Thursday, November 16, 2006

N.T. Wright and the Theology of the War on Terror

I have previously discussed the politics of N.T. Wright and the War on Terror, but a larger questions looms: what is the theology driving Wright's politics? Denny Burk believes that Wright's "Fresh Perspective on Paul" "amounts to a theology of anti-Americanism," but is it this "Fresh Perspective" that drives the anti-Americanism, or is it derived elsewhere? Again, I will be examining Wright's lecture, Where is God in the War on Terror?, recently given in Durham Cathedral.

Wright correlates modern America to the Roman Empire of the early church. Wright compares the aims and intentions of Pagan Rome to what he would argue is an American Empire. Just as Rome, America claims they, “possess justice, freedom and peace and that they have a duty to share these things with everybody else.” As Rome, America is willing to believe that “violence can be redemptive,” and aims to “restore the town, the country, the world to its proper state.”

He believes that America has found its new Cold War, “with Islam taking the place of communism—an idea embraced all the more eagerly because some Islamic nations just happen to possess oil.” It is this pragmatism, he writes that is at the heart of our motive, though we use “the old ‘just war’ theory” as our moral basis for war. We claim to have God on our side, but Wright glibly counters “that human wrath does not bring about God’s justice.”

Wright is correct in one regard. Indeed Romans 12:19 states, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” But while he affirms that, he neglects or ignores Romans 13:2-5. Paul writes,

“Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”

This is in fact the passage that Denny Burk states that Wright somehow manages to neglect. I am curious what Burk will argue in his paper, which he will be presenting at the Evangelical Theological Society on Friday.

Wright argues, correctly I believe,

“The early Christians, and their Jewish contemporaries, weren’t particularly concerned with how people in power came to be in power; they were extremely concerned with speaking the truth to power, with calling the principalities and powers to account and reminding them that they hold power as a trust from the God who made the world and before whom they must stand to explain themselves.”

He also states, “With Jesus’ death, the power structures of the world were called to account; with his resurrection, a new life, a new power, was unleashed upon the world.”

The early church was taught by Paul, at least, that the emperor’s authority was derived from God, instituted by God, and was God’s servant for their good. Paul clearly taught that governmental authority is to be obeyed, and only feared by the wrongdoer. I also think that John Piper is right (and seems to argue in parallel to Wright) to assert that Paul’s letter to the Romans was written not just to the church, but to Caesar himself.

Piper argues,

“The confession “Jesus is Lord!” was a political statement. His lordship is over Caesar's lordship. This is why Jesus was killed. The crowds intimidated Pilate with the words, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). “These followers of Jesus, they have another king! They are subversive, treasonous.” And when he was raised he became known as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16; 17:14) that is, King over all earthly kings. So when Paul says, “There is no authority except from God,” he is talking not just about God the Father but also God the Son. Christians know that whatever authority is given to man has first been given to Jesus Christ.”

The language is similar to Wright—and I don’t think it is an accident. It is solid biblical exegesis. Perhaps it is reductionistic to think that Piper and Wright have more in common than they might think, but here it seems that they do.

Wright has much good to say, even in this lecture on the War on Terror. Much of his exegesis is spot on. His anti-American theology, as Burk calls it, does not seem to be derived by the “Fresh Perspective” on Paul, but by neglecting or misreading Romans 13. This is what is so distressing about N.T. Wright’s political leanings. Rather than the perceptive and highly original thinker his readers perceive after reading much of his theology, Wright comes off like most of the Democratic Party—willfully blind to reality.

To answer my original question, it seems that it is not Wright's theology that drives his politics in this regard, but his politics that has managed to drive his theology. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that N.T. Wright is human, and hence, fallible. We all think wrongly in many ways and on many topics ourselves. Wright’s politics seems to be a prime example of this.

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