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Friday, May 6, 2011

Challenging Tom Wright

N.T. Wright has been an important shaper of my understandings of Scripture, Jesus and worldviews. I have had the opportunity to turn many people on to his writings over the years and have felt that he deserves his stature in the world religious community. His biblical scholarship is second to none and I rejoice that he has become a go-to person for comment on Jesus scholarship around the world. All of that is enough to perk my interest in what he has to say about the U.S. attack on bin Laden in yesterday’s Guardian.  It saddens me, really, to see that he goes way beyond the reflections of Miroslav Volf and David Gushee who I responded to in recent days.  I hope you will indulge me in a lengthy post today, because I feel that Wright’s stature and the long reach of The Guardian warrant a considered, detailed rebuke.

Wright’s essay breaks nicely into three sections: first, an imaginative story he asks us to consider; second, a deconstruction of the “myth of the American superhero”; third, a final sentence giving Jesus  the final word. I will consider all three of these, while quoting the column in full.


Consider the following scenario. A group of Irish republican terrorists carries out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the US, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this seems plausible enough.
But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we've still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.
What's the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is subject to different rules to the rest of the world. By what right? Who says?

So, lets be clear.  I have not cut anything out of this article. I am not lifting portions to fit my argument. The “Bishop of Durham and an internationally renowned New Testament scholar”, as his profile at The Guardian reads, has just invited us to consider his IRA scenario and strenuously asserted that the only difference between his imaginary scenario and the recent events in Pakistan is American exceptionalism. So, consider it we will.

1.    Consider the differences between the IRA and Al-Qaida.

In seeking to connect with the sympathies of his British audience, the Bishop implies that there is a strong comparison between the IRA and Al-Qaida. Yet, one of the distinguishing marks of Al-Qaida is there lack of a clear political goal short of a restored caliphate over all Islam countries. Is the good Bishop saying that the basic goal of the IRA was/is equivalent to that goal? In seeking to fulfill that goal Al-Qaida leadership was continually exiled from country after country and could never, by any fair measure, claim to have represented the interests of anything approaching the majority of the citizens in any single country in which they acted, until arriving in Afghanistan. Is the Bishop meaning to equate the support of the IRA’s goals among the people it claimed to represent as being on par with the support of Al-Qaida’s goals among the people it claimed to support? In the pursuit of their sweeping goal of upending regimes across the Islamic world Al-Qaida cooperated with and helped to sustain the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and developed a terrorist operation that struck in exponentially larger ways than the IRA in not one country, but in four continents (Africa, Asia, Europe and North America). In this global effort Al-Qaida made clear its embrace of an ideology that justified killing on a mass scale. Entire embassies were obliterated in Africa, coordinated attacks of subway systems in Spain were carried out, suicide bombings in city after city of Iraq were initiated, Saudi Arabia endured numerous high scale attacks, John Paul II was nearly assassinated in a visit to the Philippines, and then of course there was the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In all of this time there was never the slightest hint of an attainable political goal, a pause to negotiate, the formation of a political wing like a Sinn Fein, or even a hint that anything short of the overthrow of numerous regimes across the world would end their terror. In fact, there was the promise and demonstrated intent to utilize biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in a variety of settings including but not limited to the United States.  This is the comparison the Bishop wants to make.

2.     Consider the differences between a group of Irish Republicans carrying out a bombing raid in London hiding in the United States and the mastermind of 9/11 living in Abbottabad.

For the Bishop’s scenario to be, as he puts it, “plausible”, he dramatically underplays the difference between the actions of 9/11 and the ongoing threat of global terrorism by saying that it compares to an IRA bombing raid in London.  I do not want to discount the suffering of the British over decades of IRA actions, but to say that there was a comparable hit on London like the hit on New York City is preposterous; to compare the level of IRA actors who hid out in the United States to bin Laden is laughable; and to compare the threats that bin Laden has been linked to during his years in Abbottabad to what we know any of the IRA people were doing while hiding in the United States is, frankly, ridiculous. Yet his entire point rests on these assertions—England would have had just as much of a reason to launch an attack of the United States to take back an IRA terrorist who participated in a bombing raid in London as the United States had to what we did on Sunday. Outside of a pub in London, I can’t think of many people that would equate the two things. Besides Wright, I have not heard any other comparable statesman or churchman so downgrade the history of terror and ongoing threat of terror to the global community presented by bin Laden and Al-Qaida. Now, I am not about to enter into the thorny history of IRA/England/United States interaction (in fact, it smacks of parochialism for the Bishop to invoke that murky history), but I will say that it stretches that narrative to beyond breaking to say that the United States supported IRA terror in a way comparable to Pakistan’s deeply ambivalent relationship to Al-Qaida and its Taliban cohort.

3.     Consider the reaction in Pakistan to the imagined reaction in Washington.

In his scenario the Bishop imagines that the United States would be “furious” and assumes that has been the clear reaction in Pakistan. I have my doubts. Cetainly there are members of the extremist community in Pakistan that are “furious”, and I have no doubt that those aspects of the military and intelligence community that have for decades been “riding the tiger” of supporting terror in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Mumbai (the continued refusal to deport known conspirators in the Mumbai bombing is, thanks to Wikileaks, plain for all too see) are surely furious that their delicate relationship with Al Qaida and the US has been disrupted. But many of these people are the same ones who were “furious” that Benazhir Bhutto came back to Pakistan and orchestrated her assassination. Just as there were thousands of Pakistanis (the majority?) who mourned her death, there are thousands of Pakistanis who welcome bin Laden’s death and know that their government would never have accomplished it. And I have reason to doubt that civil authorities within the government who are regularly left in the dark by the military and intelligence community are more furious at a military and intelligence establishment that has shamed the state by either incompetence or complicity. Reports from Pakistan say that Whether they supported or loathed bin Laden, Pakistanis across the board are furious that the ISI and the powerful military, which control national security policy, could have been so incompetent not to know that the al Qaeda leader was comfortably holed up in Abbottabad, only 80 miles north of the capital.” Yet despite the mountains of evidence of Pakistani resistance to reign in, much less apprehend, notable terrorists, Wright would have us believe that we came to the conclusion to act independent of Pakistanis authorities because of the myth of the American superhero.


Consider another fictive scenario. Gangsters are preying on a small mid-western town. The sheriff and his deputies are spineless; law and order have failed. So the hero puts on a mask, acts "extra-legally", performs the necessary redemptive violence and returns to ordinary life, earning the undying gratitude of the local townsfolk, sheriff included. This is the plot of a thousand movies, comic-book strips, and TV shows: Captain America, The Lone Ranger, and (upgraded to hi-tech) Superman. The masked hero saves the world.
Films and comics with this plot-line have been named as favourites by many presidents, as Reobert Jewitt and John Shelton Lawrence pointed out in The Myth of the American Superhero and Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil. The main reason President Obama has been cheered to the echo across the US, even by his bitter opponents, is not simply the fully comprehensible sense of closure a decade after the horrible, wicked actions of September 11 2001. Underneath that, he has just enacted one of America's most powerful myths.
Perhaps the myth was necessary in the days of the wild west, of isolated frontier towns and roaming gangs. But it legitimises a form of vigilantism, of taking the law into one's own hands, which provides "justice" only of the crudest sort. In the present case, the "hero" fired a lot of stray bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan before he got it right. What's more, such actions invite retaliation. They only "work" because the hero can shoot better than the villain; but the villain's friends may decide on vengeance. Proper justice is designed precisely to outflank such escalation.
Of course, proper justice is hard to come by internationally. America regularly casts the UN (and the international criminal court) as the hapless sheriff, and so continues to play the world's undercover policeman. The UK has gone along for the ride. What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us?

This section of the article has many points that I agree with. As I have mentioned in other blogs, I did my masters work in International Relations under the guidance of Andrew Bacevich, one of the leading critics not only of the “War on Terror” but also of American foreign policy in the 20th century. It is one of the great honors of my life to have worked as a research assistant on Bacevich’s widely praised book American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. All of which is to say that I do believe that we have often acted under the influence of the myth of redemptive violence. We regularly engage in actions that are extremely counterproductive to the aims of a just society and global order, and we often do so under the guise of a cartoonish view of history and our role in it. When the Bishop says we “fired a lot of stray bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan” my soul winces at the tragic reality of that. One of the saddest days in my life was when I heard that Dr. Bacevich’s son had died in Iraq. I have wept over the tragic loss of life, primarily Iraqi, that resulted from what I believe to have been a terrible moral, strategic and political error. But it is perhaps because of my desire to see a change in America’s relationship with the world, that I wish to see critics engage us in empathetic and measured ways that might actually be heard. I welcome the Bishop’s concern over America’s role in the world and I feel his heartfelt regret over England’s participation in many of the actions. But I see in his assertion that the United States has played “a trick on” England a pejorative, almost conspiratorial, tone. His logic has put him into a corner in which the only interpretation is that the United States has tricked the world into thinking that it could not rely on proper justice being carried out in order to justify its “Captain America” habit. But I fear that his anger, I dare say rage, has clouded his perspective and weakened his judgment. Just because you can make the argument that elements of this raid do fit into the “Lone Ranger” metaphor, does not mean that this raid is necessarily limited to that understanding. Wright shows a surprising lack of moral imagination when he writes a column that gives absolutely no evidence that he has even considered the idea that the President of the United States made a prudential judgment within the context of highly complicated and fallen world. I believe that it is at least worthy of consideration that the president made his decision under the cumulative influence of these factors as well:

1.    The Pakistan State’s decades long relationship to terror and its ongoing political instability.
2.     The clear dysfunction between the civil authorities/military establishment/intelligence community in Pakistan.
3.     The legacy of complicity in Al-Qaida’s hiding away in Pakistan.
4.    The weight of the burden of nearly a decade of American labor in Afghanistan and Pakistan to catch bin Laden.
5.    The incredibly difficult and painstaking path to establishing this lead.
6.    The political context in the United States that would be unforgiving if Pakistan fumbled this opportunity away after Obama had involved them in the work (a step that would have been necessary even if international tribunals were a part of the process).
7.    His stated desire to begin a drawdown of troops from his extremely controversial Afghanistan surge and the knowledge that a successful mission of this sort would make that much more likely to happen.
8.    The knowledge that bin Laden was not a “retired warrior” but a continuing threat to the safety of his country and a unique figure in the global appeal of the Al-Qaida brand of terror.

Couldn’t these factors have been at play for the President’s decision to not turn this case over to Pakistan or some other institution? The Bishop shows disregard for the complex nature of tracking, apprehending and bringing to justice a criminal of this sort when he implies that the only reason for undertaking this sort of mission is a reflexive American exceptionalism. I think he vastly understates the intellectual and moral resources that did (or at least might) have contributed to this decision. That he believes my country so depraved as to not even be given any evidence that he has even considered any other rationality for this work than “vengeance”; that he sees no other possibility worth considering in terms of the result of this action than “escalation”; and that he considers a fellow baptized brother in Christ as being clearly and utterly under the spell of a “superhero mythology” in spite of that brother’s standing as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate with a track of record of having condemned any number of American military actions—all of this makes me wonder who the author thinks he is. But then I come to the final sentence.


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?

Oh, now I see where the bishop’s clarity comes from. Now I see why he does not have to engage in empathetic consideration of the other’s perspective. Now I see why he would automatically view the use of force as a replaying of the myth of redemptive violence. It is so clear to me now. The Bishop knows that not only “the God of ultimate justice” against this action, but also the One who the Bishop believes is His Son and has argued in the past is most certainly resurrected from the dead. After all, didn’t this Jesus say “that those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” I see now. Not only has the United States earned the righteous condemnation of the good Bishop, it is also now going to “perish by the sword” like every other great power that ever “took the sword”. Against the arguments of the Apostle Paul, who called civil authority a “minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13: 4); against the legacy of Augustine, who would have never countenanced the idea that Jesus’ warning over taking up the sword, uttered to Peter after he chopped off the high servant’s ear, meant that the State is never to take up the sword; and against C.S. Lewis, who memorably reflected on the soldier’s duty to love the enemy he was taking up sword against, N.T. Wright is certain that this action did not “have anything to do with” belief in God and Jesus and the Bible he so authoritatively quotes to close his argument. I mean why didn’t the Bishop just say at the beginning what he said in the last sentence. He doesn’t need to make ridiculous historical comparisons, or simplistically assert America’s superhero mythology, all the Bishop needs to do is quote a line from Jesus after Peter sliced off the high servant’s ear as proof that it is a no-brainer that the entire Christian tradition stands in condemnation of the use of force by civil authorities.

Against this kind of simplistic prooftexting I have passed out Wright’s books to unreflective Christians. What I said yesterday in regards to Miroslav Volf and David Gushee, I say now to Tom Wright—you are a remarkable writer and thinker with moral courage to back it all up. I am in broad agreement with many of your goals. But I think you damage your broader project and moral credibility with articles like this and I hope that you will offer an equally public rethinking.Question us, challenge us, disagree with us, but give us the respect of thoughtful arguments, reasoned consideration, respectful debate and careful biblical admonishment next time.


  1. The fact that you can show differences between the IRA and Bin Laden does not answer the question NT Wright raises. You are just making a strawman argument without considering the main point.

    There was a time when the IRA did don't employ a democratic approach to make changes but chose violence against the people of the UK.

    NT Wright points out that for the USA to act outside of international law is to weaken the very law that you seek to defend.

    Please don't try to make this about arguments that it is nog about by stretching the analogy to breaking point. It does not help your cause.

    The USA had every right to look for justice after the tragedy of 911. If it is to be a force for peace it cannot expect to act in ways that disregard the self-detemination of other nations lightly.

    NT Wright brings the world a reminder of this by asking what it would be like if the shoe was on the other foot.



  2. Alan, NT Wright made the bed of this argument with the IRA and he needs to sleep in it or take it back. He did not equivocate on it. The strawman here is the cowboy/superhero metaphor that he deploys, the simplicity of his reasoning, and the shallow use of Scripture that he deploys. For the shoe to be on the other foot there neeeds to be a plausible comparison. THe IRA comparison is anything but. He chose that comparison and he chose to stretch it beyond the breaking point.

  3. Thanks for your reasoned and passionate reply to the bishop. But let's pretend for a moment that straw men don't exist and that we are dealing with real flesh and blood ones. Portions of bin Laden were at least as evil as half my heart, and perhaps he deserved to die. But the question I keep asking is when it becomes okay to violate international law. If any group surreptitiously flew helicopters into our country and killed someone, we would prosecute/imprison/kill them, or if they were a sovereign state, we would go to war with them (or at least sanction them to the extreme detriment of their poor). Let's also assume that Pakistan barely qualifies as a sovereign state, and that diplomacy would have ruined this operation. This is where flesh and blood and neurons are taxed beyond the breaking point. Thank God I didn't have to make this decision. But we civilians/theologians/churchmen are engaged in the postmortem as it were of something tragic. We have witnessed the death of God's image bearer, twisted and scarred beyond recognition he may have been. This is the sort of discussion and introspection that always happens. Perhaps the bishop could have chosen analogies better. But what are your responses to the violation of international law, shooting of an unarmed (at that instant) person, etc.? I know I'm treading on thin mud-at-the-bottom-of-the-no-longer-frozen-pond here with that second question, but that's the sort of public reflection that's necessary to keep our moral conscience active so that we can be better prepared to make the inevitable next impossible decision. Fair answers? "America had to violate international law for such and such reason." "We shot the unarmed bin Laden because our Seals were on a kill mission." Fine. If your purpose was to show where Wright was simply wrong, you took a step in that direction. But I'm afraid your moderately incensed snark overwhelmed your substantive dealing with the issues Wright was trying to address.