Monday, December 17, 2018

Not Quite Speaking Truth to Power

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.


  1. Speaking truth to power - professions like the armed forces?
    Incredible? Not really for the average Christian today!
    Consider - where are the children of most Christians/Conservatives 'educated?
    I often use this political riddle/analogy in which Conservatives are the manure shovelers of a very foul smelling outage from DaBeast.
    When a bystander observes their laboring and cursing, he asks if they ever considered changing the feed?
    "We don't feed DaBeast, stupid - besides what business is it of yours?" - replied the Conservatives.
    So the bystander asked who does?
    "It's DaStupidLeft!" - they replied.
    Now - who's stupid?

    1. I help teach middle schoolers at my Catholic church’s Sunday school. The main teacher asked the students to name some people for whom to pray, and of course, beyond a few real people they know with real problems like cancer, came the chorus of vets, first responders, and military, all from different boys.

    2. Sad but true - especially for a recovering NeoCon like myself. In terms of wins and losses in our perpetual wars - American wins are counted in huge profits for a few and losses in American lives - added to civilian lives around the world - it is an abominable atrocity.
      All for what?
      As to the boys awareness of warriors - they are boys!
      The other sad fact is that our culture in both schools and churches is now so feminized that they literally repel men and boys - a subject all unto itself. We need Christian warriors - not wimps!
      If you're interested, you can check out my website and separate archive-library on those issues - all part of our culture. Got a few bionics archived in the mix as
      they fit.

  2. My father, Angelo Pivetta (1926-2012), had an interesting take on the military. When I registered for the draft as an 18-year-old, lo, these many years ago, I asked him point-blank whether he thought I should fight for my country. He was cynical about such matters. His brother, drafted by Mussolini to fight FDR's beloved "Uncle Joe," had gone MIA during the Siege of Stalingrad in 1944 and was never heard from again. My grandmother never got over it.

    Surely, though, some wars are just. I'd have a duty to fight for my country in that case, wouldn't I?

    This I never saw coming:

    “What?! Fight for your country? Are you crazy?! Where do you get these ideas? Your *country*?! No! You have no country! You know where my country is? Right here! Between my legs! That’s my country! That’s all I live for! That’s all I’ll fight for! That’s all I’ll die for!”

    N.T. Wright sees the military as a path to development of character and virtue? I can only invoke General Anthony C. McAuliffe's famous one-word response to the German surrender ultimatum at the Battle of the Bulge: "Nuts!"

  3. Treason is defined in the Constitution at Article 3, Section 3, as consisting "only in levying War against (the United States), or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort."
    All members of the American military take an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; (and to) bear true faith and allegiance to the same."
    When the military is committed to foreign actions without a declaration of war by Congress, as required by Article 1, Section 8, Paragraph 11 of the Constitution, that is a violation of the Constitution, arguably the action of domestic enemies.
    When a member of the military participates in an unconstitutional foreign military deployment, s/he violates both the Constitution and his/her oath to "support and defend" it, giving "aid and comfort" to it's "domestic enemies," committing treason by the definition given by the Constitution.

  4. Luke 3: 12. Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? 13. And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. 14. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.

    Any .gov worker bee. Who is dedicated to the discipline of Jesus the Christ. Should have the above scripture ingrained into their existence at work.

    That's a best case scenario, in which a significant portion of the populace. Adheres and honors the words of Jesus.

    According to the Bible. When a group of individuals who refer to themselves as the government. Spurn the revealed words of Jesus.

    Individual Christians are supposed to voluntarily form communities. In which Jesus is the primary example for living in the corrupt times.

    That action by itself, will usually hasten the implosion of corrupt individuals. Who start to murder each other, because they can't find Christians to murder.

    1. "... are supposed to voluntarily form communities."
      I lived in the jungles of Belize for 4 years. I was extremely impressed by the Mennonites (both primitive and modern) that created flourishing communities there. Their religion and ethnic culture keeps them close-knit, strong, and always wishing to be separate from the country's govt... though modern technology is creeping into their lives. We'll see what happens.

  5. "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."

    It's the typical 'conservative' blind spot: the government is inept, corrupt, and often evil and it needs to be scaled way back, but... the military is virtuous, chaste, and righteous in all its conduct and its funding always and everywhere needs to be expanded! Nevermind that most the expansion of the government they lament domestically occurred during wartime, as a wartime measure on the domestic front. All the seeds of socialism in the US were sown during the sanctified suicidal wars in Europe.

    The way I see it is that there is nothing contradictory with recognizing the true virtue of defending one's self, family, friends, neighborhood, culture, or country against foreign aggression while simultaneously pointing out all the ways our current military is doing the reverse of this as well as all of its past 'indiscretions' we're aware of.

    "The only defensible war is a war of defense." - G.K. Chesterton

    I would go further with Rothbard and say that not only must a just conflict be waged in defense against a known aggressor, it must refrain from killing innocents in the process, for in so doing, the defensive party would then itself become an aggressor liable for righteous reprisal against itself by the victims it created while attempting to seek justice against the original aggressor.

    Christians, on the other hand, have no excuse whatsoever for their military worship. Jesus said to yield up the other cheek if the other it hit; he didn't say kill the guy and the 15 guys standing near him before he is able to smack you.

    It's cowardice and laziness at root. Being virtuous can be dangerous, and it takes effort to educate oneself in the matters of uncomfortable truths. Most Christians seem to prefer the perceived safer and easier road.

  6. The problem with Wright and historians generally is best summed up in a quote from Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics:

    Instead of deducing concrete phenomena from universals, or instead of starting
    with universals as an obligatory grid of intelligibility for certain concrete practices,
    I would like to start with these concrete practices and, as it were, pass these
    universals through the grid of these practices. This is not what could be called
    a historicist reduction, for that would consist precisely in starting from these
    universals as given and then seeing how history inflects them, or alters them, or
    finally invalidates them. Historicism starts from the universal and, as it were, puts
    it through the grinder of history. My problem is exactly the opposite. I start from
    the theoretical and methodological decision that consists in saying: Let’s suppose
    that universals do not exist. And then I put the question to history and historians: How
    can you write history if you do not accept a priori the existence of things like the
    state, society, the sovereign, and subjects?