Wednesday, May 04, 2011

"Justified sin"

Arminian theology prof. Roger Olson has once again graced the world with his profound moral insights. In the age of terrorism and counterterrorism, we’re truly blessed to have a man of his crystalline moral clarity to guide us.

I live in a city where the majority of people consider themselves serious Christians and where I see lots of bumper stickers that raise doubts about whether all who think they are really are. 

I often get the same feeling when I read Roger Olson.

One thing Yoder (Anabaptist) and Niebuhr (Christian realist) would agree on is that Christians should never celebrate killing–however justified it may be.  Anabaptists like Yoder probably think no killing is truly justified.  Christian realists like Niebuhr probably think some killing is justified, but no killing is righteous.  I find myself leaning toward the Christian realist view on this, but when I read the Sermon on the Mount and think about what Jesus would do I have trouble believing a Christian ought ever to kill.

Except that Olson doesn’t really care what Jesus taught. He pays lipservice to the Sermon on the Mount, but he doesn’t lift a finger exegete the relevant passages.

With Olson we get a totemic reverence for Jesus, yet while he’s prepared to quote what Jesus said, he’s not prepared to ascertain what Jesus meant. But what about the Sermon on the Mount?

1 .Jesus uses several examples to illustrate what an “enemy” denotes:

i) There’s the kind of enemy who dishonors you (Mt 5:39). That’s a personal indignity, not a threat to life and limb.

ii) Then there’s the hypothetical plaintiff who sues an indigent defendant (5:40). Since, as a matter of fact, the Mosaic law (Exod 22:25-27; Deut 24:12-13) forbad a plaintiff from doing what Jesus depicts, this illustration is hyperbolic. The point is that Christians should be prepared to go over and above their minimal legal duties.

iii) Then there’s abuse of power by representatives of the Roman occupation force (5:41). Once again, that’s not a threat to life and limb.

In addition, Jesus is a realist. When you’re dealing with a situation like that, resistance is futile. Jesus is, in part, shadowboxing with the Zealots.

iv) Jesus also anticipates the religious persecution of his followers (5:44; cf. 10:17; 23:34). We should pray for our persecutors.

2. What Olson also overlooks is that Jesus isn’t teaching us to love our enemies rather than our neighbors. Jesus takes neighbor-love for granted, but extends that principle to our enemies (properly defined).

But what about situations in which the two come into conflict? What if your enemy is also your neighbor’s enemy? And what if the enemy is dangerous?

Olson acts as though, if a mugger accosted his wife, it would be his Christian duty to hold her down while the mugger beats her. But there’s a difference between turning your own cheek, and offering someone else’s cheek to strike (not to mention that “turning the other check” envisions humiliation, not assault and battery, much less intent to commit murder).

However, even Anabaptists believe God gave the sword to the state and so some killing is justified even if it is sin.  But it is never justifiable for the Jesus follower to kill.  It is not God’s will for his people to kill.

i) “Justified sin”? But if it’s justifiable, how can it be sinful–and if it’s sinful, how can it be justifiable?

ii) Likewise, how can something contrary to God’s will be justifiable?

Christian realists believe sometimes God’s people must hold their noses and kill.  But even when killing is absolutely necessary (e.g., in the case of Bonhoeffer participating in the plot to kill Hitler) the Jesus follower must not celebrate.  The appropriate response is instead to repent and trust God for forgiveness.

i) Why should we repent of something that’s “absolutely necessary?”

ii) I wonder if this doesn’t reflect the moral and metaphysical dualism inherent in Olson’s Arminian theology. The world is full of evils which are contrary to God’s will. God didn’t plan them or intend them.

As a result, Christians frequently find themselves caught in moral dilemmas, where it’s “absolutely necessary” to commit sin.

That certainly takes the Arminian worldview to its logical extreme. But, frankly, if that’s what he believes, then how can we trust a God who leaves us with no righteous options?

These last two days America has been in a frenzy of celebration over the killing of one of our and humanity’s worst enemies.  Personally, I’m glad he’s dead IF that is the only alternative to him engineering more horrendous deaths through terrorism.  Apparently it is.  But I can’t celebrate.  And I can’t understand Christians who do celebrate death–especially when there is “collateral damage” as in the case of the woman used as a human shield.

i) It depends, in part, what we mean by “celebrate.” We don’t celebrate killing for the sake of killing. But we may rightly celebrate a just outcome.

ii) Why assume the women in the compound weren’t devoted followers of bin Laden? Doesn’t Olson think women are free moral agents?

Now, the Niebuhr in me wants to pat the Navy Seal who killed on the back and say “Good job!”  “Now let’s pray for forgiveness.”

Forgive them for doing good?

The Yoder in me wants to say “Now let me talk with you about being a peace maker instead of a killer.”

Of course, that’s a false dichotomy.

There was no hint of sorrow for innocent lives lost in war or repentance for our numerous military incursions into non-combatant countries to defend our “national interests.”  (The US has, without invitation by legitimate governments, militarily intervened in Latin American countries about 150 times.)

We can debate the pros and cons of American foreign policy. Our policymakers are not infallible.

However, I assume Olson is alluding to Cold War policies to check the spread of communism. It was the duty of US presidents to oppose the expansion of communism.

In conclusion, while I’m glad the snake has been decapitated, as a Christian I can’t celebrate any violent death.  I can only breathe a sigh of relief and pray “God have mercy.”

God have mercy on whom? Killing him was an act of mercy to bin Laden’s innocent prospective victims. And justice for his innocent actual victims. 


  1. Olson seems like a moralizing Pharisee.

  2. "But even when killing is absolutely necessary...The appropriate response is instead to repent and trust God for forgiveness."

    Wait, what was that? Was Olson saying that sometimes people no choice but to sin?!?

  3. What a sanctimonious sniffling screed! I want to go wash out my eyes after reading that drivel.

    And he's paid to teach that skubalon to impressionable young people?


    In Christ,

  4. Did Olson just up and forget about that collection of books called The Old Testament?? Would he turn around and tell the Israelites celebrating the victory of their enemies that they were sinning and needed forgiveness?

    Man... Some people.