A Death to Celebrate?

The Just-war Tradition & the Killing of Osama Bin Laden

During the Middle Ages—the historical context for the rise of what would come to be known as the “just war” tradition—violence under any circumstance was deemed a great evil by the church. In official Catholic teaching, combat was accepted as legitimate only when it prevented still greater evils and led to an otherwise unobtainable peace. The common ecclesiastical opinion, though, was that virtually all wars by the feudal nobility were waged from libido dominandi, lacked just cause, and resulted in far greater harm than good.

The rules of “just war” were not developed in courts by religious advisers keen to justify war. Rather, the tradition took shape largely in the setting of the confessional. It was codified in canon law by priests who wanted to limit the brutality of war and who were responding to a very practical question: Should knights returning from the battlefield be allowed to partake of the Eucharist? “Just war” precepts were applied to determine what sorts of penance soldiers should be made to perform before being fully readmitted to the Body of Christ.

There was no place, then, for triumphal displays in the aftermath of wars or violence, even when a conflict was seen as a tragic necessity or manifestation of God’s providential punishment of the wicked by the sword of the magistrate. The authorities who served as the agents of God’s wrath might themselves reap the violence they sowed. The moral legitimacy of taking any human life made in the imago Dei was always at best a regrettable concession to the violent realities of the “city of man” still in defiance of the City of God. In all cases, the attitude of believers toward wars and killing was to be one of somber soul-searching and even mourning for their enemies.

These ideas originated largely with St. Augustine, whose “just war” teachings fused Roman legal and Old Testament sources and proved decisive for Catholic political thought over the next millennium. Tragically, Augustine provided the doctrinal framework not only for limited wars of just cause but also for the brutal persecution of “heretics” in the name of corrective love. His ideas would later help inspire the largely unrestrained holy war tradition of the crusades.

Nevertheless, Augustine and later medieval thinkers provide at least some resources for Christians seeking to understand and resist the violence of imperium in any age. Their insistence that wars be waged with purity of heart or right intention, if taken seriously, is in fact deeply subversive of violence of any kind. As the Augustine scholar Michael Hanby observes, “The very qualities that make Christians just warriors also make them unfit to fight.” Christian hope, Hanby continues, refuses “to situate human horror within the teleology of empire...and it refuses the consoling rhetoric that trivializes suffering and forestalls any reflection beyond that designed to congratulate ourselves.”

These widely forgotten requirements of the just-war tradition—the duties of loving intention even in the midst of combat, and somber reflection and mourning in the moment of victory—came to mind as I listened to President Barack Obama’s May 1 speech announcing that U.S. special forces had killed Osama bin Laden.

One cannot but empathize with the family members of the victims of September 11 who have expressed relief and satisfaction at the knowledge that the man who helped to mastermind the attack is now himself dead. Anyone possessing any moral sensitivity at all will agree that bin Laden reaped the fruit of violence he had sown. By all accounts the operation was conducted with great courage and skill. No American lives were lost. Bin Laden’s body was quickly disposed of in keeping with Muslim custom. The burial at sea included the reading of religious rites in Arabic. All these facts of the operation as reported by U.S. officials are in keeping with the demands of the just-war tradition.

Yet there was much in Obama’s speech—and in the scenes of spontaneous chanting, patriotic singing, and jubilant flag-waving across the country that followed—that ought to give Christians, and not only pacifists such as myself, great pause. The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has pointed out that serious questions must be asked any time an unarmed man who is not returning fire is killed—before the eyes of his wife and twelve-year-old daughter, we now learn—rather than apprehended and forced to stand trial. Even accepting the highly implausible official account that bin Laden would have been captured rather than killed had he not in some way resisted, troubling questions remain.

In his speech, the president declared, “After nearly ten years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we”—referring exclusively to Americans—“know well the costs of war.” But the people who have borne the greatest costs of the “war on terror” are the people of Iraq, including the millions of refugees and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed as a result of America’s unjust policy of “preemptive” war. Not once in his speech did Obama refer to the people of Iraq, only to “our sacrifices.” America’s tragic losses during the past decade are real and must be remembered. They cannot be understood and so cannot be properly remembered, however, apart from the staggering losses of Iraqis as a consequence of U.S. actions. The just-war tradition requires that we think and speak not only about the sacrifices of our own nation or tribe but about the global common good and the sufferings of the Other whom we bear responsibility for.

“We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies,” the president continued. “We will be true to the values that make us who we are.... Justice has been done.” It has been suggested, however, that the intelligence that led to bin Laden’s whereabouts may have been gathered, at least in part, through “enhanced interrogation techniques” authorized by the Bush administration. Whether or not this proves true, the final lesson Americans might well take from Obama’s words—“Justice has been done”—is that the ends justify the means, that all of the crimes of state committed during the past ten years were somehow worth it because this one man is finally dead.

But the just-war requirement of mourning even for our enemies means that we must see bin Laden’s death with a clear sense of proportionality. It is hard in this light to maintain that his killing signifies that justice has been done. A narrowly legitimate or justifiable use of force might still be part of a fundamentally unjust pattern of violence. And the language of justice can itself be a great injustice when it is used in ways that induce or perpetuate historical amnesia.

Reinhold Niebuhr, reflecting the long Christian tradition of deep ambivalence about “just war” (even as he vigorously defended it), declared that “our own sin is always partly the cause of the sins against which we must contend.” There was, unfortunately, no acknowledgment in Obama’s speech of America’s role as a contributing agent in the evils against which we must now contend. This should come as no surprise, for in the final analysis U.S. foreign policy is not based on the Christian vision of the causes of violence and injustice. Christianity has powerfully shaped American political life and the grammars of just war and human rights in liberal societies. But the relationship of the American story to the Christian euangelion is in many ways one of violent parody.

This was also evident in Obama’s speech. The president appealed to the nation to unite around the killing of bin Laden as “a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.” We “are once again reminded,” he said, “that America can do whatever we set our mind to.” We “can do these things not just because of wealth or power”—as political realists tell us—“but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” From the perspective of the Hebrew prophetic tradition and the witness of the New Testament writers that Christ has overcome the “principalities and powers” through his nonviolent suffering and death at the hands of the empire, what are we to make of these stark assertions of America’s might and American exceptionalism?

In plain terms, on May 1 Obama declared that the death of one man—Osama bin Laden—is a new “testament” not to the goodness but to the greatness of America. Through the shedding of this guilty man’s blood, mingled with the innocent blood of America’s sons and daughters, we may now once more experience a “sense of unity,” since the unity of the demos after the deaths of September 11 has grown perilously “frayed.” None of this is ultimately a matter of reason or realism (“wealth or power”), the president said. It can only be grasped in terms of sacral and ontological categories, that is, in terms of who we are: the one nation under God whose violent “sacrifices” bring peace to the world (“make the world a safer place”).

Was the killing of bin Laden a legitimate action? Most Americans have already concluded that it was. For those Christians who subscribe to just-war precepts, however, perhaps the most difficult requirement of the tradition is the demand that we mourn rather than celebrate the deaths of our foes, and that the occasion of killing be one of moral introspection rather than of unbridled enthusiasm or unexamined joy among those who claim justice for their side. Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking in the spirit of both authentic just-war thinking and Christian militant nonviolence when he reminded Americans of the “courageous maladjustment” of Jesus in commanding his followers to love their enemies.

I feel no love for Osama bin Laden. But Christian mourning for bin Laden requires not a feeling of grief at his passing, nor simply refraining from cheering in the streets. What it demands now is that we refuse to script his death into any myth of redemptive violence, into any nationalistic narrative of the regenerative power of blood sacrifice, whether of fallen soldiers or of those who would do us harm.

Related: A Kind of Justice, by the Editors

About the Author

Ronald E. Osborn is an adjunct professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence and Theodicy (Cascade Books), and Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic).



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Three points:  First, the current Catholic conception of the Just War Doctrine is found in the Catechism and further elaborated for further debate in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  I could find no "requirement for mourning" within the Doctrine.  Nor was "right intention" specified (perhaps mistakenly left off or implied throughout the context of the Catechism).  Rather, this is an interpretation of the author, perhaps in the pursuance of further debate, to contribute to the Catholic conception of the Doctrine.

Second, while there are certainly moral concerns regarding the jus ad bellum justification for war as well as the conduct jus in bello, there are also pragmatic considerations in the Muslim - Christianity context.  For over 20 years, beginning with the Second Persian Gulf War (expelling Iraq from Kuwait) through the Iraq War and the "War on Terror", the Vatican has provided a critical assessment of the just war standards in order to not inflame hostilities against Christian communities in the conflict zones.  This is an understandable and pragmatic reaction.  But we must be able to discern between moral assessments from geopolitical considerations.

Third, it is wrong to interpret the reaction to news of the death of OBL primarily as one of triumphalism.  Rather, I interpret the celebration, especially among so many young people, as the prospect of peace after a decade of terror.  OBL was the embodiment of global terror.  To be sure, America is war-weary.  The news media captured three types of reaction:  the celebration of hope; satisfaction stemming from revenge; and sadness of the way the world is.

What of Libya, and the uncomfortably transparent moral fig-leaf over repeated attempts to assasinate Quadaffi?  What of the assasination of Isoroku Yamamoto?

Killing another human is a formidable issue in regards to what is can be construed as a "just war". I for one do not know all of the ramifications of Canon Law in regards to such matters but know I follow my heart with a sense of compassion. Hearing that OBL was found and killed did not bring to me a sense of relief that the Islam extremists would end their "Holy War" against non-Muslims. For in my mind...there are many like him that have been groomed to take his place. When the son's of Abraham embrace each other with brotherly love...then I will feel justice is finally done. Terrorists are not in my eyes sons of Abraham through Ishmael but rather mutants of that once proud people. Is war between these brothers always going to exist? As long as there is discord over who is truly the "real" descendents of God the answer will always be yes.

With a sad heart, I as a Roman Catholic do not "celebrate" the taking of ONE enemy of world peace but pray for "true justice" when Jesus Christ returns and puts and end to this age of conflict regarding who are the people of God.

I am grateful for Mr. Osborn's reminder to us of the prime motivation for the development of Christian "just war theory". Further, as the writer so tellingly states, "Their (Augustine's and later scholars') insistence that wars be waged with purity of heart or right intention, if taken seriously, is in fact deeply subversive of violence of any kind. As the Augustine scholar Michael Hanby observes, 'The very qualities that make Christians just warriors also make them unfit to fight.'” 

A millennium and a half prior to Augustine's formulations, another moral philosopher said,

"Weapons are instruments of fear; they are not a wise man's tools.  He uses them only when he   has no choice.  Peace and quiet are dear to his heart, and victory no cause for rejoicing ... This means that war is conducted like a funeral.  When many people are being killed, they should be mourned in heartfelt sorrow.  That is why a victory must be observed like a funeral."  (From Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32.)

I am very much in accord with Mr. Osborn's attitudes on the apparent exultation in the fruits of violence that has been clearly expressed by tens of millions of our countrymen, and am also with him in his expression of compassion for those of us who have felt most poignantly the pain of loss caused by this bad man and the death cult he created. 

But I would also like to make a few points.  America today is manifestly not a Christian nation, nor a Christian culture.  Tens ... no ... hundreds of millions of Americans nominally, or even self-identified as Christians, are not true followers of Christ.  Some tens of millions are fervent adherents of self-interested, self-justifying "interpreters" of translated, edited and re-translated versions of the words and story of Jesus.  Within this context has arisen a leader of the American people -- the actual American people, not the ones many of us would like to see ourselves to be.  He is clearly trying to be a true leader, a unifier, as much as can be, of his people.  To lead, to unify, he must speak to the hearts, as well as the minds, of as many of us as he is reasonably able to reach.  And he must act, within parameters of conscience and "a reasonable respect for the opinions of mankind", to protect and to benefit the nation he leads, while doing the least harm as may be possible under present circumstances.  Within this framework, I believe that Barak Obama deserves the understanding, respect and compassion of anyone who is a reader of Commonweal in this day and age. 

For decades the truism, "A nation gets the leaders it deserves", had haunted me, and many other people whom I know.  When I contemplate the qualities brought to the governance of our nation courtesy of the "Party of Lincoln", the "Party of Life"; I cast my gaze from those "honorable men" to Barak Obama and stand in wonderment and gratitude that the country that clearly deserves the first group, might also be deserving of that man.

Thank you for your comments Allen.  On the question of mourning and moral introspection being a central part of the "just war" tradition as it developed in the medieval period (and there is no such thing as a single and exhaustive Catholic "just war" doctrine as such), I would refer you to the following lines (to cite from a single source) from the U.S. War College Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy (2006):  "Even in cases where Augustine considered war to be the lesser of evils, he regarded all killing as ultimately tragic, always requiring an attitude of mourning and regret on the part of Christians.  Partly due to his influence, throughout most of the medieval period, killing in war was considered a very serious sin.  If a Christian soldier killed an enemy soldier, even in a war that was considered just, he would have to do penance for the killing, often by fasting and prayer for a year or more."  See also Michael Hanby's work on Augustine's politics which I referred to in my article.

For the medieval thinkers, the most important question when evaluating the legitimacy of a soldier's actions on the battlefield or a ruler's choice to wage war was their innermost dispositions and motives.  If contemporary "just war" theorists no longer care about these questions it is perhaps some indication of how far they have departed from the tradition's roots.  "Just war" in an earlier age was primarily a way of limiting violence rather than justifying or valorizing it as a positive good.  We forget this fact at great peril to our ability to think and respond to violence as disciples whose allegiance is ultimately to the Kingdom of God rather than to any nation-state concerned with advancing its own geopolitical interests rather than the global common weal.

Thank you for your comment, Mr. Osborn.  There is a difference between the the Just War theory, which exists in many religious traditions and philosophical schools, and the Catholic conception of the Just War doctrine which returned from hibernation to find a place once again in the theology of the Church in the Apostolic Constitution "Fidei Depositum" on the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), para. 2309.  This is further elaborated in the inter-dicasterial document "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church" (2004), para. 500.  Of course, your commentary speaks of a Christian tradition of the Just War theory and does not address Catholic doctrine specifically.  The Church had expunged the Just War theory from its Canon Law because the elements served more often than not as a prescriptive roadmap to war as opposed to safeguarding peace, the Council Fathers included its elements in couched language in Gaudium et Spes.  While using the term "just defense", it did not use the phrase "just war". (GS, Sect.I)  In 1983, the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued their Letter "A Challenge for Peace", which set out anew "The Just War Criteria" (Sect. 3) based on Catholic tradition and condensing Catholic thought into .  Some argue that the inclusion of the Just War doctrine as part of the Catechism was a criticism of the Bishops' Letter, which was deemed too prescriptive and, perhaps, too tangible, and returned to an introspective exercise in the examination of conscience by those responsible for the common good (contrast that to the elaborate discussion in the Bishops' Letter regarding what constitutes "competent authority").

The point in my first paragraph above is that there is a Catholic Just War doctrine, existing as part of an Apostolic Constitution, that has re-emerged over the last two decades.  The body of that doctrine is purposefully vague and its meaning is colored by debates among Catholic thinkers.  The Compendium, which as an inter-dicasterial document, has limited teaching authority, makes the suggesting that humanitarian intervention exists as legitimate defense.  And in your commentary, I suggest that you are attempting to inform the doctrinal debate by advocating a Christian "tradition of mourning."

I don't think that millions of Americans exulted over Bin Laden's death as some media outlets would have us believe. I am relieved that Bin Laden is dead, not happy.


Bin Laden admitted to the murders of 9/11. He was guilty and dangerous. I don't believe the state has the right to routinely take human life as a matter of policy but these circumstances were exceptional. 




I am not happy that Bin Laden is dead, I am relieved! He admitted boastfully to being responsible for the murders of 9/11/01. The U.S. had a right and a duty to avenge those deaths. This was an exceptional case. 

The just war theory does not apply here unless you accept the notion that we are "at war" with the world's terrorists. And it still doesn't apply because "just" and "war are oxymorons.

The notion of a "just war" in our day and age is ridiculous. Nothing justifies the use today's weapons in battle. As a Jewish friend of mine once said about the Church many years ago, "Jesus must be turning in his grave".





After reading a number of comments after the death of this notorious man, this poem crept into my thoughts...

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

by: John Donne, poet

I celebrate the death of no one!  I celebrate the well lived life of a person.

Although some may celebrate the life of OBL, I do not.  Nor will I judge him as to his place in the afterlife...  That's WAY above my pay grade/level...

 Peace & blessings,


I wrote the following on May 5th, 2011 as a Facebook Note: "Black and White...Or Shades of Gray?""The Vatican said the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, a man who sowed division and hatred and who caused "innumerable" deaths, should prompt serious reflection about one's responsibility before God, not rejoicing." [1]

Yesterday I listened to a replay of David Letterman's first TV segment following 9/11/2001. Letterman is by trade a humorist. He makes us laugh. He was dead serious. He spoke at length and from the heart of "courage", the courage of so many. I thought of those in New York, those on United Flight 93, at the Pentagon. I listened to him speak of Mayor Giuliani. Letterman said: "Courage, as you might know, defines all other human behavior…" Courage is certainly a word that springs to mind when I think of the action taken by the Navy SEAL team and our President. So very much was at stake.

While I welcome the cautionary words from Rome, if those in the Vatican at every level had shown similar courage and engaged in serious reflection about their own responsibility before God we would not be in the mess we are in now. Perhaps their failure to act is more serious than the rejoicing of young people who have sisters/brothers/friends who have had several tours of duty or are still in harm's way or who have been lost. Do not misunderstand me. I am not tempted to jump up and down. I am making a comparison. Emotion is in fact morally neutral. We feel what we feel. Emotion is a powerful force and difficult to reign in. Emotion can be so powerful that it mitigates culpability. On the other hand, those choices made in the cold light of rationality and reflection speak much more powerfully regarding one's character or its absence.


[1] http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1101730.htm

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment