Over the weekend a US operation led to the death of infamous Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Reports indicate President Donald Trump and cabinet officials watched Baghdadi’s demise in real-time.
From the White House, President Trump stated that “Baghdadi’s demise demonstrates America’s relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders, and our commitment to the enduring and total defeat of ISIS and other terrorist organizations.” That statement is a blunt declaration of the Trump doctrine’s attitude toward global terror.
In announcing the successful operation, President Trump described Baghdadi as a “loser,” “coward,” and “dog,” and those like him as “frightened puppies.” I’m honestly uncertain of what to think about such language as I’m simultaneously relieved Baghdadi is dead while also sensitive to the US taking a morose victory lap over its enemies. Needless to say, most Americans are not accustomed to hearing a president speak in such stark terms.
Words will fail to accurately describe the reign of terror this vicious and evil exporter of Islamic fundamentalism oversaw. From torture to beheadings to setting individuals on fire, the Islamic State represents a near-dystopic unveiling of humanity’s propensity for calculated evil.
The Western world will look on with justified relief that one of the global architects of this century’s vilest regime has been killed.
Any occasion where an evildoer has been brought to justice is an occasion to bring the Christian moral tradition to bear on the situation. So what might Christianity say to the news of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi committing suicide as he fled US forces?
Christian statecraft can simultaneously affirm, even in his death, the human dignity of Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi while approving of his death as a justified action in the laws of war.
While Romans 13:1-7 is typically the relevant text for matters of just war, I want to point further back to the reconstituted social order of the Noahic Covenant to look at Baghdadi’s death through the lens of creational justice. I do this to ground retributive justice as a function of natural law and the creation order’s need for mechanisms of social preservation.
Genesis 9:5–6 states, “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’”
This passage has been a locus classicus for justifying capital punishment throughout church history. Because human beings are made in God’s image, God upholds the sacredness of their status by promising equal punishment if an image-bearer is murdered. This is, at face value, a basic contour for justice. It requires no special revelation for its persuasiveness as its principle of reciprocity simply reflects human conscience.
Within the Christian political tradition, government is to render this form of judgment or reckoning on behalf of its citizens. Not because the logic of retribution belongs to government only, but because the logic of retribution—and the justice it hopes to accomplish—is a function of human conscience. This is important for us to understand: the natural response of thanksgiving when someone like Baghdadi dies reveals that the conscience is properly ordered. This does not imply retributive justice licenses vigilantism inasmuch as Noahic justice legitimizes reciprocity in matters of justice. The natural response to an offense is for the offense to be dealt with. In other words, the natural response to an injustice is to rectify it by a proportional counter-response that brings parity and equilibrium.
As I want to argue, the reconstituted social order of the Noahic Covenant—which remains binding on earth’s inhabitants—sees retributive justice as an action that my fellow Baptist theologian Jonathan Leeman calls a “preservative” action. I further argue that the Bible’s demand for retributive justice is synonymous with what I call “preservative justice.” In this paradigm, retributive justice accomplishes preservative justice by ensuring a restraining effect is present at both the level of human conscience and government jurisdiction. Because the conscience desires a moral reckoning and a Romans 13 decree endows government with the ability to bring about this reckoning (e.g., “judgment”), civil society is given a mechanism to ensure its continuity and safety. Preservative justice, then, is a function of common grace and natural law. Consider these two passages in light of what I have written above about rendering judgment:
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:3–4)
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. (1 Peter 2:13–14)
According to these two passages, the government’s job is to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good. Retribution is only an issue when there is bad conduct or evil. I like how Leeman goes on to establish this principle of Noahic preservative justice grounded in the imago Dei:
Everything a government does—every law it makes, every courtroom ruling it declares, every executive agency code it enforces—it should do for the purpose of protecting and affirming its citizens as God-imagers. Its work of establishing or upholding justice must always be measured by the standard of the imago Dei. Anything that harms, hurts, oppresses, exploits, hinders, tramples upon, degrades, or threatens human beings as God-imagers arguably becomes a target of the government’s opposition.
This backdrop of retributive and preservative justice is a condition of justice itself, justice being the state of affairs where all parties are owed what is properly due to them. This allows for the moral declaration of something being “bad” or “good.”
When we understand the utter heinousness of what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did through his reign of terror, no hard calculation is required to understand he deserved to die at the hand of government power. For that, Christians should make no apology.
Predictably, noted Christian pacifist Shane Claiborne tweeted after Baghdadi’s death that “Christians should never rejoice in death,” citing Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11 and Proverbs 17:17-18.
Claiborne is both right and wrong in what he tweeted. Claiborne is right that Christians should have no share in gleeful bloodlust. He is wrong to believe Christians cannot share in their fellow man’s thanksgiving that the perpetrator was brought to ultimate justice. To rob humanity of its thanksgiving is to rob it of its conscience and further trample on the graves of the murdered.
Satisfaction and acclamation are two separate matters. At the conceptual level of what it means to be created in God’s image, we can lament someone is dead, and at the same time express satisfaction and thanksgiving that wrong-doing has stopped.
I take no personal joy in the death of a fellow human being. But I share no remorse that a vicious architect of ISIS’ barbarism is dead, either. For his countless acts of callousness and injustice, Baghdadi deserved to die, and I can be thankful that the world is spared from his terror without sacrificing my Christianity to say as much. In killing a combatant, the government has brought to bear its essential calling: to restrain the evil-doer through legitimate authority. The world is a safer place and will go on with less fear and turmoil by his death. In that sense, the world has been spared and preserved.
The death of Baghdadi serves as a timely reminder that government is at its most fulfilled purpose when it is doing, quite literally, what its basic and primary calling is—Noahic preservative justice: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Romans 13:3).