Recently, N. T. Wright visited Samford University. One of the recorded events was a conversation with Wright – a Q&A with questions from student and faculty from the university. I offer some thoughts on the first part of the conversation, as this part reflects the failures of the Christian church in playing a proper role in holding government and society accountable regarding war and violence.
This session was held on September 11. I mention the date, because the first question reflects this anniversary:
How should Christians approach the societal evil and suffering that seems to plague our world at a systemic level?
Wright’s answer, summarized:
One of the things I reflected on in the two or three years subsequent to the attacks was this sudden interest of evil on the parts of the western leaders. This told me something about the post-Enlightenment mindset which seemed to assume that because we had modern science and technology and modern democracy, the world was becoming a better, safer, and nicer place.
He points to Steven Pinker as one who presses such a view: with the Enlightenment and the large-scale abandonment of religion, everything is getting better – with fewer wars, etc. This is a silly case to make, according to Wright – and with this I agree.
However, I am not sure that this is the most convincing part of Wright’s response. Proponents of such an idea will point out that it was (per the mainstream narrative) unenlightened Muslim religious fanatics who carried out the attack.
But he quickly moves on, to the Churchill’s idea that “jaw, jaw is better than war, war.” Advice Churchill never took, unfortunately. In any case, instead of talk, the western response was to go to the weapon of last resort: the weapon.
The danger of this, using Shakespeare’s phrase, is that you unleash the dogs of war. And there is the sense of invoking the god Mars, the war god, the god of naked power.
There is this deep ambiguity in western culture where there is so much of the Christian and Judeo-Christian tradition…but at the same time we look back to the great wars of the past and commemorate them not always with the greatest of humility and sorrow, but sometimes with the idea “when we needed to do the job, we did the job.” That seems to me to be dangerous.
It does not help the case when we see that it is often in churches on Sunday morning when such sentiments are at the highest – making a total mockery of “what would Jesus do.”
He suggests that this idea opens the door to the kind of worship of violence which then eats away at the vitals of society. He points to the mass gun violence in American society and sees this as part of the continuum of the violence perpetrated in the world by America.
While I think the issue of internal violence is more complicated than this, there certainly is something to the idea that if it is acceptable for the government to act in a certain way, it must be acceptable for the rest of us. To state it most succinctly: government is seen by many to be corrupt, and this then corrupts the society that is being so governed.
Wright offers that the reaction to September 11 was very immature, recalling that he offered – during a visit to Westminster Abbey – that for every bomb dropped, another Al-Qaeda recruit would come forward. He offers that, in hindsight, he understated this relationship.
We have overplayed our hand, allowing them to cast this as “the Christians beating up on the Muslims.” It seems to me that this is not the best way to indicate what following Jesus is all about.
For sure it is not.
There follows a question about the role of Christians in politics, and the idea of shedding partisan ties. It is this last bit that Wright addresses first: Wright recognizes that the political mood is different in America than elsewhere in the West, and even different in the different parts of America.
I think this can be plainly seen via the idea of flyover country, the deplorables, the red counties vs. blue counties, the urban vs. the rural. Along with countless minor divisions in America, there is this major one: to greatly summarize, one side values western tradition and the other wants to destroy it.
The church has the power and vocation to hold the world to account. That’s difficult. The church has to learn the lesson about supporting without collusion and critiquing without dualism.
He suggests that many Christians get caught up in supporting the individual politician regardless of policies or action, believing that this individual is the one sent by God or some such. One can think of the Christian right and the view that they will back Trump, no matter what. But it seems true on the left as well – while they might not use the same words, Obama was certainly seen as the perfect savior by many – one who could do no wrong.
Further, we must critique – not get trapped in the idea that “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” This is a cop-out. It seems to me a discredit to this world of God’s creation.
We in the west are just not well taught and we don’t think about these things, but we need to. Are we content to just vote every few years and move on? Jefferson said that democracy only works when you have an educated electorate. We now have a smart-phone electorate. What are we going to do about that? I don’t have an answer, but the church ought to be at the forefront of prayerfully working toward a better answer than we currently have.
I have some thoughts about what to do about it: stop glorifying war, stop glorifying Zionism as the fulfillment of Scofield’s eschatology, condemn the idea of punishing people for non-violent trespasses. Instead, deliver a message of meaning in life, fulfilling the purpose of God’s creation – being made in God’s image.
Such steps will not only revive Christianity, they will also move a society toward liberty.