Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Just War and Osama bin Laden (cont.)

Marc LiVecche, Erik Borggren, Keith Pavlischek


May 6, 2011

Capital Commentary asked contributors to answer the question: In terms of just war doctrine, and given the facts publicly known, was the killing of Osama bin Laden a just act? (For a perspective on this question, among others, from Center for Public Justice CEO Gideon Strauss, see his recent Christianity Today article.)

The fact that the Just War tradition exists at all indicates a critical distinction: while war is a great evil, it is sometimes not the greatest evil. A just war is, normatively, a greater good than an unjust peace. Osama bin Laden, the self-identified leader of a terrorist network, declared a war against the United States and her allies without any legitimate authority and manifested that declaration through the slaughter of innocents across our world. In adherence to the procedural and prudential Just War terms, bin Laden was rightly regarded as an enemy combatant. He was targeted and killed in a proportionate act of self-defense and retributive justice, ordered by legitimate authority toward the far-off goal of peace. Helpfully, under the guidance of the underlying theology of Just War thinking, Americans can lament having been compelled to the necessary killing of one made in the imago Dei even as we take a measure of joy, relief, and pride in the dutiful commitment to, and successful carryout out of, that which was necessary.

Marc LiVecche is a PhD student in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.


Just cause for the war in Afghanistan remains the necessity to confront the very real danger posed by Al Qaeda and like-minded networks of terrorists—in the United States, but also in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Within this broader context, President Obama’s decision to go after Osama bin Laden in Pakistan can be considered a just act only if the just intention was the pursuit of peace by further dismantling the structures and powers which are opposed to peace in Afghanistan—not retribution for 9/11.  In either case, from a Christian perspective, to equate this just act with true justice is to underestimate the theological and biblical depth of God’s restorative justice in which all things are set right, wrongs are undone, and relationships are restored.  Thus this historical moment serves as a call for the church to intercede further through fasting and prayer for God to bring reconciliation and restoration within Afghanistan, as well as a call to be a voice within our own public sphere for the just intention of peace versus retribution.  

—Erik Borggren is a West Point graduate, former Army Infantry officer and current Chaplain Candidate in the Illinois Army National Guard.  He is pursuing a Master of Divinity at North Park Theological Seminary and also serves as a pastoral intern at Lincoln Square Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL.


When discussing the obligation of the civil magistrate (the lawful political authority) John Calvin said that while “the law of the Lord forbids killing,” nevertheless, in order “that murderers may not go unpunished, the Lawgiver himself puts into the hands of his ministers a sword to be drawn against all murderers...”

Moreover, since the “true righteousness” of the civil magistrate is “to pursue the guilty and the impious with drawn sword,” then if magistrates should rather “sheathe their sword and keep their hands clean of blood, while [in a passage most relevant to contemporary terrorism] abandoned men wickedly range about with slaughter and massacre, they will become guilty of the greatest impiety....”

For this reason Christians should be thankful that President Obama’s sword was unsheathed and that he refused to keep his hands clean of blood. He did his duty and he is to be applauded for it. Any so-called “international law” that shields international terrorists from such just retribution by lawful political authority should be ignored, for it is a wicked and unjust law.

—Keith Pavlischek is currently serving as a DOD civilian in Afghanistan.  He is the author of Just and Unjust War in the Terrorist Age and other articles on the just war tradition and the ethics of war.




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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”