King's Evangelical Divinity School

18 February 2010

Extra-Judicial Killing: Is it Ever Morally Justifiable?

Here's a thorny one. The last few days have witnessed frenetic media activity concerning the alleged  assassination by Israeli agents of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel several weeks ago. Though we don't know exactly what happened, and probably never will, it is not unlikely Israel is behind al-Mabhouh's death (though, ironically, with the possible assistance of senior Hamas defectors, which further muddies the waters). After all, al-Mabhou had been on Israel's most wanted list since 1989, when he was directly involved in the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers. Consider this interview with Al-Jazeera last year in which he described the killing of the soldiers. Clearly, then, al-Mabhouh had blood on his hands, and however one views extra-judicial killing it is worth noting the biblical principle that those who live violently often die as a result of violence (Matthew 26:52 cf Genesis 9:6). Hence, Jesus' call for His disciples to be peacemakers seems all the more poignant.

Yet unless one is a complete Christian pacifist (which I am not) there is arguably a time for violence. Whether defending one's home or family, fighting for country in a just war, or challenging unprecedented evil, for example during the Second World War, it appears violence is sometimes inevitable. Which brings me back to extra-judicial assassinations: if just war, defence of loved lones and standing up to evil is theologically justifiable (which I believe it is), why not, then, extra-judicial killing of the guilty? It is not as if there is no biblical precedent for it. Two cases in particular stand out in the Bible: Ehud's assassination of Eglon, king of Moab, and the death of Sisera, commander of the Canaanites (detailed in Judges 3 and 4 respectively). Significantly, the Bible records these as divinely approved, even divinely assisted. Yet the Old Testament does not justify extra-judicial killings carte blanche. A notably example is Joab's assassination of Abner for reasons of personal revenge (2 Samuel 3:26-30), for which Joab himself eventually paid the ultimate price.

A perusal of the Old Testament seems to yields a pattern concerning when death and violence (including extra-judicial assassination) is permissible. War, self-defence, exacting justice from those with blood on their hands, or the extra-judicial killing of tyrants or those engaged in the wholesale and systematic oppression of God's people Israel all seem to be justified as far as the Old Testament is concerned. Meanwhile, David himself differentiates between blood shed in peace and war (1 Kings 2:5). Yet killing for personal motives or revenge is condemned, while throughout the Old Testament the shedding of innocent blood is one of the gravest taboos evoking divine wrath (eg Dt 19:11-13, 27:25, Ps 106:34-42, Pr 6:16-19, Is 1:15). This Judaeo-Christian value remains an important defining feature of society today, which is why, I think, modern Israel receives wider, albeit begrudging support for the targeted assassination of men of violence with innocent blood on their hands (for example, as in the case of the hunting down of the terrorists who killed the Munich atheletes), compared with when her assassinations also result in the deaths of the target's wife or children, or nearby innocents. Meanwhile, so important is the justification that exacting justice must be limited to those who have shed blood that Hamas, cynically, seeks to justify targeting Israeli women by virtue of the fact that they have all served in the Israeli army through national service (whether or not they ever pulled a trigger in anger). I am reminded of the revenge courts swiftly set up immediately following the victory of the Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua, which handed out death sentences for rape and murder to people simply because they were once members of Somoza's Guardia, having been found guilty of "crimes against the Nicaraguan people" despite the fact they had committed no such crimes.

So going back to the Old Testament, violence and war and even extra-judicial assassinations seem to be justified, providing they meet various criteria. Yet in response some Christians will inevitably claim, "But now we're in an age of grace, a time in which the ethical teachings of the New Testament prevail." I agree this has a very important bearing on how Christians view violence and war (and extra-judicial assassinations). In fact, so important is this argument that I do wonder if Christian pacifism is at least more consistent than those who seek to embrace parts of the Old Testament yet ditch others in light of New Testament teaching, which seems somehow disingenuous, or hit-and-miss. Surely it is all or nothing? For my part I struggle with the notion God has suddenly changed in the New Testament era, becoming so much more benevolent and less wrathful. Not only does such a view give credence to the ancient Gnostic heresy which viewed the god of the Old Testament as evil, it also completely ignores a New Testament war motif highlighting Christ's return to this world one day as conquering king. For my part, I'm not sure the Old Testament necessarily sets out ethical guidelines for how the world should behave anyway. After all, the Tenakh records God's dealings with the congregation of Israel rather than the world as a whole, and as such I remain unconvinced the Old Testament is necessarily normative for society as a whole. I am no theonomist or neo-Puritan seeking to make the Mosaic law the law of the land. For that matter, this is the case with Jesus' teachings in the New Testament. They are given to the congregation which is the Church, rather than society as a whole, and while ethical in nature they only find their utlimate fulfilment and expression among those who follow Christ.

Apart from the current media fenzy concerning events in Dubai, why am I so concerned with establishing whether or not extra-judicial killing is ever morally justifiable? Is it because, as a friend of Israel, I want to justify Mossad's actions? No. It is because sixty-five years ago a young German pastor at Flossenburg concentration camp was stripped naked and executed, hanged by piano wire. The reason? He was part of the failed conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. The pastor's name? Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His theology? Throughly New Testament, thoroughly "age of grace".

Which raises a dilemma for Christians: Did Bonhoeffer get it wrong, or might we be interpreting parts of the Bible, notably the New Testament, incorrectly when it comes to war and violence?


Chris said...

Calvin, thank you for a well thought out article, very well balanced. I think many christians find it hard to believe that God (the Son) is the same yesterday ,today and forever, Heb 13.8. and '....visiting the iniquity of the fathers...etc, Ex.20.5-6,( also especially psalm 2.) - Chris

Andrew Sibley said...

But here is the problem. How can Stephen Sizer be criticised for sharing a platform with claimed Palestinian sympathisers of terrorism if the action of the Israeli government in extra-judicial killing is justifiable?

One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist, which only highlights the difficulties we face when trying to judge such situations. It comes down to who we believe has God's favour at the end of the day, and belief that the State of Israel still has a divine calling risks compromising Christian faith.

But which side is living closer to the teachings of Christ, the Muslim Palestinians or the Talmudic Jewish state? Both are in fact conducting a proxy war on the basis that revenge is justifiable.

I would suggest we should be careful how we judge on both sides as Christians, and work for peace, justice and reconciliation in the Middle East. This guy may have deserved to face justice, but a proper legal process would have been better than this action which will only perpetuate the conflict.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Andrew, I'm afraid you've totally missed my point.

Leaving aside how one cannot compare Hamas suicide bombings deliberately aimed at killing and maiming as many civilians as possible (which is why it's disturbing when Christians share platforms with such people) with the assassination of a militant at war with Israel who by his own admission has blood on his hands, my comment is not really concerned with determining if Israeli extra-judicial killings are justified. Didn't you read sentence 2 paragraph 5?

Rather, I draw on a current news story to explore a wider issue relevant to Christians in light of Bonhoeffer's actions, namely, whether extra-judicial killings are ever morally justifiable.

Stuart said...

Gosh you are not one to skirt the "toughies".

I agree with you, God most certainly did not undergo a sudden "change" of attributes and personality, come the NT period.

I know many Christians would disagree with any justication for extra-judicial killing and there is a sizeable section of Christianity that advocates pacifism always.

This (in my opinion) is because too many folks are majoring on just those parts of the Bible that suit their chosen worldview rather than allowing the entire body of Scripture to form their worldview.

God is a wonderful realist when it comes to dealing with humanity, unlike some of His followers :)

Well done you for tackling this thorny and controversial subject.

ps it's snowing heavily here on the River Servern and so I am going to get my wife to put the Christmas decs back up. :)

Chris said...

The State of Israel, though not perfect, came about through a process of Divine Providence. After WW1 and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the British were given the mandate to establish Palestine a home for the Jewish people. Through various intrigues 77% of it was ceceded to the Hashemite king, that created was is today called Jordan.
By the same principle that Mesopotamia became Irag and Syria was establishe with the assistance of the French so Palestine was to be established 'The Jewish Home'.
Lord Balfour knew his bible and Jewish history far better than politicians and clergy today.
There has always been a Jewish presence in the Holy Land, ever since Hadrian renamed the place Palestina (latin for Philistine) back in 135CE to spite the Jews and pour salt into their wounds by renaming the place after their ancient enemy the Philistines!

Stuart said...

Andrew said:-

...and belief that the State of Israel still has a divine calling risks compromising Christian faith.

You certainly nailed your colours to the mast their Andrew.

Andrew says:-

I would suggest we should be careful how we judge on both sides as Christians, and work for peace, justice and reconciliation in the Middle East.

All Christians judge as they are Biblically informed, as you have demonstrated.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Stuart, you raise precisely the point so essential when considering this and other issues: the entire body of Scripture (aka biblical theology and how the Bible's metanarrative/themes contribute to scriptural exegesis and application). Otherwise we are simply mining (and selectively mining at that) the Bible for prooftexts in order to support our respective worldviews.

That's why at King's our B.Th. programme in theology focuses on hermeneutics and biblical theology first, then systematics, rather than the other way around. Sorry, felt that was too good an opportunity not to get an advert in there.

Enjoy Christmas, Stuart!

Andrew Sibley said...

Hi Calvin - have I missed the point? I do not wish to get into a tit for tat debate about which side’s crimes are the worst – I am not sure Israel would come out well if we consider Israel’s ‘Shoah’ action against Gaza. I am not an apologist for the Palestinian authority anymore than I am an apologist for the State of Israel. My main interest is building the church of Jesus Christ and bringing it into purity and expressing love for Palestinian Christians and for Messianic Jews. Also to call for love and respect for Jews and Arabs and work for peace in the Middle East.

As for Bonhoeffer – I have the greatest respect for those, like him, who established the Confessing Church while the German Church was sleep walking into fascism. The German Church’s Lutheran influence allowed them to equate the Church with the State machine, in this case a Nazi machine. The Confessing Church’s Christians believed that the Church must make a stand apart from the State. I would ask, perhaps proactively, whether there is an equivalence here with those Christians who believe the State of Israel is fulfilling God’s righteous plans today; is it not the same error as the German Church made in the 1930s-40s; that is to mistake God’s spiritual Kingdom, which is the Church of Jesus Christ, for a political State that has really rejected Christ’s teachings.

As for Bonhoeffer’s actions – I can understand why he did it, but I think he failed to have sufficient faith in God to remove Hitler. I think he was wrong, but I respect him and his stand as member of the Confessing Church. I would ask also whether someone like Stephen Sizer is more in line with Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church of this world than Christian Zionism. This is a serious question because it risks splitting the church. In the 1940s it was right to support the Jews through their suffering, but is the boot now on the other foot where Palestinians are suffering injustice at the hands of the Israeli State?

As for Scripture, it needs to be interpreted in light of the New Covenant where Christians have the Sword of the Spirit. God does not change, but his covenant has. As for a just war argument, that is too lengthy for this thread ;o).

Calvin L. Smith said...

Andrew, again, my post explores the wider issue of whether extra-judicial killings can be justified. Yet you keep trying to bring it back to Israel and Christian Zionism. You’re beginning to appear somewhat fixated.

Also, implicit comparisons of Gaza with the Holocaust, Christian Zionism with a German church largely backing the Nazis, or Stephen Sizer to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (which I wonder Revd Sizer himself might baulk at) makes it, alas, difficult to engage with you seriously. So does your suggestion that Christian Zionism homogenously translates into uncritical support for Israel. Such polarizing language wins headlines, but it lacks nuance. It also makes constructive dialogue much more difficult, even pointless.

Stuart said...

Calvin said:-

.....suggestion that Christian Zionism homogenously translates into uncritical support for Israel.

Oh finally someone has articulated this.

Even as someone who has a "Zionist theolgy" (whatever that means), this does not equate to a "blank cheque" approach to Israel.

Andrew Sibley said...

Dear Calvin - I am sorry you find it hard to take my arguments seriously. You framed your question in terms of the Mossad incident, so I assumed you were asking for responses in terms of the Israel question.

I have studied in depth ethical questions with my MSc and have written an 80,000 word book on ethics in relation to Christian principles - 'Restoring the Ethics of Creation'. I have written a 40,000 word book on the Israel question, and trying to do a MPhil / PhD in theology looking at the intelligent design arguments. I have studied in further depth people as diverse as Plato, Spinoza and Hume. I have also tried to understand what Hitler was doing with his clever rhetoric that blended Christian language with hatred of Jews. Many good Christians were swept along with little thought of what was happening. One thing I have learnt is that through the history of philosophy is that apparent opposite beliefs may have a common core and that it is a mistake to just accept the simplistic reasoning we are often spoon fed. There are for instance different aspects of Platonism in the philosophy of both the political left and right.

I did not suggest that Christian Zionism is homogenous, but I do believe that many Christian Zionists are at some level placing too much hope in the visible State of Israel, and taking their eyes off the church and Christ. My concern wasn't to compare Christian Zionism with fascism, but to highlight the way in which Christians take what is part of God's spiritual Kingdom and put it upon a nation state. That too was Bonheoffer's concern I believe. If I am fixated that is the reason, to call Christians back to their first love of Christ and not to put too much hope in a political state that does not live by Christ's teachings.

As for a shoah against Gaza that was an Israeli government minister's word.

But perhaps I am not achieving anything here.

Calvin L. Smith said...

You have taken a particular side within the wider Christian debate on Israel, and that's fine.

But I think if you are to "achieve anything" your aim should be to seek to moderate and nuance the views of your own people, which is what I'm trying to do. The alternative is for us both to keep arguing and achieve nothing.

Chris said...

I consider myself a christian and a zionist but I have never put my hope in the State of Israel.
I have put my hope in the God of Israel and his son, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

Stuart said...



Chris said...

Thank you and God bless you.