What should Christians think about the execution of Osama bin Laden?
Life would be much simpler if we were not Christians. It would also be less meaningful and hopeful. But it would be simpler.
Take the case of how Christians should think about the execution of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by an elite team of Navy Seals. Should we approve of this killing? Even if we approve of it, how should we feel about it?
Our thoughts and feelings about this execution will be more complex than those of many Americans. The American attitude was demonstrated by the spontaneous gathering of citizens at the White House to celebrate the death of the man reponsible for the murder of thousands of American citizens on September 11, 2001 and many others around the world. Americans might debate on pragmatic, legal or moral grrounds whether bin Laden should have been captured or executed, but most would feel that justice has been accomplished.
Christians in America would feel it is wrong to rejoice at the death of anyone no matter how much satisfaction they might feel about justice being done. Every person is an image of God no matter how much sin and evil have defaced that image. The committment to what the liberal Protestant tradition called "the infinite value of the human soul" is a bedrock conviction of the whole Christian church. Therefore, Christians have felt a responsibility to exercise restraint against rejoicing in the killing of bin Laden as an expression of a core theological belief.
Christians also feel a challenge to discern the rightful authority of the state. In Romans 12, the apostle Paul appealed to the teaching of Jesus to love our enemies and to forswear retribution, summarizing it with the maxim, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Yet in Romans 13, Paul instructs everyone to be subject to the state, and he describes the role of the state as "the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer." The question is whether Christians, who are numerous in a democratic republic, should expect the state to try to practice to some degree the Christian ethic of Romans 12? On this question, Christians divide.
Christians from the Anabaptist tradition emphasize the authority of Christ over the state and urge Christians to live within the state as pure witnesses to Christ's way of nonviolence and pacifism. Christians from the Lutheran tradition emphasize how Christ is the authority over the state, but Christ recognizes "two kingdoms" in the world between his first and second advents--the church which proclaims redemption and the stat e which executes justice by the sword. We Methodists, who have never been an established religion of any state, do not have a clear tradition of ethical thinking about the state, but our general belief in the transforming power of the grace of Christ leads us to expect that the state may become somewhat "Christianized" or more in accordance with the Spirit of Christ. (There are a lot of comments about the state in the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, but there is no clear doctrine of the state. All I can do is to make inferences in trying to interpret the present teaching of the Church on the state.) Because of our lack of an authoritative ethical tradition about the role of the state, Methodist responses to the killing of bin Laden would vary somewhat from firmly approving, to reluctantly approving with a criticism of executing rather than capturing bin Laden, to a dismay that Americans ( in the form of our democratic republic) have chosen to overcome evil with evil. Perhaps most of us are in the first two groups rather than the third. Whatever our position about the proper authority of the state, our thoughts and feelings as Christians are likely to be more troubled than those of Americans who are not disciples of Jesus Christ.
I do not like hand-wringing or too much pietistic introspection. We must act as responsibly as we can and trust in justification by grace through faith, knowing that all of us are sinners who depend on the mercy of Christ our judge. Yet commitment to Christ as Lord of human hearts and history causes us to live in the world with certain tensions, and if we try to eradicate them, then we know we shall fail as his disciples.
Perhaps it is better to take an ad hoc approach to the state rather than to try to adhere too rigorously to some systematic approach. Maybe today we should recognized the state's right and responsibility to use the sword in one situation, but tomorrow expect the state to internalize Christian values in another situation. Maybe we cannot settle for "two kingdoms" all the time, but we also cannot become too utopian in our expectation of the transformation of the state. Between the two advents of Christ, history is full of ambiguity, but in it all the Spirit of Christ is at work to "put all things in subjection" under Christ (I Corinthians 15:27), and we must live in hope as well as in tension.