One of our Predator drones last week took out the American al-Qaeda terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki in northwest Yemen. This man was the inspiration and, in some cases, the director behind the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, the Fort Hood massacre, and many other slaughters, both real and attempted. His death is good news, no?
Should we simply weep over a fallen world where murder is common and either lethal response or the threat of it is regrettably necessary? Or, like Osama bin Laden's destruction at the hands of our Navy SEALs, is this violent end to an international mass murderer a time to pop the cork and throw a party? Was the 10th anniversary of 9/11 an occasion not only to remember our dead but also to celebrate our victories?
We saw the same discomfort with retributive justice at the Reagan Library debate between GOP presidential candidates. The liberal establishment was shocked that the Republican audience cheered Texas Gov. Rick Perry's chart-topping record for authorizing executions. NBC's Brian Williams asked him, "Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you struggled to sleep at night?" Perry responded, "No sir. I've never struggled with that at all," citing the thoroughness of the process, the heinousness of the crimes, and the deterrent value of the punishment.
But what made news was the cheers, not his answer. Media personalities asked what monstrous people these are who are poised to take decisive control of our government just over a year from now. Even conservatives like Peggy Noonan and Joe Scarborough (yes, of course, they're conservatives) were disappointed that the candidates did not rebuke the audience.
But they were not celebrating "killing people." They were cheering justice. And this is understandable in a day when government spreads its power where it has no business being, but is scandalously slow, inefficient, or completely inactive where it is called to be strong: in punishing evil "[The one who is in authority] 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 13:4).
In the end, the problem comes down to theology, not political theory. People do not believe that God has revealed Himself in the Bible as "infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, goodness, justice, and truth" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 4). I find this squeamishness, even among some of my evangelical Christian students, about God's retributive justice-about the effective execution of divine wrath by God's appointed, sword-bearing agents-a cause for cultural and political concern.
If divine authority does not stand behind political office, then police power and the power of war become simply means of control, not instruments of justice. If there is no divine justice, no transcendent standard of good and evil, then politics is just as Thrasymachus told Socrates in The Republic, "the advantage of the stronger."
Or it is a merely visceral, and thus selfish, desire for revenge. Within that moral horizon, decent people, of course, recoil at it. Without a return to God-not a sentimentalized and reduced God, but the fully biblical God of both wrath and grace, of both judgment and forgiveness-our political life will become ever more dangerous and our private lives increasingly less secure.