I never thought I would write an article locking horns with N.T. Wright. Certainly not on a political matter, since he is a New Testament scholar and theologian, not usually given to writing all that much on contemporary political issues, although he has done so on occasion.
Thus if I were to disagree with him, it would likely be over some theological issue. And anyone familiar with his work knows that there are indeed some major areas of theological controversy which have come about because of his writings. But before I get to his recent political remarks, let me say just a bit more about Dr Wright.
He is arguably one of today’s best NT scholars from a basically conservative stance. The English Anglican and former Bishop of Durham is tremendously prolific, with around three dozen works to his credit, both of a scholarly, academic nature, as well as in a more popular vein (as to the former he uses the name N.T. Wright, but with the latter titles he uses the name Tom Wright).
I obviously have a deep appreciation for him, given that I own 22 of his volumes. His monumental 6-volume work, Christian Origins and the Question of God is halfway finished, and the remaining three volumes are eagerly awaited by myself and countless others. But as noted, some of his views, especially on Paul, justification, imputation and related issues, have not pleased everyone.
Plenty of debate has erupted over his stance on these topics, and plenty of volumes for and against have appeared. In 1999 for example Carey Newman edited a collection of essays assessing his work (Jesus and the Restoration of Israel). Various scholars wrote in, followed by Wright offering a concluding chapter.
It may not be oversimplifying things too much to say that Wright responded in part by saying, “Hey, you guys haven’t really read me! You guys misunderstand what I have been trying to say!” And in 2007 John Piper wrote an entire volume critiquing his view of justification (The Future of Justification). Of course Wright came out with his own volume, Justification, in 2009. The debates continue.
However what I do want to address here are some of his recent remarks concerning the death of Osama bin Laden. While he is without doubt a world class NT scholar, that does not automatically make him an expert in international relations, geopolitical affairs, international law, or military ethics.
He tends to come from the centre-left when he discusses various social and political issues. Here he obviously wants to distance himself from some of the more conservative writers on this incident. He wrote a brief letter on this a few days ago in which he sounds not unlike many other critics of America’s action.
And sadly, he seems just as morally confused. He offers a scenario of British agents coming into America to take out some IRA terrorists holed up there. This is not a frightfully new objection. I already dealt with a very similar criticism in my comments section a week ago: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/05/02/osama%E2%80%99s-death-and-fuzzy-christian-thinking/ (comment on May 3).
Just as that commentator was amiss in her thinking, can I respectfully suggest that so too is N.T. Wright. The simple answer I would give to both of these folks is this:
If a known mass murderer and terrorist was holed up in the US, actively involved in ongoing acts of terror around the world, and had killed 3000 innocent people in London, but the US was unwilling or unable to do anything about it, and English intelligence discovered his whereabouts, and sought to take him with a bare minimum of collateral damage, then I would say ‘go for it’.
Of course in this fictitious scenario, we would not know if in fact any collusion between the English and American governments took place regarding this raid. In the same way, we just do not know, and for various security reasons, may never know, just how much involvement – if any – the Pakistani government had with this operation.
Wright blasts “American exceptionalism” and trots out the usual leftist rhetoric about America being the world’s policeman, etc. Indeed, he rather foolishly labels the US action as “vigilantism”. It is disappointing that Dr Wright starts engaging in this rather juvenile leftwing silliness.
As I have written so often now, seeking to ensure some international justice in the war against terror is not vigilantism, is not revenge, and is not hatred. Retributive justice operates every day both within and between nations, and it is part of the God-given means whereby social order can be maintained in a fallen world, and evil can be curtailed in a just fashion.
All this has been seriously thought about for at least two and a half millennia now, with oceans of ink already spilled on such things as political philosophy, justice in international relations, just war theory, international governance, and so on. This is not cowboy America just going out for a joy ride here Dr Wright.
This is about protecting innocent men, women and children from more such terrorist attacks. Of course killing one terrorist mastermind and ring leader will not mean the end to terrorism, but it will put a major dent in it. In the same way, taking out a major drug dealer or child pornography ring will not end all of that activity.
But certainly for the victims involved, it is a very good thing indeed that some of these evil perpetrators were dealt with. NT Wright closes by upholding Jesus, “who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword”.
I have already spoken at length, as have others, of the rather elementary distinction which the NT makes between personal ethics, as found in the Sermon on the Mount, and social ethics, as found in Romans 13. Surely a great NT scholar such as Dr Wright can make these rather basic distinctions.
Is he really a pacifist? Does he really believe that there can never be a just and moral use of the sword? Does he really believe that the use of force is always counterproductive? As to the first question, a small minority within Christendom has chosen that option, and he is welcome to do so as well if he so desires.
As to the second, he of course contradicts not only Romans 13, but the very basis of human government as ordained by God way back in the book of Genesis. And as to the third, try telling that to the languishing and dying inmates at Auschwitz.
I have already said how much I appreciate N.T. Wright and his great work as a theologian and NT scholar. I may not always agree with all of his positions, but I am always happy to consume any of his new books as they appear. But sadly I must say that on this issue I don’t think he has really contributed anything much of help here.
He simply trots out the old leftist clichés and displays more of the same anti-Americanism that so many English lefties have displayed for decades now. As to his wading into moral theology in the context of geopolitical realities, I am not all that impressed to be honest.
But to be fair, this was just a short letter. He wrote an entire volume on ethics in 2010 called Virtue Reborn. And I repeat, I will continue to read him eagerly, and you will undoubtedly see more of my reviews or articles about him in the days to come. But on this issue he was quite disappointing.