violence
  • Just War
  • John Calvin
  • Mainline Protestantism
  • Obama
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Christianity
  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post,, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.
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