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?