After the killing of Osama bin Laden, N.T. Wright, one of my heroes, offered up a scathing indictment of the operation and U.S. foreign policy, in general. He wrote about the self-serving nature of American Exceptionalism and compared us to a character in our cultural mythology, The Lone Ranger.
I love N.T. Wright, and I’ve learned more from reading his books than anyone else…but, and I say this reluctantly, I’m going to have to disagree with him. He concludes his article with this sentence:
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?
First of all, not to get nitpicky, but I don’t think “the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth.” The book of Revelation seems to indicate that the God of ultimate justice and truth will be fully and finally revealed at the wedding of Jesus and the Church. This will be when the Father himself comes and dwells among his people, thus fully and finally revealing himself directly to those who love and worship him.
What I really want to get to, though, is this business of loving your enemy. Jesus said, in Matthew 5:43-45a, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love [agape] your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
The relevant question in this discussion is this: Does Jesus’ command to Love Your Enemies apply to nation-states? To apply this to our current situation, does Jesus’ command obligate America, as a political entity, to love Osama bin Laden? And now we have another question: Does this command to love, by its nature, rule out physical punishment as a response to physical aggression? Does Jesus’ command impel America, again, as a political and national entity, to refrain from killing Osama bin Laden?
My answer to the first question is No, sort of. This command is found in the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus delivered to his disciples, who were all first-century Jews living in Palestine under the occupation of the pagan, Gentile Romans. This particular period of Jewish history was a hotbed for revolutionary activity, and saw many would-be Messiahs take on Rome through violent means, and fail. These false Messiahs, belonging to a larger group called the Zealots, were trying to usher in the kingdom of God through violent force. As N.T. Wright says elsewhere, they were trying to achieve a military victory over the pagan Gentiles that would symbolize the theological victory of good over evil. Jesus’ command to Love Your Enemies was a direct assault on the Zealots’ way of ushering in the kingdom. In essence, Jesus is saying the kingdom of God comes about by laying down your life, not by taking up your sword.
It’s important to remember that Jesus is talking to his Jewish disciples, not to the Roman occupiers. The Jewish temptation was to create a sovereign political state and call that the kingdom of God. But the kingdom of God is neither political nor national (Hence, Jesus’ refusal to be crowned king in John 6); it is suprapolitical and transnational. The kingdom of God consists across and within the nations, and it goes far beyond politics.
The presence of the kingdom of God, however, does not make nation-states or governmental authorities obsolete. In fact, Revelation 21 seems to indicate that, even after the end, when God comes to fully and finally reveal himself by dwelling with his people, there are still other nations on the earth. Moreover, texts like Romans 13 indicate that God has ordained governmental powers for the sake of maintaining order and justice on earth.
There is nothing in the text of Matthew 5 to indicate that Love Your Enemies applies to nation-states or human governments. The word we translate enemies in Matthew 5:44 could just as easily (though more cumbersomely) be translated those who hate you. The relationship Jesus has in mind, as I see it, is interpersonal, not national. Return hate with love; that is the way of the kingdom of God. But because the kingdom of God is neither a political nor a national entity, this command does not apply in the same way to nation-states.
Let me put it this way: If someone were to strike me, I would turn my other cheek to them; but if that same person were to strike my child or wife (assuming this person is an adult male), I would open up a very particular can on them. Just as my primary obligation, in this instance, is to defend my wife and children, so the primary obligation of government leaders is to protect the citizens and residents of that particular country. Love Your Enemies is not a command that overrides all other commands and responsibilities. It is a part of the means by which we usher in the kingdom of God, but there are times when it can be taken to extremes and do precisely the opposite of what it was intended. Therefore, my answer to the second question above is a hearty No.
My friend, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. His murderer was killed shortly thereafter in a firefight with other police officers. This was right. This was just.
Osama bin Laden masterminded a cowardly attack against unsuspecting civilians using proxy assassins, and then hid for 10 years in the rugged mountains of central Asia. He was apprehended and killed in a firefight with American military forces. This was right. This was just. In this instance, Jesus’ command to Love Your Enemies was superseded by the responsibilities of the President (these responsibilities, according to Romans 13, come from God) to protect America’s citizens and enact justice, in this case with the metaphorical sword.
This post has been long, I know, but I have tried to deal seriously with what N.T. Wright said we Americans haven’t dealt seriously in the death of OBL–Jesus’ command to Love Your Enemies.