N. T. Wright delivered an controversial lecture last November about America and its war on terror. Wright’s lecture was titled, “Where is God in ‘The War on Terror’?”, and he argues among other things that the American war in Iraq is but an immoral extension of America’s imperial ambition to dominate the world. Here’s his description of the Iraq war: “the angry superpower, like a rogue elephant teased by a little dog, has gone on the rampage stamping on everything that moves in the hope of killing the dog by killing everything in reach.”
Not only does Wright condemn the Iraq war in particular, but he also criticizes the “war on terror” in general as a “counter-productive” assault on Islam, which in his words “has been an enormous force for civilization in the world.” Wright says that “the only way to fight terror is by working for mutual understanding and respect” (He’s serious!). For Wright, the American empire’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan amount to fighting “one kind of terror with another.”
Gilbert Meilaender published a scathing review of Wright’s lecture in the February 2007 issue of First Things in an article titled “Wrong from Wright” (HT: Derek Thomas). Meilaender writes,
“There’s too much wrong in the analysis and prescription offered by Bishop Wright. This lecture is the sort of thing that tempts folks to say that bishops should stick to theology and avoid politics, but, in fact, what’s wrong here is both political and theological. A little less confidence and a lot more nuance would be needed before some of us could be attracted by such episcopal advice.”
Meilaender is correct. Wright’s goofy politics are flowing out of a bad theologyâ€”a theology that is an outgrowth of his counter-imperial interpretation of the New Testament, which I have written about previously on this blog. Meilaender’s assessment is right on the money:
“I myself cannot find in that analysis the mature political judgment for which Bishop Wright calls. It fails to pay close attention to who is actually doing much of the killing now taking place. It fails to pay attention to who is actually observing rules of war and who is not (an unsurprising failure in one who thinks that making war on terrorists is simply fighting ‘one kind of terror with another,’ an astonishingly imprecise analysis).”
I think Wright’s comments are best considered in context of his lecture instead of just mid sentence or a few quoted words in the interspersed into a critical blog post. Take for instance your longest quote where he speaks of the superpower,
“I hope you can see this at least clearly: that it isnâ€™t a case of saying either that God is absent, at best looking on from a great distance, or that God is present, simply fighting on one side or the other. If we are to think Christianly â€“ and I recognise that for many of you here tonight that may be an open question, but you should at least see how a Christian might be supposed to think â€“ then we must think according to the pattern of Jesus Christ. And that means that the first place we should look for God in the War on Terror would be in the smouldering ruins of the Twin Towers, in the tears of the widows and children on that terrible day five years ago, and then in the ruins of Baghdad and Basra, the shattered homes and lives of the tens of thousands who have through no fault of their own been in the wrong place at the wrong time as the angry superpower, like a rogue elephant teased by a little dog, has gone on the rampage stamping on everything that moves in the hope of killing the dog by killing everything within reach. The presence of God within the world at a time of war must be calibrated according to what Paul says in Romans 8, that the Spirit groans within Godâ€™s people as they groan with the pain of the world. The cross of Jesus Christ is the sign and the assurance that the God who made the world still loves the world and, in that love, groans and grieves:”
Similarly many of the other snippets of Wright you quoted sound quite different when read in the context of the lecture (which I thought was very good). I would encourage readers to actually read the lecture or at the very least search for the location of the quotes in the transcript and read them there instead of just hearing them in the context of this blog post.
BTW Is it just me or does anyone else think the play on Wright’s name is getting kind of old now? I cringe every time I see it. It was amusing after the first couple of times (years ago!) but now every time you see an article about Wright it has to have some play on his name.
Personally, I don’t see a difference between the short quote (“angry elephant”) or the extended context you provided. The context shows that he not only makes the angry elephant reference as Denny quoted, but he does so vis-a-vis the widows of 9-11. It almost implies that the terrorists were restrained and calculated compared to the evil empire’s careless, murderous rampage.
Personally, I don’t think his quote is fair, short or extended version.
He’s saying the “war on terror” didn’t exist before 9-11. And after that terrible day, because of the actions of a small group, America responded by invading and overthrowing the government of 2 countries where even more innocents died accidentally and inadvertanly by the chaos and instability that the wars brought, all in an effort to stampout a small group of fundamentalist. Really how many over there that have died as a result of these wars do you think were actually terrorist? Yet that is what America was supposed to be going after. Has America looked at everything that even sniffed as terrorism and tried to stamp it out? How many more were provoked to terrorism following Americas response? Were many wrongly imprisoned? How many people have suffered? Was the response and the results of the “war on terror” equal to what happened to us? How many innocents over there have to die so that we can guarantee our safety and comfortability here? How many more countries need to be destroyed so that we can feel safe and unafraid?
Either way you’re free to disagree with how I see it. I just don’t think it sounded quite the way Denny makes it out to be, and Wright even says in the lecture that he’s not Anti-America nor does he believes America is evil, which is what he’s being made to look like. The lecture isn’t an attack on America. Wright has some really good things to say in the lecture that I believe would really minister to and challenge a lot of people if they read it. It shouldn’t be dismissed solely for some political views that some disagree with.
â€œI myself cannot find in that analysis the mature political judgment for which Bishop Wright calls. It fails to pay close attention to who is actually doing much of the killing now taking place. It fails to pay attention to who is actually observing rules of war and who is not (an unsurprising failure in one who thinks that making war on terrorists is simply fighting â€˜one kind of terror with another,â€™ an astonishingly imprecise analysis).â€
Where Meilaender is wrong…
He claims that Wright fails to take into account who is actually doing all of the killing. Meilaender naively misses the boat by forgetting who made everything so unstable so that these thugs could be doing all of the killing in the first place.
He claims that Wright fails to acknowledge who is actually “playing fair” forgetting that there is no such thing as a fair war. They see us as invaders (and rightly so), and as such they are fighting to win, no matter how brutally, and no matter how costly.
What I fail to comprehend day in and day out is how so many on the right consider ANY condemnation of American policy to be anti-American. Considering the constant whining from the right during the Clinton years, that is downright hypocritical.
I do agree that it is fair to ask what the cost has been in innocent lives in those countries.
Wright limns a deranged elephant killing everything in sight. I took your first comment to disagree with Denny, in that the quote would mean something different given a broader context. However, my reading of the broader context does nothing to make it “sound quite different” as you claimed.
I respect your perspective on the war. I am sure that Wright made some fine points in the paper, which I have not read. I just disagree that Denny got the quote out of context and/or changed the meaning.
We have come to a time where there is much negativity constantly expressed in the media about the Iraq war. On some accounts, I feel that it is difficult for the “Average Joe” to really get the clearest idea of the big picture. However, as an American that does not wish for or hope for war, I do believe that Bush has been acting in the best interest of our nation. The interesting thing is that it seem preposterous that Wright would believe that America is the most imperial of all the nations involved. Has he missed the rhetoric coming from the Middle East? I feel certain that if these countries had the resources and man power, their own imperialistic desires would be felt more than they already are in Europe and eventually, North America.
Muslim Imperialism is pouring out of North Africa daily into Europe. I just fear that the Democrats are attempting to put their heads in the sand on the terrorism issue. Have we made mistakes in Iraq? It appears so. However, does any real thoughtful person believe that our withdrawal from Iraq will make the circumstance better there or for us? Ha ha!
In the light of this my brothers and sisters, let us not loose heart in the one who reigns. I just pray Obama or Hilary is not one of the ones who rules here come ’08!
Wright gave me great appreciation for the fact that the Kingdom of God is not some heavenly bliss, but a kingdom coming to *earth*. How then will the kingdom come? How will those who don’t believe in Christ depart from the scene? By solely peaceful means? I doubt it. I wouldn’t suggest that the USA’s Iraq War is a one-to-one extension of God’s will, but it seems to me that war is sometimes a necessary God ordained instrument of those who seek to do good.