The Archbishop of Canterbury's bad manners

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is very annoying. He says the thing that really ought not to be said, at the moment when nobody wants to hear it; and says it, what is more, with gentle force, causing people to stop in their tracks and reconsider. It is a very unpopular thing to do, especially when people are in the middle of rejoicing, or hating, or some other collective passion.

Yesterday, while people were stil celebrating the extinction of Osama bin Laden, he was asked at a Lambeth Palace press conference whether the US had been right to kill him. After some reluctance to give a response at all -- Archbishop Rowan always knows when he is about to flung into the fire, and yet his honesty always wins out over his fear -- he replied: 

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"I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling, because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done in those circumstances. I think it’s also true that the different versions of events that have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help here. I don’t know full details any more than anyone else does. But I do believe that in such circumstances when we are faced with someone who was manifestly a war criminal, in terms of the atrocities inflicted, it is important that justice is seen to be observed."

The British papers this morning have been full of the usual indignation at his "left-wing" views and head-shaking at his "naivete". The usual guff about how churchmen should stick to religion is everywhere. The veteran British officer Colonel Bob Stewart, whom I debated this morning on BBC radio, said we should know all the facts before "pontificating".

But the Archbishop made clear he didn't know all the facts. He was making a point about the one fact we now do know: that bin Laden was unarmed at the time he was shot. Whether he was executed by deliberate order (the complications of arresting and trying him are after all almost too great to contemplate) or because he failed to surrender (the Navy Seals feared a suicide vest or worse) is among the facts we don't know. But that he was shot while unarmed leaves open the strong possibility that this was an extra-judicial killing.

To which a chorus of voices has cried: so what? Did bin Laden care about the death of unarmed people? Why have any sympathy for such a monster? But this is not about him; it's about us, and whether the means of self-defence we deploy to preserve our way of life are consonant with our values, or whether, in sacrificing principles for the sake of a perceived immediate goal, we hand our enemies a victory, and so prolong the battle.

That's the point the Archbishop wanted to make. When terrorists wage war on democratic countries under the rule of law, they not only slay the innocent but tempt civilized nations to abandon the rule of law. And they key point about the rule of law is that nobody is outside it, whoever they are and whatever they have done; and the law cannot be set aside because it is justified to do so. The enormity of bin Laden's crimes, therefore is irrelevant; if anything, it makes the need for deploying the law more, not less, compelling. 

We put Hitler's henchmen on trial not because we cared about them but because we cared about what they scorned. A war criminal is one who has committed grotesque crimes against humanity. Those crimes need to be punished in such a way that they are made less likely in the future.  In a strange way, we gave bin Laden an easy way out: after all death, for such a man, is the norm.

Although, as the Vatican said, no one should ever rejoice over another's death,bin Laden's demise means that the threat from this darkest of all dark lords has been neutralized, and that, certainly, is a cause for relief.  It was a superbly executed, daring operation for which President Obama deserves all the credit. But if it turns out -- and there are lots of "if's" -- that what President Obama meant by "justice" was in fact retribution or revenge, then a great opportunity to teach a lesson to bin Laden's followers and admirers has been lost. For killing an unarmed man looks too much like what Al-Qaeda does for that lesson to have much impact on the wider world.

And taking my cue from the Archbishop of Canterbury's tendency to make easy enemies by saying what is unwelcome, I'd add this: if, in the US, this discomfort is not as prevalent as it should be, look no further than the death penalty -- for there is nothing better designed to tempt a nation to abandon the moral anchor of its law. Apart from terrorism, that is.

 

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PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
I thought +Rowan's comments were very restrained, perhaps even too restrained, but I welcome them.  He is the only major world religious figure I know of thus far to make the obvious observation that if the current narrative of the facts is true (that Osama was captured alive unarmed, then summarily executed in front of his family, in an operation that both violated Pakistani sovereignty and may well represent an unlawful extrajudicial killing) that this would raise moral questions.  Hello, isn't that patently obvious?  Where's the outrage?  Everyone possesses human rights including the right to due process according to international law or nobody does; if you can make an exception for Osama bin Laden then nobody is really protected.  I really expected a response from religious leadership much more like the following than +Rowan's more guarded remarks:

http://pauljgriffiths.com/2011/05/03/lament-for-an-assassination/
http://lonelygoth.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/calling-things-by-their-name/

I was particularly disappointed in the Catholic hierarchy of the UK and Wales not picking up on this rhetoric after +Rowan's remarks, stating that they would not comment on the issue.

I'm glad Human Righ ts Watch and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial killings are on the scene.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vXF0qMQPds&feature=player_embedded
ttp://tinyurl.com/6ybyfpv

But moral leadership on human rights should be coming from the religious hierarchy, not merely the international human rights community.
RUTH ANN PILNEY
7 years 4 months ago
He has stated exactly my own sentiments.  So glad I'm not alone on this.
Crystal Watson
7 years 4 months ago
"this is not about him; it's about us"

I agree - the Archbishop makes a really good point. I'm glad he spoke up.

 I saw that NT Wright  also commented - "Whose justce  was done?" ... http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/whose-justice-was-done/2011/05/02/AFgQvqfF_blog.html
Bill Collier
7 years 4 months ago
I think this is possibly the best of your many fine contributions to this blog, Mr. Ivereigh, and I also applaud Archbishop Rowan for his candor and his courage to take the hard road on this issue. There is a lot we don't know, but I've been amazed at how many people I've talked to about the OBL mission who think surrender would not have been a non-lethal option.

You got it spot on with this passage:

"When terrorists wage war on democratic countries under the rule of law, they not only slay the innocent but tempt civilized nations to abandon the rule of law. And they key point about the rule of law is that nobody is outside it, whoever they are and whatever they have done; and the law cannot be set aside because it is justified to do so. The enormity of bin Laden's crimes, therefore is irrelevant; if anything, it makes the need for deploying the law more, not less, compelling." 
7 years 4 months ago
He should have stuck with his initial reaction: reluctance.  Prudential silence in the face of great uncertainty is sometimes a virtue; I thought the response of Arch. Nichols much better.

While his comments may be tempered, one cannot help but feel as though they are being made without knowing all the circumstances.
PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
"If Archbishop Rowan had been asked if he thought that Osama Bin Laden should have been executed under ANY circumstances, including after having been convicted of mass murder and condemned to death by a formal war crimes tribunal, he in all likelihood would have given the same answer as Mr Ivereigh and the vast majority of other European intellectuals: No."

And what would be wrong with that, seeing that is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church that capital punishment is morally reprehensible for advanced societies who possess the ability to restrain wrongdoers through imprisonment?

"He should have stuck with his initial reaction: reluctance.  Prudential silence in the face of great uncertainty is sometimes a virtue; I thought the response of Arch. Nichols much better.  While his comments may be tempered, one cannot help but feel as though they are being made without knowing all the circumstances."

He said upfront that he did not know all the circumstances and that certain circumstances, if true, would raise serious moral questions.  He did not capitulate to moral cowardice by remaining silent and he did not extend the scope of his claims beyond his epistemological limits.
PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
"Finally, I would remind you that we put Hitler's henchmen on trial AFTER the war was over and Germany had formally submitted to an unconditional surrender. During the war, we were desperately trying to kill them at every opportunity, with zero regard for legal niceties."

US armed conflict with Germany was a formally declared war for which established international law permitted such killing.  We are not at war with Pakistan, and so possessed no right to invade its territorial sovereignty.  And under international law you cannot lawfully conduct wars with non-state entities such as Al-Qaeda; in such circumstances, the legal framework is that of the use of police powers, which are subject to different protocols which categorically forbid the killing of unarmed civilians unless they pose an immediate lethal threat to those attempting to apprehend them.  Because we are not at war with Pakistan and it is not a theatre of military operation, the use of these police powers by the US within Pakistani territorial boundaries would require explicit Pakistani authorization, or else it is unlawful.
PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
I'm sorry that you dissent from the magisterium in believing that capital punishment can be morally justified when life imprisonment is an option and that human rights and the rule of law can be abrogated as a matter of convenience, but it is more tragic that you dissent from the teaching of Christ in Matthew 5, which clearly governs this situation.


Eye for Eye
    38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Love for Enemies
    43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Frank Gibbons
7 years 4 months ago
Austen Ivereigh wrote -

if, in the US, this discomfort is not as prevalent as it should be, look no further than the death penalty - for there is nothing better designed to tempt a nation to abandon the moral anchor of its law. Apart from terrorism, that is.

Surely, Mr Ivereigh also meant to include our nation's acceptance of legalized abortion as well.
PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
I just found your radio spot.  Good interview, Austen!
7 years 4 months ago
"If the US hadn't made bin Laden a bogeyman, this would never have been an issue.  The desire to have an official face-of-the-enemy, an evil villain glowering down from a poster, is childish."

Am I reading this sentence correctly or am I dreaming?  THe US made bin Laden an "enemy"?  HUH?  Pray tell, how does that logic work because I guess blowing up 3,000 innocent unassuming people in midtown Manhattan had nothing whatsoever to do with anything?
Barry Moorhead
7 years 4 months ago
The debate on the 6 May World Service Update begins near the end of the broadcast, around the 0:47:25 mark.
Marie Rehbein
7 years 4 months ago
We all have to go sometime.  Obviously, it was bin Laden's time to go. 
Stephen O'Brien
7 years 4 months ago
I respectfully dissent from P. J. Johnston’s comment that the official position of the Catholic Church is “that capital punishment is morally reprehensible for advanced societies who possess the ability to restrain wrongdoers through imprisonment.” 
 
On the contrary, the new catechism states-and, in view of historical truth, is obliged to state-that the Church’s traditional teaching does not exclude the state’s use of its right to execute those guilty of serious crimes.  In its treatment of the death penalty in section 2267, the catechism cites section 56 of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical *Evangelium vitae*, but a careful reading of section 56 shows that the Pope is expressing his own personal view concerning the death penalty-an evaluation which, as his own words show, he did not wish to impose (and could not impose) on the entire Church. 
 
In John Paul II’s encyclical, please note the significance of the overlooked transitional words at the beginning of the last paragraph of section 56: “In any event [*Quidquid id est*].”  I suggest that that phrase, though brief, should be understood to mean the following:  “Whether or not Catholics agree with my own personal view of the legitimacy of resorting to capital punishment in the contemporary world-and it is their right to disagree, given the evident fact of the Church’s having allowed the use of the death penalty for centuries without having condemned it as murder-I believe that it should never, or almost never, be used.” 
 
I also suggest that, in the future, and especially after stronger Popes and bishops have dealt with the post-Vatican II turmoil and confusion still raging in the Church’s human aspects, the Magisterium will make increasingly clear that Catholic teaching on this subject has not really changed (in the sense of a reversal).  In fact, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger already moved in this direction when he made the following statement in his 2004 letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Bishop Wilton Gregory: 
 
“While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.” 
 
Here is a link for that letter: 

http://www.priestsforlife.org/magisterium/bishops/04-07ratzingerommunion.htm
PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
I think that's a misreading of the catechism, but in the end the catechism matters far less to me than Christ's absolute prohibition of violence in the sermon on the mount.  The power of the sword and allegiance to Christ are simply incompatible.
PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
I think that's a misreading of the catechism, but in the end the catechism matters far less to me than Christ's absolute prohibition of violence in the sermon on the mount.  The power of the sword and allegiance to Christ are simply incompatible.
james belna
7 years 4 months ago
Oh please, let's be honest here. If Archbishop Rowan had been asked if he thought that Osama Bin Laden should have been executed under ANY circumstances, including after having been convicted of mass murder and condemned to death by a formal war crimes tribunal, he in all likelihood would have given the same answer as Mr Ivereigh and the vast majority of other European intellectuals: No.

Once you have taken the position, as it appears Mr Ivereigh has, that a man like Osama Bin Laden has the moral right to kill 3,000 innocent men women and children without even having to face the possibility of being executed for those murders, you have pretty much disqualified yourself from being taken seriously as a commentator on moral principles. Of course, if Mr Ivereigh wants to make clear that would have had no problem with Osama Bin Laden being executed after a proper trial, I will stand corrected.

Finally, I would remind you that we put Hitler's henchmen on trial AFTER the war was over and Germany had formally submitted to an unconditional surrender. During the war, we were desperately trying to kill them at every opportunity, with zero regard for legal niceties.
james belna
7 years 4 months ago
"And what would be wrong with that, seeing that is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church that capital punishment is morally reprehensible for advanced societies who possess the ability to restrain wrongdoers through imprisonment?"

As it happens, the events of 9-11 proved that we did not possess the ability to restrain Osama Bin Laden before he murdered thousands of people. The best we can do - the best any moral society can do - is to try to deter murder by making it clear to murderers that sooner or later they will be made to pay the ultimate price for their crimes. The alternative - to tell prospective murderers that they can kill as many people as the want, under any circumstances whatsoever, without facing even the theoretical prospect of being put to death for their crimes - is an affront to the dignity of innocent human life and an abdication of society's obligation to defend itself. But perhaps I am wrong. Do you really believe that it is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church that terrorists should be able to plan and carry-out the mass murder of thousands of innocent people with a pre-existing guarantee that the maximum punishment that they face is life imprisonment?
PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
I'm reading this book right now and I recommend it to everyone else too:

http://www.amazon.com/Messages-World-Statements-Osama-Laden/dp/1844670457

People rarely decide to go on a violent offensive against others unless they feel they are responding to some kind of provocation, and if you really want to understand a conflict in order to make peace and end it, at the very minimum you need to know the thoughts and motivations of both sides.  This is true even if you don't want to end the conflict peacefully but are looking for military victory, because then you need to understand your enemies.  When I was growing up my dad was MI (military intelligence) and completely loyal to the US, but he'd have us up late at night listening to whatever unjammed shortwave radio signals we could get from Radio Havana Cuba or the Soviet Bloc because even if you're ultimately going to respond to your enemies in a military manner, you still need to understand them.  It is essential to democratic decision-making that we hear everyone's POV uncensored and in their own voice.

When I got a little older, I tried to apply this as best as I could - I got my own shortwave to get all my news on issues that involve US national self-interest from a wide variety of non-US sources, because any country's reporting will be the most biased on its own perceived national interest.

When it comes to US military conflicts in the Middle East and terrorism, you don't get any information of value from domestic media, and very little from the world press (even with the recent advantage of the internet).  On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, if you wanted the Iraqi perspective on events you could not get it - the US government was jamming all the Iraqi news outlets it hadn't already bombed, so the only source of news was the US and its allies.  No way to correct for one-sidedness.  It's the same with jihadists, terrorists, etc.  Without going to a lot of effort, if you don't read Arabic (as I do not), you will never get an unmediated, uncensored, direct presentation of their views because we simply do not do that in the Western media - we endlessly circulate stereotypes and caricatures and slogans.  Maybe this is what David Smith means in referring to Osama Bin Laden as more of a "bogeyman" than anything else.

We're never going to end the problem of terrorism through peace-building, military action, or in any other way until we demystify the "all good or all evil" cartoon character versions of our friends and enemies and begin to understand actual conflict situations in their complexity.
Stanley Kopacz
7 years 4 months ago
We've killed many more times the number of innocent people killed in 9/11 since then.  We call it collateral damage and it's ok.  Amazing how Bin Laden initially escaped from Afghanistan.  Having a living breathing bogeyman was perhaps necessary for the master plan and keeping the proles stoked up.  And now, here he is, not holed up in a Pakistani cave, but in comfy suburb.  Let's fire another 20,000 teachers and send another billion dollars to our good ally.
Mission accomplished.  Let's bring the troops home.  And the money, too. 
Stephen O'Brien
7 years 4 months ago
There is no absolute prohibition of force, including lethal force (as in capital punishment and just warfare), in the Sermon on the Mount.  There is only Jesus's command to exercise maximum forbearance with enemies on all levels - an utterly different ethical perspective.

If the above understanding of the Sermon on the Mount is erroneous, then Jesus's promise to speak over the centuries through the teaching authority of his Church (Lk 10:16) is worthless, and there is no point in being a Christian.
PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
On the contrary - Christianity accepting the use of violence would be a legitimate reason not to be a Christian.  You should read John Howard Yoder's "Politics of Jesus," or any mainstream Biblical scholar's exegesis on the Sermon on the Mount.  You might find the results surprising.
PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
http://ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/revenge-not-way

John Dear, S.J. has a very good piece about the sermon on the mount, the Christian obligation to non-violence, and the killing of Osama bin Laden over at National Catholic Reporter.  I don't often find theological opinion pieces I agree with without nuance or qualification, but this guy speaks the Gospel straight and true.
PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
"If Christ really urged his followers in no uncertain language to give in to all aggression, he was preaching a morality that required suicide.  How could two thousand years of theologians have missed that?"

He did preach a morality that required suicide ("if you do not take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple"), and the Church did not miss that.  No Christian bishop, theologian, or council before Constantine is on record supporting the view that a Christian was allowed to kill under any circumstances. Most of them argued that Christians could not even be soldiers or magistrates unless they occupied this social position before their conversion of Christianity, and then they must not kill or order anyone to be killed. A few required them to renounce their position as soldiers or governors altogether, whether or not they promised to refrain from killing, because the position would present irresistible temptations to water down the Gospel.

http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/publications/33-1/nonviolence-in-the-ancient-church-and-christian-obedience

You can fact check by consulting a half a dozen or so books on the subject of early Christian beliefs about warfare and peace written by authors from a variety of positions on the ideological spectrum (just war, pacifist, total war, whatever).  You will find that the teaching of the Church for its first 300 or so years was absolute unconditional non-violence, and that it sold out when it got a Christian emperor under Constantine.
PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
It's difficult to know what God intended, but I'm hesitant to say that God intended the teachings on non-violence to be ignored, mostly because they're what interest me in Christianity in the first place!  If God really wants us to be violent, I'm frankly not all that interested in God.  (I know that's pretty personal, but when it comes to trying to read the intention of God from historical events, you're on such iffy ground that you might as well come clean and say what you really want, because that's what you're going to end up saying those historical events teach anyway).

I don't think this necessarily ends up being suicide, it just can if you're unlucky enough to be violently attacked and violence was the only plausible way to resist.  (But I think we imagine that violence is the best/most plausible way to resist far more often than is actually the case.  You might be interested in an article about that by Walter Wink:  http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml).
http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CC8QFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ekklesia.co.uk%2Fcontent%2Fcpt%2Farticle_060823wink.shtml&rct=j&q=myth%20of%20redemptive%20violence&ei=LTjKTeqhHI2itgfEiMWLCA&usg=AFQjCNFA2rj5PbMGlGJtbqClpdlR9tGs8A&cad=rja

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