Justice, and the Like (A re-post on the death of bin Laden)

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October 16, 2015 by J. Truett Glen

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(This is an old post from another blog I used to manage. It continues to be a relevant topic in relation to world affairs such as the Syrian conflict, terrorist activities of ISIS, and the violent activities of racists in the U.S.)

“JUSTICE?” In the words of Alasdair MacIntyre from his Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Tom Strode, Baptist Press bureau chief for D.C. wrote an article yesterday (May 2) in which he quoted the opinions of several prominent Baptist ethicists concerning the killing of bin Laden. Before I address my disagreements with these men let me say that I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Heimbach, Dr. Land, and Dr. Mohler. Dr. Heimbach served as my thesis advisor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and I hold very similar views on ethics to all three of these gentlemen. However, in Strode’s article these men use the term “justice” several times in conjunction with what was accomplished with bin Laden’s death. I question the use of the word “justice” in relation to the circumstances of bin Laden’s death. I must say that I take issue with the broad use of the word justice in general. I believe that many people, Christians included, are using this term without much thought to what it implies. I’m certainly not as well read as these gentlemen, but I have read enough and studied history enough to know that bringing about true justice is far more nuanced than simply killing a man who was integral in planning the deaths of a large number of people.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, does an excellent job of outlining the classical development of justice through the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. He shows that the idea of justice is something culturally bound and susceptible to change. He writes, “It has become evident that conceptions of justice and of practical rationality generally and characteristically confront us as closely related aspects of some larger, more or less well-articulated, overall view of human life and of its place in nature” (389). The possible socio-religious nuances involved in bin Laden’s reasoning for coordinating several attacks on American citizens, along with the history of the involvement of the American government with bin Laden, ads a significant sense of complexity to the causality behind the actions of every party involved. It is naïve to say that bin Laden simply and willingly played the role of villain in America’s story on the achievement of justice.

Under Heimbach’s tutelage I was introduced to the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr wrote about the complexities of claiming that any one institution or people had the corner on claiming that justice had been achieved in any given set of circumstances. In the second volume of Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man he “recognizes that the creative and destructive possibilities of human history are inextricably intermingled. The very power which organizes human society and establishes justice, also generates injustice by its preponderance of power” (21). Claiming that bin Laden has finally been brought to justice does not respect all the plays of power that have taken place in the Middle East over the past 40 years (Nor the last 2000 for that matter). I believe that all three of the Baptist ethicists mentioned above would agree with me that the American government has blood on its hands in relation to how it has, at times, dealt with various sectarian groups and governments in the Middle East.

I am not espousing the idea that bin Laden did not have it coming to him. Nor am I suggesting that the American government was wrong in pursuing him. What I am suggesting is that we, as Christians, find another way to speak of such matters. Justice, as my fellow ethicists noted earlier, is finally served in relation to our accountability to God. Dr. Mohler’s statement that bin Laden missed out on “full human justice,” is to suggest that somehow mankind has the capacity to dispense justice in a pure and complete fashion. Dr. Mohler may have not meant to suggest that human justice is somehow complete, but that implication can be drawn from his statement.

Let us be careful in how we speak of justice. We all deserve the consequences of our sin in relation to a just God, and yet those who believe in Christ Jesus’ work on the cross have been spared the full penalty owed to us. I propose that we speak, rather, in terms of bringing someone to accountability for their actions rather than “to justice.” Osama bin Laden was finally held accountable by the American government for his role in the 911 attacks on our citizens. Our desire to seek vengeance against bin Laden for his role in the 911 attacks is not more important than our humility before a truly just and righteous God.

By: Jason Truett Glen
5/3/2011

Works Cited:
MacIntyre, Alasdair. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Human Destiny, Vol. 2 of The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943. Reprint, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

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