May 12 2011

NT Wright: not right about everything

Category: religion,terrorism,theologyharmonicminer @ 3:16 pm

Here is another take on the issue of the Christian response to terrorism, and specifically the killing of bin Laden.

The Flawed Theology of N. T. Wright « Commentary Magazine

One of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, N. T. Wright is a man from whom a great deal can be learned about church history and Christian theology. When he ventures from his specialty into areas he does not know very well—international affairs, for example—Bishop Wright is unfortunately prone to silly statements motivated by a brittle political ideology.

In the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, Wright criticized the United States for practicing a “form of vigilantism” and providing “ ‘justice’ only of the crudest sort.” America acts as the world’s “undercover policeman,” according to Wright, and he doesn’t much like it. And then he added this:

And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?

Wright is falling into a common error, which is to assume the Sermon on the Mount was intended to articulate a political philosophy and blueprint for how the state must conduct itself. In plain fact, the moral duties placed on persons are, in important respects, different from those placed on the state. Indeed, within Judaism and Christianity the state has invested in it powers and responsibilities that are different from, and sometimes denied to, persons.

In Romans 13, for example, St. Paul—to whom Wright has devoted several books—makes it clear that human government is divinely sanctioned by God to preserve public order. If the standards of the person are simplistically applied to the practices of the state, it would follow that, because persons are called to “turn the other cheek,” the state must do the same—thereby making the criminal-justice system unworkable and invasions by foreign powers inevitable.

Collapsing the distinction between person and state represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of government, which has granted to it powers of life, death, and coercion denied to individual persons. And these powers can be used to defend innocent lives and establish social order. They can also create the conditions that allow the church to exist, Christians to minister, and good works to be done. For this reason, the callings of soldier, policeman, and president are not merely permissible for Christians, but honorable.

By the logic of Wright’s argument—Jesus told us to love our enemies and those who take up the sword will perish by the sword—we should never retaliate under any circumstances: not against bin Laden, Mugabe, Pol Pot, Saddam, Hirohito, Hitler, or anyone. Proportionate and discriminate force would never be justified. What kind of moral world does Bishop Wright conclude would emerge from his political theology? And would he, who attended Oxford and now teaches at St. Andrews, be willing to live (or to ask his children and grandchildren live) in it?

The Christian response to tyranny is not nearly so simple-minded. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian during the time of Hitler’s rise to power. His American friends helped him escape in 1939, but he believed that he had to return to Germany to stand in solidarity with persecuted Christians there. “I shall have no right . . . to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people,” Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Reinhold Niebuhr.

Once an avowed pacifist, Bonhoeffer joined an organization that was at the heart of the anti-Hitler resistance, became an advocate for the assassination of the Nazi dictator, and was eventually executed for his role in the plot. The camp doctor who witnessed the execution wrote:

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer . . . kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of the execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brace and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

Bonhoeffer’s decision reflected “the finest logic of Christian martyrdom,” Niebuhr declared, and belongs “to the modern Acts of the Apostles.”

Quite apart from his obvious valor, Bonhoeffer displayed tremendous integrity, sophistication, and deep understanding when it came to Christian ethics. It would be beneficial for N. T. Wright to reflect upon, and to learn from, Bonhoeffer’s example.

It’s probably dangerous for we mere mortals to criticize the likes of Rev. Wright, with his amazing contributions to New Testament scholarship and the like.  But that very erudtion is what prompts me to wonder how such a brilliant person can fail to see the distinction between personal ethics (and a person acting only AS an individual person) and governing necessities.  If all the Muslims in Britain decide to organize and burn down every church in the Isles, not to mention every Christian seminary and institution, at what point will Rev. Wright’s disdain for violence in response to violence give way to recognizing the responsibility of governments to protect their citizens?

On another occasion I plan to discuss what seems to be included in the “turn the other cheek” metaphor, and what does not.  But it surely is not intended as a charge to renounce all violence, when that’s what is necessary to protect the innocent.

12 Responses to “NT Wright: not right about everything”

  1. Anthony says:

    Turn the other cheek? That is what Jesus said, is that what he said to do at all times? Absolutely not, he is slow to anger but does not fail to act on enemies. What about David? A man after God’s own heart. He was a warrior by necessity. A champion for Gods people. There are many times where isrealites enemies were “delivered into his hands”. On Saul he showed mercy and would not touch him, because he was the Lords annointed.

    My point is God is love. And love doesn’t do the same thing every single time. Love wants to turn the other cheek. But many times Love is a champion that jealously defends. He said that those who “live by the sword die by the sword” that is a logical and true statement. It begs the question though is anything worth dying for? If you remeber Jesus said that just before he died for us.

  2. tonedeaf says:

    PSALM 144 1 Blessed be the LORD my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight:
    2 My goodness, and my fortress; my high tower, and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust; who subdueth my people under me.

  3. Anthony says:

    I really like David

  4. innermore says:

    Ancient Despotism and Imperialism are completely morally inferior to modern Republicanism and Democracy. Are you suggesting today’s civil interaction should morally emulate those described in the scriptures, written during such an incredibly brutal period in human history? The Bible doesn’t speak on how one behaves as part of a Government Of The People, let alone said government. None of this existed then. One can certainly draw conclusions from the Bible for personal freedom and spiritual growth. But as far as ethical governments and proper citizenship? Isn’t that a bit of a stretch? backwards?

  5. harmonicminer says:

    Well…. in a word, no. The NEED for government, the existence of nations, the rightness of self-defense by those nations, the responsibility of government to be honest and not corrupt, to be basically for the purpose of protecting the people, are sound Biblical principles, on view throughout. Does the Bible endorse every action of every government official reported in the Bible, or every one from other historical sources about ancient times? Hardly. It is a calumny to suggest so, which you come close to doing by calling all ancient government brutal and beneath decent notice, and then somewhat implying that the Bible approved of that.

    The Bible certainly does speak about how to be a good citizen, whether or not you are a member of the ruling class, whether or not you have authority. It tells those in authority to be content with legal compensation, not to steal from the people, not to oppress the people, etc. It tells citizens that the institution of Government is God ordained…. but it doesn’t tell citizens that any particular government is God ordained, save those ruled by people who seek God’s ways first, and everything else second. There weren’t many of those in ancient times…. and there aren’t many now, to understate the situation.

    So we pick and choose, we make evaluations of which governments (and nations) are generally better than which, which STYLE of government is generally better than which, etc., while thanking God that we don’t live in utter, governmentless anarchy, nor do we have a government that refuses to defend its people most of the time (though, sadly, it certainly does so some of the time).

    Notice: God was reluctant to give Israel a king. Israel wanted one anyway. It paid a price, didn’t it? There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

  6. innermore says:

    You’re speaking to the What, I’m speaking to the How of the situation, which is time-sensitive. Of course the Bible speaks about good citizenship, but within the context of decidedly primitive government styles, as you put it; styles that necessarily over-emphasized centralized power. Scripture writers then needed to instruct the Powers That Were how to morally exercise their authority; and teach the people how to basically survive and overcome frequent abuses. I get that. What I was driving at is that the overall, human created, Authoritarian “God Ordained” social structure, for all its Biblical precedence, isn’t working out so well; particularly regarding self-defensive conflict and warfare. I thought nuclear deterrence put an end to proxy wars. What happened? Mass conventional warfare was supposed to be the last self-defensive recourse in civilized societies. Why does it seem to be increasingly the fir$t? And some good people think it still isn’t enough?

    “Seek ye first the Kingdom Of God…” or the Republic Of God? Maybe God’s reluctant kingdom-founding (small k) has learned its lesson. Maybe “representative government” has come as far as preordained autocracies can be positively advanced, and it’s just not efficient enough anymore. For example, I’m amused but a bit apprehensive about this new “virtual consciousness” emerging out of, ironically the last remaining Ancient Tyrannies in the Middle East. Most curiously, the seizure of power by the people seems purely by the people. Strangely going against traditional, dare I say sacred models, they have no “leaders.” Non-violent Facebook-Twitter-produced, pre-First-Samuel revolution in Egypt and Tunisia have rendered many casualties, but apparently not anarchy (yet). I hear this unique brand of civil resistance was inspired by a book by Gene Sharp.

    These new solutions to old conflicts are not as bloody as the ongoing conventional wars in Afghanistan and Libya at least, not as destructive and drawn out (depending on your time span of course). We’ll see how The Empire Strikes Back in Syria, Yemen and Iran. All the more reason why this new “Social Media” struggle needs to be fostered. One way is to frame it more as a condemnation of Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda method, perhaps violent vindictive self-defense methods as a whole. Would you regard this phenomena as a convergence of personal morality with the collective? As social progress, or just Progressivism or Pacifism run amok?

  7. harmonicminer says:

    I’m not optimistic about the Middle East anytime soon. I think the Muslim fanatics are going to provide the focus for general angst…. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Social media aren’t going to change the underlying issues, which are societies that have benighted views of the nature of God and human beings.

    You seem to have misunderstood what I said about the Bible’s teaching. Or maybe you just misunderstand the Bible’s teaching. Either way, “Authoritarian ‘God Ordained’ Social Structure” (I take your quotes around “God Ordained” to mean “not really God Ordained”) ISN’T what the Bible holds up as “the model.” It holds up TRULY God-Ordained social structure (which isn’t quite the same thing as government). Pointing out how badly non-Christian oriented governments have behaved is surely a target rich environment. Did it seem to you that in doing that you were making some point in contrast to what I said? I’m confused at your intent.

    I’m trying to understand your point in the comment(s) above. I’ve decided I can’t. You seem, to me, to contradict yourself, or simply reverse yourself, frequently enough that for me to engage each occasion of same would take more time than I have to give to this.

    Can I make a suggestion? Try to write one central point in a paragraph. Say one thing. Use a topic sentence. Then write only sentences that support that topic. When you’ve supported it adequately, start a new paragraph, with one topic sentence. Try to avoid random asides.

    As an example: I have no idea what this,

    “Seek ye first the Kingdom Of God…” or the Republic Of God? Maybe God’s reluctant kingdom-founding (small k) has learned its lesson. Maybe “representative government” has come as far as preordained autocracies can be positively advanced, and it’s just not efficient enough anymore.”

    has to do with the rest of the paragraph, and I didn’t understand how “representative government” was a pre-ordained autocracy in the first place…. whatever one of THOSE is. What is an “Ancient Tyranny”? Trying to imply the governments haven’t changed since Pharonic times? Or? Just too many loose asides, and I can’t tell what you’re trying to say with comments like “You’re speaking to the What, I’m speaking to the How of the situation, which is time-sensitive.” ???????

    See if you can say one thing. Support it. Don’t throw in diversions, random asides, or made-up terms. Try really hard not to put anything much in quotes, since that can mean almost anything. Maybe start with one of those original thoughts you mentioned earlier?

  8. harmonicminer says:

    Please understand, Innermore. I’m not saying your ideas are all bad. I’m saying I can’t tell what they ARE. Really.

  9. innermore says:

    I apologize for rambling. Let me try to simplify this Christian response to the Bin Laden and terrorism thing. The article held up Biblical teachings about both “personal ethics and governing necessities” and the common failure to distinguish between the two when judging which response is proper. First of all, I think a lotta folks can distinguish the two very well, for agenda-fitting reasons. You know what I mean: bouncing back and forth between the two teachings to support their teaching? We all do it. I agree that the two types of teachings exist, but I question taking the “governing necessities” part as seriously as the “personal ethics” part. The governing ethics/laws were originally made to apply to the societies of that particular era. And there weren’t any governments or tribal councils back then that even slightly compares on any level with the representative republic democracies of today. Well, maybe Rome, but hardly. With that in mind, I’m saying it may be wise to carefully scrutinize most of these teachings before drawing modern analogies with them. With the luxury of hindsight, one might do better going with just the governing necessities teachings that agree with the personal ethics teachings for now. Slaughtering the prophets of Baal or grinding the bones of your enemies may not be as appropriate for entities like NATO as it was for the 12 tribes. Therefore, although I can admire 911 families dancing on Bin Laden’s waterlogged grave, I don’t think Mosaic Civil Law is needed to justify this behavior. Also, rejoicing a violent death may not be justifiable to a pacifist, but that doesn’t mean either view is wrong. The justification for something like this is strictly a personal ethic in my book, and that deserves at least begrudging respect either way, not cheap and loud demonizations. My own personal ethical take on this issue is that in courtesy to others personal responses, my own response remains private. I might tell my wife but, respectfully, it’s really nobody else’s business.

    I became a little too hopeful when you said you noticed God was reluctant to give Israel a king. Notice: none of the subsequent triumphs and tribulations the Israelites went through from then on was remotely close to what you and I would call truly God-ordained social structure, although Solomon sure thought it was. If it was, they would still rule the earth. Almost every nation that ever existed has piously claimed God-ordination of some kind at one time or another. I think the lesson learned is: God-ordained social structure cannot be understood by our naturally self-serving governments or religions. At least not for long, and probably not at all. But bits and pieces of it can be learned individually. It was this personal ethic which Jesus tried to teach.

    But, thank God, not every good soul sees it that way. Take for instance the founding fathers. They heroically attempted to cram as much personal ethic into government necessity as they could. It’s called a working practical democracy, which is possibly a lot closer to God-ordained than anything that preceded it. But it still isn’t It, though many sure think it is. The founders didn’t have much raw material to work with. So it deteriorates over time. As an example: the people we elect to represent us are getting more and more autocratic every cycle. Do you really think that’s by accident? Turning an Oxford alumni, self-proclaimed, pre-ordained old autocrat into a representative for and of the people has its royal drawbacks even today. I cited the youth uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia as optimistic examples of new approaches to those drawbacks.

  10. harmonicminer says:

    Ok, I think I have some sense of what you’re getting at. But I think you’re misreading the OT, still. However…. too tired tonight to say much about it. Maybe tomorrow.

    For now: replace the narrow kind of “democratic republic” you mention (and which I admit I find preferable myself) with the idea of “the consent of the governed” (which HAS existed in other times and places, and sometimes even with non-oppressive/non-repressive governments, for a while), and maybe Biblical principles of government can be generalized more than you think.

    But more later.

  11. innermore says:

    I notice some items on the list of “Biblical principles of government” spill over into the personal ethics category, or vice versa. i.e. be good (citizens), don’t abuse (your authority), don’t steal (from the treasury), etc. Except for the ethics related to the iffy “right to national self-defense” rule (Jesus wasn’t too keen on returning evil with evil), looks like there’s not much of a distinction at all. Examining this imperative national self-defense idea: ethics violations force nations to defend themselves. i.e. terrorists being bad global citizens, tyrants launching missiles over borders, nations stealing from other nations etc.

    SO, my overly idealistic thought process goes like this: if the whole world adopted personal Biblical ethics, then nations wouldn’t need to defend themselves against other nations. The ethical principles of living would equal the ethical principles of governing. Um, I know we’re getting into the unstable, pure democracy/pure anarchy dilemma here. I agree with the writer of this article: merged personal/national ethical principles can approach (conceptually) the dangerous realm of imaginary Utopianism. But I contend, this may happen not because I’m “collapsing the distinction between person and state.” There is no distinction in a pure democracy (or anarchy). It’s because, like I tried to express before, you are stressing the classification of ethics instead of their administration; the “what” instead of the “how.” THIS is the commonly unrecognized distinction that I see.

  12. harmonicminer says:

    Explain this more: I’m still not seeing it.

    “There is no distinction in a pure democracy (or anarchy). It’s because, like I tried to express before, you are stressing the classification of ethics instead of their administration; the “what” instead of the “how.” THIS is the commonly unrecognized distinction that I see.”

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