Shamima Begum: Is Wright Wrong Again?

One does not glibly nor lightly quarrel in public with a world-renown theologian. Indeed, when it comes to theological matters, I am more than happy just to walk humbly and cautiously before an esteemed New Testament scholar such as N. T. Wright.

But when Wright wanders into public policy pronouncements, I often find myself screaming, “Wright, how can you be so wrong?” Sadly he can go off the cliff with leftist group-think on various issues instead of offering us critical – and biblical – thinking.

As but one earlier example, he came out saying some really quite bizarre and unhelpful things concerning the death of Osama bin Laden by US forces in 2011. He penned some silliness which reflected the left’s moralism more than the Scriptures’ ethical principles. I wrote an entire piece on that one:

As to his theological views, they are of course not without its critics. I tried to outline some of the main areas of contention in this piece:

But as I say, it is more often his commentary on contentious social and ethical issues that I often find myself at odds with. Consider his recent remarks about an English gal who joined IS to help slay the infidels, but now wants to come back home.

Let me preface my remarks by saying I have spent a fair amount of time looking online for his actual letter, and I am not sure I have seen it in its entirety. I may have, but the London Times website does not allow me to see it. So if there is more to his letter than what I have been able to dig up, I of course cannot respond to that.

Here is background to the story: Shamima Begum fled her east London home to join IS in 2015 when she was 15 years old. A week after she arrived there she married a Dutchman who had also fled the West and joined IS. She had three children, two of whom have died, and now she wants to return to the UK.

Obviously, a big public debate has erupted over this, with many saying (rightly in my view) that a traitor like this who joins a murderous death cult should not be allowed to return. The media has been full of pros and cons on all this.

It seems that one London Times reader, Clive Chafer, sent in a letter saying government ministers should get “a bit of backbone” and bar her from returning. He said that trying to rehabilitate Begum back into UK society would be too costly and risky.

It was to this that Wright sent a letter in response: “As a taxpayer, I can’t fault Clive Chafer’s letter warning against letting Shamima Begum come back home. As a Christian, I cannot help reflecting that if Jesus had thought like that he would never have told the parable of the Prodigal Son, which neatly marks out his teaching both from Islam and from the cold logic of secularism.”

Hmm. So he uses the story of the Prodigal Son to presumably urge the government to embrace her and take her back in. As I say, I am not sure how much more there was to his letter. It seems that at least one more line was involved, since one article refers to it indirectly: “‘We must remember that those who left Britain to join Daesh were full of hate for our country’, he said, according to Sky News.”

Those who might have his letter in full are urged to share it here in a comment thanks.

But based on what I have, this to me is another example of where Wright gets it wrong as he strays into controversial social and political matters. Surely a world-class theologian like this is aware of certain biblical basics. And one such basic is that Scripture of course refers to both a personal Christian ethic, and also a social Christian ethic.

That is, the individual Christian is not the only player here that can act ethically. God of course created other institutions by which he helps to run things in a fallen world. He of course created the state, and he created the church. All three have differing relationships with each other and to ethical matters:

-The individual Christian is a member both of the state and the church.
-How an individual Christian responds to things may well be different from how the state is to respond.
-The roles of the state and church are different, although there is some overlap here.
-The state deals with crime and punishment, while the church deals with sin and forgiveness.
-Not all sins are crimes, and not all crimes are sins.
-Both the Christian and the state have certain obligations that they must carry out.

Confusing the roles and works of all three can often lead to trouble – and an unbiblical view of things. But I have written about all this often now. See for example these articles:

I encourage you to have a careful read of those pieces. But let me try to illustrate in practical fashion how all this might work out. Let’s say I am an English Christian who has a brother who is a peace-keeper in Syria or Iraq. Let’s say that Begum was directly or indirectly involved in having my brother killed while she was with IS.

How should I respond? Well, as a citizen, I would have every right and expectation to see justice carried out and wrongdoing punished. Romans 13 lays out those basic roles of the state. And it is possible that my church might want to take her in – Prodigal Son-style – if it so chose to do so.

But what about me? I of course can choose to personally forgive her for the great evil she was involved in and inflicted on my family (and how many other innocent men, women and children were tortured and butchered by her and/or her Islamist buddies?). But I can also allow the state to do what it should do in terms of justice.

So I could rightly agree with the state that this person not be allowed back in the country, or if it does allow her in, that she be punished to the full extent of the law. After all, she has shown no remorse thus far for any of this. Or I could join the Wrights of the world and speak about the Prodigal Son, etc.

It seems both responses could be acceptable. But again, my point remains: how I respond to her is quite different from how the God-ordained state responds to her. And it seems that Wright and others are quite fuzzy on all this. For example, Christianity Today asked other theologians about their views on this.

Some were equally appalling in my eyes. New Testament prof Gary Burge for example said this:

His father risks everything to do the unexpected and “repatriates” him to his family and village. The principle here is the same. The incoming prodigal needs to meet a community that is courageous, unexpected, and gracious. These would be Christian values at work in public policy and it would be as controversial and unconventional as Jesus was in Luke 15.

Oh dear. No I do not see these two cases as being morally equivalent – not even close. Thankfully some others who were asked about this got things a bit better. Martin Accad pointed out some obvious differences:

I am not sure I agree to compare Begum to the prodigal son. It is clear in the parable that the prodigal son was “repentant” and came to his father for forgiveness, believing he did not even deserve it. In Begum’s case, according to reports in The Guardian, she is not repentant and only wants to return to give birth to her child and receive government support. This is quite an abusive position, very different from the parable of Jesus….

And Elizabeth Oldfield said in part:

Do not seek vengeance, it is mine to avenge, says the Lord, after all. Should Begum or Muthana [an American in similar circumstances] be a friend or family member of ours, the commandment would be clear. The state however, is another matter. Mercy and forgiveness are key themes, but so is justice. And when Scripture talks about the responsibility of a good state, justice is central. Scholars of all political persuasions agree that if you can extract one directly applicable political lesson from the Bible, it’s the need for access to justice.

The myriad victims of ISIS’ brutality, to which these two contributed, will likely never see most of their tormentors face justice. With these two women they can. Not as vengeance, cast out into the stateless darkness, but repatriated and tried. Though we can forgive, the victims if they wish can forgive, the state can and should not. That’s not its job.

As mentioned, if Wright had more to say about this case than what I have quoted, I look forward to seeing it. But too often we simply get rather emotive social justice-type responses to these matters when a bit more biblical and moral clarity is in order.

Islamic terrorism is real, and we need to hear the voices of their victims, not just a London gal who now wants to just go back to her old life and pretend nothing has happened. Indeed, with no remorse, how do we know that she will not go on to take part in acts of terrorism in her home country?

Sorry, but offering rather glib references to the Prodigal Son parable just does not seem to really cut it here.

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26 Replies to “Shamima Begum: Is Wright Wrong Again?”

  1. I agree, we have to be wise and not all accepting. Begum is nothing like the prodigal son!

  2. Hi Bill, thank you for a very thoughtful article. If you can access all of N.T. Wright’s letter on this topic for further scrutiny and comment then well and good. If not then by all means continue to run with what you’ve got. As you quite rightly stated in your article, there is a separation of church and state. With the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus certainly highlights some important principles on forgiveness. However, if you do a thorough exegesis on the passage, and in particular look ar Jewish customs of that era, it will reveal that other residents of the community where the prodigal came from would have taken a very dim view of his return. If not for his father “escorting” him home, he would have likely been surrounded and accused of bringing shame on his family and his community. That could have led to an extreme punishment such as banishment, or even worse, being stoned to death. This goes back to your original assessments of the separate roles of church and state! If Shemima Begum is allowed back into the U.K. it will incur more financial cost on the community, as she will have to be monitored both physically and electronically for many years to come. As it stands, the British Government doesn’t need any additional Muslim extremists running loose in the community if it can help it. I’m with you Bill. N.T. Wrights use of the story of The Prodigal Son was not a well thought out choice. This story has a way to go, and with “Brexit turmoil” in the mix, it will be interesting to watch. Blessings, Kel.

  3. The Sydney Mardi Gras was held last night. Beyond the usual denigrating, celebrating, corporate-sponsoring, safe-schooling, equal-loving, debauching etc etc there were a number of floats which demonstrate that all is not sweetness and light within the LGBTQI movement. Below is a sample.

    26. ACON – NSW’s leading HIV prevention, HIV support and LGBTI health organisation.

    30. Order of Perpetual Indulgence (Sydney House) – Forever Fearless after 37 Years

    108. Australian Asexuals – Asexuality should be viewed as equally legitimate as any other gender or sexuality falling under the umbrella of diversity

    114. Uniting Network – Previously known as the Uniting Church

    124. Oceanic Pups and Handlers – Bark Wars. No limitation can ever be put on your fetish and imagination

    125. Studio Kink & Sydney Leather & Fetish – Fetish, Fierce and Fearless. From whips and crops, to full leather and latex, collars and cuffs & harnesses

    126. Australian Leather & Fetish – Unashamedly visual kinky leather, rubber, pup and fetish group

    152. Uniting – Welcoming You Exactly As You Are. Previously known as the Uniting Church

    167. Bisexual+ Visibility. Proud to bring the B back to LGBT+!

    178. NSW Users and AIDS Association – Highlighting the continued failure of the ‘War on Drugs”

    192. Shellharbour Shag-Harders – “Man! I Feel Like A Woman”

    Australia’s possible next Prime Minister, who marched said, “I love Mardi Gras, it’s one of the best times of the year”.

    But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, . . . . .

  4. Right again Bill. When people equate returning to God with returning to the UK anyone with any Biblical knowledge whatsoever should see why God resists the proud.

    The argument I heard was that they should let her return so they can keep an eye on her. Isn’t it amazing how socialists governments can do things like keeping surveillance on people and it doesn’t cost anything? I’ve got a better idea – don’t let her into the country and save all that money.

    It all really comes down to faith in the end. These people who think you do good to people by enabling their wrongdoing are simply demonstrating they are blind leaders of the blind with absolutely no faith in God or what the Bible says whatsoever. We are not talking about a prodigal son situation (and prodigal means wasteful, not treacherous anyway) and we are not even talking about a good Samaritan or turning the other cheek. We are talking about facilitating evil.

  5. The issue over Begum has caused fury here in Britain. She claims she “accidentally” joined ISIS, but now wants to come back to the country that she fought against. She isn’t the only one; there are others of her kind who also want to return to Britain, a place that they utterly detest. Incredible isn’t it? Over 500,000 people have signed a Downing Street petition to keep her out. But the way our government is behaving right now, she is likely to be allowed to return, given a free house and benefits and melt away as if nothing happened. All this repentance of theirs is fake, in order to gain state goodies. I’m sorry but I trust none of them.

  6. Dear John,

    Do you live in Sydney? I do. And the worst thing was not the disgusting “Gay Mardi Gras” and what it stands for.

    What is worse is how the wider community and businesses have embraced it.

    The whole of the city is plastered with rainbows. And it’s not just the work of Clover Moore but all sorts of big and small businesses are displaying the rainbow colours. I had to go to the city twice this week and I was horrified with how the city I call home has surrendered to the homosexuals.

    We need to take back our city, but how?

  7. Thank you for the article Bill. This is a difficult one because I feel so sorry for her innocent child and whatever decision is made it will affect that poor little one who did not ask to be born.

    She may not be a bad mother but the extreme form of Islam which Isis stands for and which she has supported is grossly evil.She was not a child when she chose a life with Isis. Apparently she still thinks she did no harm in supporting it so this is why she can’t feel any remorse. In my opinion unless she repents that makes her an unfit mother because she will influence the way the child thinks in the future.

    I think if she were genuinely remorseful there would be signs of it not in just what she says but in what she does. The first thing she would do is cast off the ridiculous garment she wears because she would realise it is symbolic of the evil ideology ISIS says it stands for. One would think she would have had enough of it.

    Even more one would think the sight of the severed heads in bins which she is supposed to have seen would be enough to make her realise how evil Isis is. There cannot be anything more disrespectful and inhumane towards a fellow human being than to put their head in a bin as if it were rubbish for everyone to see. All I can say is she must have become very hardened to the suffering ISIS caused.

    Therefore the UK is entitled to ask what will it take to make her repent of her sins?

    She can in no way be compared to the prodigal son who was sorry for what he had done and begged for his Father’s forgiveness.

  8. Comment under the article, Australian Army promo for the Gay Mardi Gras

    It offends many that Defence personnel march in the Mardi Gras in uniform, and now they further offend by taking the promo photo in front of the Sydney War Memorial. To please a few, Defence offends many.

    What some might find more offensive is that the Dept of Defence has to pay a fee to the Mardi Gras organisers to march in the parade. It may be small at $750.00 but it is the principle.

  9. In the Mardi Gras, Christianity was obviously ‘fair game’. However I must have missed the floats(s) protesting against Islam’s treatment of LGBTs.

    In the Mardi Gras, Qantas (which codeshares with Emirates) shouted its LGBT credentials. However, I must have missed the Qantas’ position on LGBT rights in the United Arab Emirates.


  10. Yesterday I sat on my lounge chair and, while I try not to watch TV much these days because it has become so overwhelmingly evil, especially around homosexual “Mardi Gras”, I watched long enough to see a woman on SBS slandering Mike Pence and I became angry as usual because of the constant, one-sided propaganda, lies and slander the public broadcaster is allowed to get away with. Then after a particularly vivid dream I had this morning I realized what it is like. It’s like standing on the top of a cliff and seeing a shipwreck happening before your eyes and realizing you have loved ones going under and then realizing there is no way you are going to be able to get down and save them in time.

    Yes there will be a particularly hot place in Hell for those who run the public broadcasters and Bill Shorten and the like because they and their ilk are the cause of this shipwreck. I just hope that, despite being weakened by the shock of what is happening before my eyes, I will be able to help pull a few of the stronger people out of the water. People are dying before our eyes and it’s not just unborn children. People are being swamped by misinformation, slander, lies, misrepresentation and propaganda and it’s happening on my watch.

  11. Hmm, I do not see any connection whatsoever with Luke 15:11-32. since you would first have to identify:-
    1. The son. (who is plainly Shamima)
    2. The father (who is the government)
    3. The elder brother (presumably the citizens of the country.)

    I cannot see:-
    1. Repentance in Shamima.
    2. The government running to welcome the unrepentant and if they did plainly God doesn’t run to the unrepentant.
    3. The citizens being the ones who need to repent.

    N. T. Wright has spent years in academia I think he is at St Andrews University at the moment and before that at Oxford. You must understand universities are places where reason and logic goes to die I’m afraid. not places where you are likely to hear wisdom!

    I disagree that Shamima would be out of place however, she would fit perfectly well into any “Western Muslim” state, it’s Christians who are not.

  12. Thanks Michael. As a Christian I prefer not to just slavishly follow what the secular left normally does in these areas, be it censorship, resorting to violence, shouting down others, vandalism, destruction or graffiti, etc. That is not to say there can never be a place for such actions, but they are not my preferred options as a Christ-follower.

    Can I think of a better way to fight back? Yes, actually I can, and I have often written about it. There are plenty of things we can do, beginning with prayer and spiritual warfare of course, but also involving countless activities and actions. See here for example:

  13. I agree with Bill – we should not to resort to their methods – prayer is our ultimate response.

    A next response is by highlighting the hypocrisy inherent in much of what goes on..

    Further. remember ungodly activities which are so prevalent today, inevitably carry the seeds of their own destruction.

  14. Thanks again Michael. I of course quite like Lyle and know him well, but I don’t regard his words as divinely inspired (and I am sure he does not either)! And I have yet to see Lyle engage in this sort of action.

    I realise that pugilism seems to run in your blood(!), but had you read my comment carefully you would have seen that I said this: “That is not to say there can never be a place for such actions, but they are not my preferred options as a Christ-follower.”

    A similar thing happened in 1997 in Melbourne when some young Catholics took a hammer to a blasphemous “work of art”. I wrote about that here:

    As I said in that piece, “Now while I don’t normally approve of violence or the use of force in these cases, I don’t mind giving a bit of credit to these brave Catholic teenagers.” It is one thing to applaud their courage, but quite another thing to urge others to resort to this sort of activity as our chief means of protest.

  15. Dear Bill,

    Saying “I applaud the people who did this but I don’t approve of it and don’t want anyone else to do the same,” sounds like doublespeak to me.

    Maybe I’m just a simple man.

    Thanks anyway brother.

  16. Michael Taouk > A major concern regarding the use of “their methods”, in responding with matching actions, inevitably ‘justifies’ their escalation of the aggravation.

    Some people go out of their way to try to antagonize Christians. What they desperately want is an angry response by the Christians.

  17. Thanks Michael. Not to belabour all this, but your characterisation of what I said (“I applaud the people who did this but I don’t approve of it and don’t want anyone else to do the same”) is of course a far cry from what I actually said (“It is one thing to applaud their courage, but quite another thing to urge others to resort to this sort of activity as our chief means of protest.”). As to any simplicity on your part, I will let others be the judge of that!

  18. Michael Taouk.

    I 100% support those who painted over the sacrilegious mural and in fact I would go so far as to say, if people had the technical capability, of pulling the plug somehow on sacrilegious broadcasts done by the ABC and SBS, the principle is the same. There also may be battery operated spray painters that could possibly do the trick quicker than rollers. If government authorities refuse to do the right thing and enforce the laws against bias in the public media and against religious vilification, then further action is inevitable but we must always remember that anyone who resorts to violence will be denied. Defending oneself, however, is approved both by the law and the scriptures but make sure you have the evidence.

  19. Thanks Michael W. You of course can do whatever you like, including going around smashing things or painting over things, etc. But three quick replies (again, not wishing to belabour all this and keep going over the same old ground again and again):

    -The right to self-defence is of course biblical as I have written elsewhere. But biblical self-defence has nothing to do with acts of vandalism, defacement, graffiti and the like, which is what is being discussed here. So it is foolish and unhelpful to conflate the two. See here:

    -Anyone who wants to engage in these actions can do so, but then they should be willing to suffer the consequences of their actions, if need be. There can be a place for civil disobedience and the like, but normally it means being willing to face the music for our actions. See here:

    -Those Christians wanting to mimic and copy the secular left by resorting to such acts and actions – whether violent or not – will then have to explain to the public at large how such activities make us any different from the feral left, and how they represent biblical ethics and the teachings and example of Christ.

    Once again, as I have said repeatedly now, there may be a time and place for such actions, but normally as a last resort, and normally when all other avenues have failed to bring about change.

    Finally, this entire thread is now really getting far afield of my original post, which was about a returning jihadist!

  20. Hi Bill, I agree with you and some of the other writers.
    Begum didn’t accidently review online beheadings or Isis gun battles. She didn’t accidently arrange transport to the IS camp. She didn’t accidently get married to the Dutch IS fighter, or accidently get pregnant.
    She has never regretted or repented over the bins full of heads, or for getting herself into this situation.
    The Prodigal Son was about repentance and forgiveness. This jihadist has made it clear that her outlook or perspective on IS and the jihadi movement remains the same. She uses her child as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. This raises the question around whether she would have sought a return if she hadn’t been pregnant, hadn’t already lost 2 children and wasn’t in a refugee camp.
    Bringing home a radicalised jihadi (she had been thus even before she left the shores of the UK) will be fraught with issues, including being used as a jihadi/IS poster girl for recruitment.

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