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“The president said recently, after the death of Osama bin Laden, that ‘justice has been done.’ From a biblical standpoint, was this truly justice or simply revenge?” —Terry
Bear in mind that biblical ethical content is prescribed primarily for religious reasons; i.e., it is directed toward people who desire to be faithful to God and to reflect His purposes in the world.
This means at least two things: legal codes and notions of justice appear differently at different periods of biblical history; and, “faith-based ethics” are more readily practiced by individuals than by groups — especially governments and nations.
Notions of justice develop over time in the Scripture. In the ancient “noachic covenant,” the lex talionis (a life for a life) was established (Gen. 9:5-6).
Later, the mosaic system of laws spelled out right behavior — for example, fairness, honesty and respect for life, family and property — and attendant consequences, ranging from fines to capital punishment.
The New Testament presents a radical “advance,” if you will, upon these legal codes.
The lex talionis is gone. Instead, Jesus emphasized the spirit of the covenant law: guard your thoughts, extend grace toward adversaries, love enemies (Mt. 5-7).
Paul, following Jesus, instructed Christians never to take revenge. “Care for your enemy,” he said, “and leave vengeance to God” (Rom. 12:17-21).
We cannot say what motive drove the action you mention above. An “Old Testament” kind of justice may have indeed been intended — this would resemble an old west or a clan-like settling of scores: “You killed my brother; I’m going to kill you.”
This brand of “justice,” however, is hardly distinguishable from revenge. In many instances, this may be the best a government can do.
Governments are not known for love or radical forgiveness or for “leaving vengeance to God.”
These responses are the province of individuals who pray for both their government and for the enemy.