Understandably, news of Osama bin Laden's demise at the hands of U. S. Navy Seals provoked cries of celebration. The mastermind of terror, even against civilians (indeed, against fellow Muslims) has been brought to justice. But what kind of justice?
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush authorized "Operation Infinite Justice." Especially after his comment that "this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while," however, the mission was renamed "Operation Enduring Freedom." Reportedly, the name-change was due at least in part to the concern raised by Muslims that only God can execute "infinite justice." One would have hoped that the change had been provoked instead by Christian reaction.
Islam, of course, is not just a religion; it's a cultural and even geo-political reality. As such, its strict adherents excoriate co-religionists like Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im who call for an "Islamic Reformation" that would make jihad into a spiritual struggle rather than an armed military conflict.
Unfortunately, Christianity has had a long and complicated history of its own on this score. On one hand, the fourth-century theologian Augustine responded to the sacking of Rome with a detailed scriptural argument for two cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Each city has its own origins, ends, and means. As citizens of both kingdoms, every believer is called to recognize the difference between them. Compared with the City of God, the City of Man is hardly a true commonwealth. It cannot ensure ultimate peace, security, justice, and love. Nevertheless, Augustine argues, it can still be considered a commonwealth in a limited, provisional, and penultimate sense. Out of these reflections (especially in the City of God) there arose a legacy of just war theory and a Christian realism about the legitimacy and limitation of human societies in this time between the times.
Nevertheless, the Middle Ages gave rise to a fusion of Christ and culture known as "Christendom." In the name of Christendom, kings and their knights rode off to crusades with papal blessing, as David and the hosts of Yahweh redivivus, cleansing the Holy Land of infidels.
In spite of its own contradictions in practice, the magisterial Reformation sought to distinguish between the kingdom of Christ, which conquers by Word and Spirit, and the kingdoms of this age that are given the divine authority to defend temporal justice. Drawing on the New Testament and church fathers, especially Augustine, the reformers realized that there was no theocracy in the new covenant; all nation-states were "secular" in the sense of being common rather than holy. With no holy land, there can be no holy war. Only just wars, based on natural law.
But ideas like "Christendom" die hard. We saw that with the memorial service after 9/11. Held in a building popularly known as the "National Cathedral," with military honor guards processing and the strains of "Onward, Christian Soldiers," announcements of a resolve to secure infinite justice in an open-ended "crusade" provided fodder for Islamic extremists in their effort to replay ancient battles. A romantic patriotism has always seethed beneath the professed separation of church and state, as in the famous "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Written by a Unitarian, the hymn confuses Union victory with Christ's final judgment. Something very close to "infinite justice."
Cultures are the most dangerous when they invoke holy texts for their defense of holy land through holy war. However, Christians have no biblical basis for doing this in the first place. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly abrogated the ceremonial and civil law that God had given uniquely to the nation of Israel. Now is the era of common grace and common land, obeying rulers—even pagan ones—and living under constitutions other than the one that God gave through Moses. As Paul reminds us in Romans 13, secular rulers are given the power of the temporal sword—finite justice—while the gospel conquers in the power of the Spirit through that Word "above all earthly pow'rs."