The Death of Bin Laden
Being uncomfortable is probably a fairly normal state of affairs for the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it may be worth us thinking theologically about when and whether it is appropriate to kill someone.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Bin Laden’s death was a form of capital punishment. So, how might we argue for or against that?
Christians can argue support for capital punishment from biblical grounds. There are two key biblical passages that support this case. The first is God’s declaration to Noah in Genesis 9 that “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” This declaration can be interpreted as a promise of consequences which humans are correct in applying, or it can be interpreted as a direct command that man should exercise the judgement of God upon those who murder. So on the one hand we might simply say, “Osama had it coming – he’s reaped what he sowed.” While on the other we could say, “Osama was a murderer, therefore justice demanded he be killed.”
The second key passage to consider is Paul’s instructions in Romans 13 that the state bears the sword and so by definition has the right to wield the sword: “He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to punish the wrongdoer.” In which case it could be argued that the US government was totally within its rights to execute Bin Laden. As US Attorney General Eric Holder put it, Bin Laden was a lawful military target, whose killing was “an act of national self-defence.” (Although what that phrase might mean opens a whole other can of theological and legal worms.)
Apart from these biblical arguments for capital punishment those who support its use point out that there is no direct biblical command not to use it. Moreover, the Fathers seem to have accepted it as legitimate, and necessary. Taken together, these arguments present a powerful case for the use of capital punishment as the ultimate sanction.
On the other hand, those Christians who oppose the use of capital punishment are also able to make a strong case. Starting biblically it is argued that rather than living under the Old Testament law of eye for eye and tooth for tooth we now live by the gospel of grace, a grace that is life affirming rather than life denying. Another powerful argument against the use of capital punishment is that it is dehumanising, both to the person so punished and to the one called to execute the judgement. This seems to run counter to the gospel of grace in which there is the possibility of fully realised humanity as demonstrated in Christ. So, in the case under consideration, Bin Laden was clearly so dehumanised by the bullets in his head that we are not allowed to see the photographic evidence of his death; and the men who killed him were really there, in immediate physical proximity with the man they were killing. This was no video game.
Against these arguments, both for and against capital punishment, needs to be weighed the effectiveness of the action. Typically the effectiveness of punishment is measured on three grounds: deterrence, reformation and retribution. Taking these one at a time, First, the case for deterrence is hard to make; there seems to be little evidence that in states which abolish the death sentence there is a marked increase in what would have been capital offences and neither is there strong evidence that in those states which retain the death penalty there is a strong deterrent effect. In the case of Bin Laden, will his death result in less or more young men waging jihad against the infidel west? Only time will tell.
In terms of reformation, this is clearly irrelevant in the case of capital punishment as there is no possibility of reform.
It is on the third ground of retribution that capital punishment makes the strongest case. While it is argued that a gospel of grace removes the grounds for retribution there are strong arguments in its favour. Retributive justice satisfies the victims desire for redress and emphasises the concept of desert – the biblical principle that we reap what we sow. It also affirms individual responsibility and helps to define and reinforce community values. We have seen these sentiments on display in the USA – those of us with soft European sensibilites might find the raucous celebrations of our American friends somewhat distasteful, but clearly the sense of retribution is satisfying for many of them.
Against this background of argument and counter argument it is helpful to consider the opinion of some significant Christian thinkers. For Augustine the death penalty was repellent: “Let the man not be killed, in order that someone may repent; let the man not be killed, in order that someone may mend his ways.” However, as part of his conviction that the state has a responsibility to uphold order and to this end bears the sword, Augustine supported the use of the death penalty. In this he defined the difference between the rights of the individual and the responsibility of the state. The individual has no right to kill, even in self-defence as no individual has the right to try to determine the length of his days. However, the state may kill as it has responsibility to defend itself and maintain peace and order.
Calvin held a more optimistic view of the state than Augustine and this led him to the conclusion that it was right for the state to exercise the death penalty. The state is a good, instituted by God, and therefore the magistrate is God’s agent to bear the sword. In doing this the magistrate is actually pious and when he executes judgement he is not acting of himself but executing the judgements of God. God has given the pious magistrate the sword and God demands that wrongdoers are punished. Therefore the magistrate must not hesitate to declare the death sentence when it is right to do so.
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer the key issue is whether or not killing is arbitrary. The first right in natural life consists in the safeguarding of the life against arbitrary killing. Wherever innocent life is deliberately destroyed then there is arbitrary killing. But there is nothing arbitrary about the killing of a criminal who has done injury to the life of another.
Karl Barth sees capital punishment as positive in that it “absorbs and transforms” individual revenge and self-defence into an act of society. This safeguards against interminable vendettas and the individual taking the law into his own hands in a way which would threaten the existence of the state. However, Barth is critical of the way in which the church since Constantine has tended uncritically to uphold the use of capital punishment and even employed it itself against heretics and petty criminals.
Moreover, Barth argues that capital punishment returns society to the level of anarchical self-defence. If Jesus has expiated sin on the cross then there is no need for further expiation. Rather, punishment should affirm life and offer the criminal the opportunity to reform. Barth says strongly, “If the command to protect life is accepted and asserted in some sense in a national community, then it is impossible to maintain capital punishment as an element in its normal and continuing order…from the point of the Gospel there is nothing to be said for its institution, and everything against it.” Neither does Barth allow the individual to hide behind the decisions of the state but calls the individual to recognise their involvement in the work of the prosecution, judge and executioner.
Typically of his ethics Barth seeks to avoid ethical absolutism and says that there is the exceptional case when the state can use the death sentence. This is not as a regular part of the penal code but when the state itself is under dire threat. The two exceptional circumstances that Barth describes are high treason in time of war and tyrannicide when the tyrant has abrogated all authority and the very existence of the state is threatened by his actions. Thus Barth, like Bonhoeffer, considered justified the attempted assassination of Hitler.
Following this line of argument, the question in Bin Laden’s case would be, “Was the USA under dire threat so long as Bin Laden lived?” Many would say yes, while others would want to argue that capturing, prosecuting and incarcerating him would have removed the threat as effectively – and in a morally superior manner – as killing him.
Complicated, isn’t it.