The “Guy Fawkes Day” shooting rampage at Fort Hood on the 5th of November, on top of thoughts of Veterans' Day, Remembrance, two ongoing wars in central Asia, and this week's catechesis I presented to my students on the “5th Commandment” make up a cluster of things this week that have motivated me to say something about the theology of lawful killing.
What we have in the person of Nidal Malik Hasan, is a very confused soldier such as the one depicted by Telli Savalas in the film “The Dirty Dozen”. In a prison cell he tries to rationalize his murders with an allusion to the Bible and says, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord”, but he adds that “God doesn't say who will be his instrument”. That is where he is wrong, of course. Unless you happen to be a biblically illiterate pacifist, you will recognize that the biblical God has clearly established who will be his instrument of retributive justice and who will “turn the other cheek” and forgive.
The instrument of retributive justice is government, acting on behalf of God and on behalf of all of us as a community. Responsibility for retributive justice is not given to individual citizens to execute on their own behalf. The ones who are told “judge not, lest ye be judged”, “turn the other cheek”, “love your enemies”, “forgive seventy times seven times” and so forth, are private individuals, not government, not the police and not the military. Officials acting publicly, on behalf of the rest of us, are told to judge, are told to avenge and (yes) are told to kill.
Since we humans have contaminated our world with sin and evil, God, out of love for us, established the concept of a justice system to prevent us from being overwhelmed by crime. He ordained that a “sword” be placed in the hands of those who represent our community and serve as officers in government. St. Paul says of such an earthly governor, that, ”...he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13.4).
In his teaching on the 5th Commandment in his Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes, “...God and government are not included in this commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”). ... To punish evildoers, God has delegated His authority to the government ...what is forbidden in this commandment is forbidden to the individual in his relationship with anyone else, but not to the government” (181 – p.379 in CONCORDIA, McCain ed.).
Christians, acting as private individuals may not “take the law into their own hands”. We are to offer our personal forgiveness perpetually to offenders in every case and then let our community take vengeance if needed. If our community judges that a criminals have forfeited their right to live among us, offenders will be banished to prison cells or to a scaffold, but individual Christians will not deny criminals our personal forgiveness, even as we require a judge to pass sentence and an executioner to carry out his vocation.
There is no contradiction in this. It is the vocation of public officials to punish criminals and it is the vocation of sinners to offer their personal forgiveness to all others even as we expect God to forgive us our trespasses and sins (Matt. 6.15). The same applies to the apparent contradiction implied in the phrase “we come in peace – shoot to kill” It may indeed be the case that members of a “peace-keeping force” may have to “fire a shot in anger” precisely in order to carry out their vocation of providing a peaceful environment for the rest of the community.
The same goes for warfare. If you know nothing else about “Just War” theory, you can tell by the words “just war”, that it may be proposed that there is such a thing as ethical, moral and lawful killing on a large scale as in war-time. You might even use a phrase like “state sponsored hate”, if you like, as long as you understand its context in the legitimate execution of justice in a world where there is “a time to love and a time to hate” (Ecc. 3.8). In terms of Judeo-Christian civilization you might say that everything from Joshua and the Battle of Jerico to Operation Iraqi Freedom is state-sponsored hate. Call it righteous indignation, properly channelled, according to the rule of law.
Indignation, however, is not always righteous, as we know – even on the part of states and communities. Earthly authorities are ordained by God to represent Him but they frequently and notoriously abuse their position. Such abuse, however does not discredit the principal of government any more than the concept of a police force is discredited because the Nazis had a gestapo.
Terrorism, if it is state-sponsored, is an example of abuse of power by a government. This is because terrorism, whether conducted by governments, groups or individuals is not an ordered and measured use of force, but rather an abuse of force in which non-combatants, “innocents” and by-standers are more than collateral damage, but actually targets. Terrorists are not soldiers, but dastardly murderers who refuse to grasp the difference between lawful and unlawful killing. Terrorist acts may be intended to “send a message” but any content to that message is obscured and discredited by the abuse of violence involved in conveying it.
Major Hasan, a soldier, was NOT following our orders. Instead he acted as a terrorist, driven, not by legitimate government, but by a diabolical application of his fanatical Muslim beliefs. Yet, whatever the ideological basis, the methods yield the same deplorable results. Terrorism, we should remember, is nothing new – only the methods have changed through the years. Prior to the Irish sectarian bombings and Al Qaeda-style attacks in our lifetimes, terrorism was involved in violence from the barbarian raids in the dark ages to the carpet bombings of the 20th century. All were terrorism because they were an abuse of force and sinfully distant from any meaningful expression of retributive justice.
We are in the midst of a season of honoring soldiers – the living and the dead – who served and continue to serve our communities and our civilization by the calling that was given to them by God, through us. Let us, while we are in this world of sin and evil, contemplate the cross that these men and women have offered to take upon their shoulders out of love for their country and their God. And as we contemplate the differences between lawful killing, murder and terrorism, let us honor their service by wisely discerning those distinctions and thereby reflect God's mercy in His gracious dealings with us – in Jesus Christ our Redeemer.