God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today, by N. T. Wright
From the time I began reading this book, I had been looking forward to this chapter, chapter 8 entitled “Christian virtue in peace and war.” Several factors contributed to my anticipation: first, combine this title with the title of the book – regarding war, in what manner would Wright recommend that we speak “truth to power” in this world; second, Wright had made several less-than-flattering comments regarding the post-911 militarism of the US and the UK; third, as the example for us, he emphasizes Jesus speaking to the high priest and Pilate in John 18 & 19; fourth, he offers that Christians must hold their government leaders to account.
I was anticipating a call to Christian leaders to come together and denounce the militarism (and other similar evils) of their government leaders. Imagine my disappointment when what I read was not a lesson on how to speak truth to power using Jesus as a model, but why it makes sense to base our virtue on the military model. Even as I write these words, I cannot fathom that Wright would make this connection – not that I have read much of him beyond this book.
Wright begins by examining the etymology of the words character and virtue. He considers how one can develop the strength of character into a virtuous pattern of thought such that one will almost automatically act virtuous in any circumstance (a ‘second nature’). He offers, as one such example, the actions of Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) in landing his plane full of passengers in the Hudson River – having studied and practiced every possible scenario over a career of flying, Sully did not have to “think” before he acted; he knew how to act in order to save the passengers of the plane.
“Some people at the time called it a ‘miracle’.” Wright prefers not to label such events in this way:
…I think sometimes our culture reaches for the category of ‘miracle’ because we haven’t wanted to face the challenge of character, of virtue.
Wright offers four mainstream theories about how practical ethics actually works, with our culture stuck somewhere amongst the first three: the first way is the way of rules, a list of dos and don’ts; the second is just to do what comes naturally; the third option lies somewhere in-between, determined via utilitarian or consequentialist methods – the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers, or some such (not at all subject to calculation, of course).
The fourth is the approach that Wright would commend: that of virtue via a development of strength of character. Having done the hard work of thinking through what ‘justice’, for example, means, one develops the means to always act justly.
Of course, nothing about this fourth approach works without considering ‘ends’, and living within a society that values the same ends or goals or telos.
Vice can be, just as much as virtue, a fixed habit of the heart.
Like I said, one man’s vice is another man’s virtue. Aristotle considered the goal to be ‘happiness.’ The meaning of this, of course, has shifted over time. Herein is our challenge today:
…the challenge for us today, in peace as well as in war, has to do with a fresh glimpse of the goals we should be setting ourselves right across Western society, and then the character strengths we need to develop in order to come at these goals.
Aristotle offered the four cardinal virtues: courage, justice, temperance, and prudence. For any of these to exist, one needs all four. For this we need moral teaching, as moral teaching will produce human beings who do the right thing by second nature:
…a full, genuine human life is found not by blindly following rules but by becoming the sort of person who acts in the right way because that’s the sort of person they have become through the sheer slog of character building. (Emphasis in original.)
Our present culture, instead, values spontaneity, or authenticity. Of course, these might be a vice, or might be a virtue – this really only can be addressed in terms of ends.
Wright offers an interesting aside: it is the left – the left of spontaneity and authenticity – that has been the side, while in government, to introduce the most cumbersome and detailed ‘rules’. This isn’t surprising: as the left devalues culture and tradition (and religion) to the point of irrelevancy, rules for living must come from somewhere. There will be governance – either from culture and tradition or from man-made rules; governance cannot be avoided if there is to be any meaningful society.
It is the right that is after strict moral rules, desiring to put the genie of liberalism back in the bottle. This, of course, cannot be done. So, what is the way forward?
Once more, we need education.
Given the ends necessary for liberty – let alone for a theologian of Wright’s standing – you might think that it would be education through the church that Wright suggests. Well, not exactly:
If the schools can’t or won’t provide the development of character and virtue, then, as before, it’s up to the professions, not least the armed forces, to provide it instead.
Yes, you read that right. Wright offers examples of virtuous behavior to be found in the armed forces – throwing one’s self on a grenade to save his comrades, things like that.
There are too many problems with Wright’s statement to unpack simply: when was this “as before” time; what “professions”; why not the church; the “armed forces” are the most rule-based institution in the world – there is no virtuous behavior, there is only following orders…or else.
There is nothing to be learned about virtuous behavior from any government institution, least of all the armed forces.
Wright has the most perfect example of speaking truth to power in his own backyard – and example of one being made a martyr. This courageous and virtuous individual has been held as if a prisoner in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for more than six years.
Julian Assange has spoken truth to power. If the Christian church would do a fraction of what he has done, the world would be a much different – and safer, and more peaceful, and more free – place.
Did Jesus mimic the “virtue” of the Roman soldiers when speaking truth to Pilate? Give me a break.