Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Move Along: Nothing Exceptional Here

As just about the biggest N. T. Wright acolyte on planet earth (favorite statement: "We feast on the crumbs that fall from Wright's table"), SWNID is qualified to speak loudly when the most important biblical scholar of this generation slides into statements unworthy of his erudition.

Unfortunately, this happens almost routinely when Professor Wright opines on contemporary politics. Understanding well the ends that Christians seek if informed by the gospel, he routinely confuses the means with matters of international relations, economics and the like.

For example, in the run-up to the year 2000 (saying Y2K is so 20th century), Wright warmly endorsed the campaign for Western governments to forgive the debts of developing countries as a way of reflecting the gospel's focus on forgiveness, generosity, and lowliness. Our obvious point of disappointment in that position springs from the demonstrable history of such moves: forgiving the national debt of a developing country tends simply to empower the incompetent tyrants who run the countries while never showing the least effect on the people who live there. The tyrant uses the canceled debts to get more goodies for himself and his cronies, the nation runs up more debt, the rule of law isn't established in the tyrant's territory, its hapless residents remain without opportunity or liberty, and the cycle continues. Debt forgiveness empowers and perpetuates injustice, though it sounds so very noble on the surface.

Most recently, Wright has offered that the American commando raid on Bin Laden's compound, ending in the tyrant's death, is an immoral example of American exceptionalism, which Wright loosely defines as the notion that the United States can act morally in ways that other nations cannot. Thus, Wright argues, because the United States wouldn't want another nation doing that on its soil, the United States can't do it to others. It's a simple application of the Golden Rule to nation states.

To that, we say at one level, fair enough. Jesus' teaching about regard for others ought to apply to nation states. But let's think about that carefully, distinguishing what a government might want from what humans want. All humans, actually.

First, a detail. As we find the expression used most propitiously, "American exceptionalism" refers not to the notion that for the United States certain actions are moral that are not moral for other nations, but fundamentally to the notion that as a nation founded on certain ideals articulated out of a coherent political philosophy, not primarily a notion of ancestral kinship or territory (though these were indeed to some measure present at the founding and beyond), the United States tends to look at certain issues differently from other nations and so to act differently. Specifically, this notion explains why the United States, for all the sordid episodes of its history, nevertheless has shown a greater willingness than other nations to expend blood and treasure to secure liberty for other peoples, as well as to welcome other peoples to become part of the United States. Exceptions and failures abound, almost from the beginning, but the existence of any such efforts in American history stand out from the typical stories of international relations.

So, with that in mind, we fault Prof. Wright for his shallow appreciation of the universal human longing for liberty and justice. What makes the United States "exceptional" is merely the insight that all humans want and are entitled to liberty. Considering and affirming that insight, one is driven to the conclusion that, despite the protestations of its government and jihadist elements within its borders, thoughtful Pakistanis are embarrassed to learn that OBL was living right under their noses, angry at their government for letting it happen, and relieved that the SEALs "took out the garbage." That, in turn, helps us understand that the Pakistani government's bluster since the raid is mostly aimed at defusing this domestic indignation. They're trying to save face, in other words.

And so to Wright's analogy about American indignation if British commandos took out IRA terrorists holed up in Massachusetts, we reply that this American and everyone we know would under such circumstances be extremely angry with a government that tolerated international terrorists hiding in our country and did not cooperate with the demand that they be brought to justice. We would be relieved that British commandos did what our own officials refused to do. We would do everything we could to vote out of office the feckless government that let this happen. We would arrange a parade for the brave men who did the deed, right down Fifth Avenue in New York, followed by another down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, if we could get Washington's cooperation under such circumstances. We'd demand prosecution for the Irish-American romantics who harbored the evildoers.

The American vigilante hero of film and comic books, scorned by Wright and his forebears, resounds internationally, not just on these shores. That happens not because vigilantism is evil and so are its international fans but because the vigilante story addresses the human longing for justice. Yes, it panders to the perversion of that desire--the "revenge fantasy." But that perversion is rooted in the good: that deep within us is a sense that evil must be stopped or it will prevail.

Yes, Jesus warned that those who live by the sword will die by it. We don't look for the world to be made what it ought to be by endless commando raids. We do sadly know that humans sometimes turn to evil so decisively that we can only prevent the awful harm they do by using violence to stop them. This is not living by the sword (which in context condemns the disciples' use of swords to defend Jesus from going to his death) but with grievous regret bearing the sword for the sake of the imperfect justice that can provisionally protect the innocent.

The SEALs who made this raid did so at great risk to their lives, when OBL could've been killed by a remote-controlled Predator drone with a smart bomb. Why did that do that? Not just to confirm the kill but to assure as little "collateral damage" (injury and death to noncombatants) as possible. If risking one's life for the sake of others, which is the case at multiple levels for warriors on the front lines of a just war, is what Jesus did, then we find in what these men did something that is ironically cruciform.

In the end, if Christians want to be engaged in the public square with their theological values, they will have to think carefully about all the dimensions of the situation and not just react in the shallow, stereotypical ways that Wright's remarks, against his own type, represent. We have to own the outcomes, which means understanding the situation and the history, rightly identifying the problems and understanding the participants.

Treating all the governments of all nation states as equivalent is as demonstrably as immoral as is the caricature of American exceptionalism that Wright denounces. Treating people who live under corrupt governments outside the West as if they didn't care about justice and liberty is at best condescending. But if there is a God, then there can be such a thing as human nature that is at once corrupted by sin and ennobled by a yearning for what God intends. We know that Prof. Wright believes this. We just wish he'd think it through in situations like this one.

Postscript: Wright is presently the whipping boy of the neo-Puritan/Reformed movement (Piper, Driscoll, et al.). We figure that some will object to Wright's politics and assume that his theology is therefore also illegitimate, as the pied Piper and others have instructed. We hope that at least a few will eschew such ad hominem bluster, assess the real differences between Wright and his critics (which are slight), and come to more charitable and rational conclusions.


Alex L said...

Helpful thoughts on national debt forgiveness AND on response by some to OBL death!

David Fincher said...

I too was troubled by the analogy Wright drew and appreciate this thorough refuting of it. If a government can't carry out justice against a man who proudly took credit for planning the defenseless killing of thousands of its citizens (and it could have easily been 10 times more casualties if Providence hadn't been graciously helping us out), then who can a government bear the sword against?

OBL was given 10 years to surrender and avoid the fate of 10 days ago. He preferred martyrdom to surrender and he received his wish. Americans, Pakistanis, and Terrorists should all be happy with the outcome.

99 Problems said...

How do you process the fact that the US has harbored international terrorists, even pardoning them, in the form of Orlando Bosch. Since he attacked Cuba, we didn't care much, but we'd have raised hell if Cuba had violated international protocol in the way the US claimed to in Pakistan

JB in CA said...

I'm not qualified to evaluate Wright's technical expertise in N. T. Studies, but I am in a position to evaluate his forays into social and political philosophy. The thing is, I really don't see any point in doing so. I've tried reading some of his publications in this area, but they're so poorly reasoned (and I mean poorly reasoned) that I'm left wondering whether anyone who accepts his line of reasoning could possibly understand why it's wrong. I'm also left wondering how someone who is supposed to be so brilliant in one field could be so inept in another. Maybe I should just take it as further confirmation of the modular theory of mind.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

As a Neutestamentler, we console ourself that though we are massively inferior to Wright as an exegete and theologian, we do strike a better balance in other matters. We believe that Wright's political ineptitude is the price he pays for his biblical brilliance, which is utterly, utterly scathing.

Tom_KY said...

The SWIND shouldn't sell himself short on exegesis and theology, but "Following Jesus" is a very good book.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

99, we were discussing Osama. Maybe you posted on the wrong blog.