It’s been almost a week now since we learnt of the death of Osama bin Laden. Since then we’ve had reports and redacted reports of how he came to meet his end. First he went down guns blazing, then he was cowering like a coward behind his wife (which led to this unfortunate tweet from the otherwise normally high quality Mark Driscoll.
Er perhaps. Finally it emerged that basically the US Navy SEALS to all intents and purposes just found him and shot him and that has raised a number of questions as to whether such an approach was lawful or moral.
Of course, â€˜proper justiceâ€™ is hard to come by internationally. America regularly casts the UN (and the International Criminal Court) as the hapless sheriff, and so continues to play the worldâ€™s undercover policeman. The UK has gone along for the ride. What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us? And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?
Bishop Alan Wilson has also had some things to say along a similar theme.
It follows from this basic theology from page 1 of the Bible, that if I commit an act, like a lynching, that denies the image of God in another human being I not only act out my own fallen nature (thus losing the moral high ground), but I also behave in a way that compromises my own humanity â€” thank God he gave it as an absolute that no human being can take away, not even me.
Of course, that approach takes us towards Romans 13 territory where it might be reasonably argued that the State has the authority to take life in certain circumstances because it is acting as an agent of God (which is the tangent along which some of the American Evangelical response has been travelling). But this raises issues itself (coming back to one of Tom Wright’s pet subjects of the past few years) of what the emphasis in the Christian meta-narrative should be to death and the death after death that Scripture tells us is coming.
Krish Kandiah has put together some of the verses that have been quoted this past week. Commendable stuff, but they all seem to miss a major aspect of Jesus’ teaching on judgement.
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
In the midst of the (understandable) concern over whether bin Laden should or shouldn’t have been taken out in such a blatantly aggressive manner, some of us seem to have lost sight of the fact that whilst our three score year and ten are important, a greater, more serious death awaits many who don’t trust Christ with their eternity. Yes, it is wrong to take someone’s life, but then it is wrong when cancer takes from us other people. It is wrong, so very wrong, when terrorists kill thousands of people with hijacked planes, but is also wrong, so very wrong, when a young child steps into the road and is mown down by an articulated lorry.
All these things are dreadful, and we grieve over the loss of life, but Jesus points us beyond this temporal dissonance and anxiety. “Don’t fear” he says. Don’t fear things in this life that can only destroy the body. Don’t fear terrorists or government assassins. Don’t fear cancer or random accidents. These things can only get rid of (punish?) this frail, broken, fallen body. It will pass. It is like dust compared to the glory that may follow.
It is He who can destroy body and soul who is to be feared argues Jesus. The death that bin Laden and many, many others should fear is not the assassin’s bullet, but the judgement of God. Our meagre time on this broken planet is as nothing compared to that which is to follow and it is the second death that is the one of eternal consequence. If Jesus says that we should fear Him who can destroy both body and soul that implies that God will destroy many bodies and souls on that dreadful judgement day. If not, why should anybody be afraid of it?
There is a curious pattern I find in much of what Jesus does. In his three years of ministry he heals the sick and raises the dead and then almost immediately points beyond this life for the decisions and consequences that really count. Time and time again he asks us to look to the Judge of the world and then to our souls. Luke 13:1-9 is the other classic Gospel passage that makes this point. The planter of the fig tree is coming and he will cut down the plants that are not pleasing to him.
The death of Osama bin Laden is a warning to us all and it is a warning far more important than the discussion of the justice or otherwise of his first death. We spend so much time in this life dreading the first death and arguing about the morality of otherwise of it’s circumstances. In contrast, Jesus time and time points us to the second death and tells us that horrific first deaths are just a fore-taste of what might be in store for some after that.