Americans get fragmented news on Bible scholar N.T. Wright
who retired as bishop and tackled Captain America politics
The Internet is abuzz this spring with news about best-selling Bible scholar N.T. Wright, mainly due to trans-Atlantic confusion over two headline-making moves Wright made recently. We’ve heard from some of our own readers, asking what we know about Wright’s activities. So, today, let’s correct some myths.
FIRST: Wright retired as bishop of Durham in 2010. The news was widely reported in the UK, but was mentioned only in fragmented spots in the US. To spend more time pursuing his scholarly research, teaching and writing, Wright accepted an appointment as Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at University of St. Andrews. This news was missed by many of the American fans who enjoy Wright’s work—and apparently the lack of news is causing some confusion up in Durham itself. Apparently some American fans are showing up in Durham the summer of 2011, hoping to catch a sermon, and they’re finding that Wright is long gone. This is especially confusing for Americans because countless small groups nationwide are using Wright’s recent video series that features footage of him in Durham. As of mid-2010, Wright is a lot less accessible to visitors—unless you catch him on one of his speaking tours.
SECOND: Wright did tackle Captain America and Lone Ranger approaches to justice after the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden. This is the most bizarre source of confusion about Wright in the American blogosphere. In the week after American forces attacked Osama bin Laden’s compound deep in Pakistan, Wright sent one of the most provocative commentaries he ever penned to Ruth Gledhill of The Times on “America’s Exceptionalist Justice.” He criticized the way US military forces carried out the raid and the US assumptions about the American right to unleash such an attack.Based on responses that whizzed across the Internet, one would guess that Tom Wright had spit in the eyes of all Americans—and called us all blood-thirsty killers. One over-the-top blog actually called Wright a darling of liberal American Christians. Anyone who knows the first thing about Tom Wright’s career knows that he’s usually held up as the staunch defender of conservative Christianity. Most truly “liberal” Christians respect Wright for going toe to toe with Marcus Borg in an intelligent way—but they certainly don’t consider Wright their darling. In one stroke, Tom Wright seemed to have passed through a Looking Glass.
The confusion deepened because of the way Wright released his commentary. From the perspective of a writer in the UK, sending it to The Times was the equivalent of publishing it in the New York Times in this country. But, the commentary quickly vanished from public view on a whole range of websites. Some bloggers soon were cherry picking controversial lines with no overall frame of reference. In the UK, the Guardian also posted a full version of the commentary. But the Guardian’s version is difficult to locate for American web searchers.
Because we have worked with Tom Wright for years in reporting on his work for American readers, we are publishing the entire commentary in this easy-to-find location. Please, read the whole thing. You may disagree with Wright’s harsh critique, but you’ll find that it’s also a very well-thought-out analysis drawing on deep Christian principles. You may disagree, but you’ll see that Tom Wright is entirely consistent, here, with principles he has been teaching for years.
N.T. WRIGHT ON AMERICA’S EXCEPTIONALIST JUSTICE
AND THE KILLING OF OSAMA BIN LADEN IN PAKISTAN
This commentary was written by Tom Wright in early May 2011 and has been floating around the Internet in fragments ever since. After years of working with Tom Wright to publish helpful materials about his books, we’re publishing this text in the interest of clarifying the confusion about it for American readers. …
Consider the following scenario. A group of IRA 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 than the rest of the world. By what right? Who says?
Consider another fictive scenario. Gangsters are preying on a small Midwestern 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 Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence pointed out in The Myth of the American Superhero and Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism. 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 legitimizes 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? 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?
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.