Q&R – bin laden and just war

A reader of life.remixed writes:

Hey Matt,

I was talking to a Christian guy yesterday about the killing of Bin Laden. He was saying that he believes governments are put into power by God, and so are given authority to protect/defend their nation in such a way as America did with Osama. His main argument came down to this – it is ok for soldiers to kill other soldiers in a war, as they are both willing participants and are therefore not innocent victims. What are your thoughts on that point? Is there ever a ‘just war’? He cited the war in Lebanon as support, saying that had the Christians not fought against the Muslim groups, Lebanon would now be under Sharia Law. From reading your blog [referring to this post – MCA] I think that I take a similar stance to you, but I am interested how you would respond to that argument.

Great question! I have dealt with this question somewhat in my post and review of Brian Walsh’s work – Remixing Romans 13.

To expand on that post I would want to challenge the idea that a government is ordained by God and therefore can kill; this conclusion somewhat defies logic:

  • Which government?
  • Ours? Theirs?
  • Governments run by dictators?
  • What if ‘we’ bomb ‘them’ unjustly? (as has happened in the two major wars occurring now)
  • What if they bomb us? (pun intended)

To put it more directly as I did in my post on Romans 13, will we still insist on the divine ordination of governments when another superpower rises up and attacks us an enemy?

More specific to bin Laden, in killing him the US was not defending its country – they assassinated him in the territory of another nation (who subsequently got upset about it…) Perhaps if bin Laden had been literally attacking the US then the argument of self-defence might make some sense; but of course he was not, and it does not.

To use a comparative hypothetical; what if the Taliban entered the US and assassinated the president? What would be the difference? The concept of a terrorist is, after all, perspectival.

The example of Lebanon that your friend gave severely simplifies the nature of that particular conflict (or, more accurately, conflicts), and I would posit that it is an untenable argument. That is to say, it was not simply a fight between Christians and Muslims. There may have been Christian, Sunni and Shi’ite militia, but to say they were simply fighting each other, and for purely religious reasons, is really quite foolish and reductionistic.

In my view there is no such thing as a truly Just War. I mean this from two perspectives:

1. In terms of Just War (as a theory); no war ever actually abides by the conditions set out in Just War theory;
2. In terms of just war (as a more general concept); war completely violates the nonviolent teaching of Christ (on which I have written here), and thus the justice of God.

Soldiers may volunteer to endanger their lives, but simply put this does not make the war right or just, nor does it make their deaths “OK”.

When we adopt the argument of God’s ordination of governments to justify killing we necessarily value the lives of those in other nations less than those in our country. In other words, we choose our nationalism over-against our Christianity (which does not allow for such arbitrary evaluations of lives).

To sum up (a rather loose collection of thoughts; most of these deserve their own posts), people seem to be relatively “OK” with war until they have to send one of their own sons or daughters. Is your friend willing to send his own children off to war to prove his faith in warfare and governmental ordination, or is he content to simply allow the children of others to be sent?

Hope this helps. I will finish by quoting a Tolkien profundity (as quoted recently on a blog I enjoy reading).


‘It seemed to Frodo then that he heard, quite plainly but far off, voices out of the past:

What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!

Pity! It was Pity that stayed his hand, and Mercy: not to strike without need.

I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.

Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.

“Very well,” he answered aloud, lowering his sword. “But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.”’

– J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Taming of Sméagol’, in The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 1995), 601.

Posted on May 25, 2011, in Conflict and Nonviolence, Culture & Art, Current Events, Politics, Q&R and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Love your response, and with your indulgence, I’d like to focus in a little. For me, the crux can be seen in this line:

    “governments are put into power by God”

    We’ve already seen that this is quite a ‘me-centric’ or possibly ‘west-centric’ response, because if it’s true then China, Uganda, Colombia, Iraq, Fiji, and too many others to name are also justified under God, if this premise is true.

    Accepting this bias, the thing is we live in a democracy. Which just means the governments are put into power by The People.

    There will be no regime change in the US because they managed to shoot an unarmed guy in the face. The alternate to this regime, also aspired to shooting an unarmed guy in the face, so that would be a frying pan-fire situation.

    The significant thing is, that *because* they achieved this violent end, The People will return them to power, so they can do more such things. I’m finding the system quite circular. And not particularly Christian.

    In Australia, it looks as though whoever can treat asylum seekers the cruelest will get to be in power. More generally, the effectiveness of a ‘negative’ campaign always blows my mind. I suspect this occurs in most places, which means we get the most negative, ‘small target’ governments available.

    So for me the question is, how do we get a government that is, or could be ordained by God?

    In a democracy, The People need to tell our leaders that we don’t want unarmed guys shot, and we want desperate people arriving on our shores given refuge, we want people educated and healthy. And we don’t want these things endangered by unnecessary, off-shore wars.

    I’m not sure if such a government would then be ‘ordained by God’, but it would be much closer to what we’re seeing.

    PS I note I haven’t used the word ‘corruption’, but this ‘comment’ is long enough already. :p

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