Published July 28, 2008
N.T. Wright is an outstanding New Testament scholar, having authored some very significant books on Christianity in the last several decades. When speaking out on issues on which he has expertise, Wright is among the best in the world. But when it comes to making pronouncements on international affairs and especially the war against militant Islam and Iraq, of which he seems to know very little, Tom Wright ought to remain silent rather than make comments that indicate he is way out of his depth.
Wright, the bishop of Durham, has delivered among the most shallow and misleading speeches on the struggle against jihadism and Iraq that any prominent religious leader has given. I have in mind his November 9, 2006 Durham Cathedral Lecture, “Where is God in 'The War on Terror'?” in which Wright badly mischaracterizes the response of the United States to the September 11th attacks, as well as the views of President Bush and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, declared that the 2006 mid-term elections was an example of God “calling to account those who abuse powers,” showed a disturbing tendency toward moral equivalence between jihadists and those who are fighting to defeat them, and directed virtually all of his scorn against the United States and Great Britain rather than al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Just a few days ago, at the Anglican Communion's gathering in Canterbury, Wright continued to build on his reputation for unseriousness.
The context of Wright's most recent remarks, and much of the focus of the Anglican gathering, was the ordination five years ago of V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican church. That ordination has threatened to split the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, the world's third-largest church.
According to the Washington Post:
Tom Wright, the bishop of Durham, England, told reporters at the start of the conference last weekend that Americans had stirred up the current problems in the church. He likened it to the United States starting the Iraq war. “George Bush said he was going to invade Iraq. Everyone told him not to because there would be consequences, but he did it anyway. The Americans floated the balloon in 2003 when they consecrated Gene Robinson. . . . They knew it would be unacceptable” to most people in the Communion, Wright was quoted in British newspapers as saying.
This is a silly and inept analogy.
For one thing, not “everyone” told the President not to invade Iraq. The vast majority of the United States Congress–including 77 U.S. Senators and 296 Members of the House–supported the war before it began. So did the “coalition of the willing,” which Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and 17 other countries–including Wright's own Great Britain. And perhaps Wright is unaware of UN Resolution 1441, which was passed unanimously, found Iraq in material breach of its obligations, and warned Iraq of “serious consequences” (which all parties understood to mean war) for continued violations.
As for the consequences of the war: They still have to be played out. But of late the consequences of the war look far better than they did only 18 months ago. The sadistic regime of Saddam Hussein has been replaced by the only authentically democratic nation in the Arab Middle East. The civil war that Iraq was edging toward has been arrested and reversed. Al Qaeda has absorbed enormously damaging blows. And Iran is, in the words of the scholar Vali Nasr, “on its heels” for the first time because of events in Iraq.
There have been huge costs to the war, both financially and in the number of people killed and maimed. And one can make a serious argument that the war has been more costly than it has been worth, at least at this point. My own view is that the acid test will be what emerges in Iraq and its radiating effects in the Middle East and in the larger struggle against militant Islam. Those effects are still playing themselves out, and will for some time to come. But we can now say that a decent outcome, and even victory, in Iraq is plausible. And that should be something that men and women of good will and good conscience delight in.
Yet Tom Wright, for what appear to be deeply ideological reasons, cannot let go of his narrative that Iraq was a terrible misadventure that must end up badly. It's odd that a Christian leader would appear to hold with such intensity to the conviction that he wishes a genocidal dictator–head of one of the two most cruel and inhumane regimes in the second half of the 20th century, according to former Ambassador Peter Galbraith (the other being Pol Pot's Cambodia)–were still in power.
In his outstanding book The Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright says this: “we must not project our contemporary fondness for certain kinds of narrative on to a historical problem which demands not prejudgment but analysis.”
Wright could say that same thing about modern-day problems in the realm of foreign policy. It is too bad that for several years, and again this weekend, Wright substitutes a serious and informed analysis of Iraq–which could certainly be critical of the war and its execution–with his own tendentious prejudgments.
N.T. Wright has done a lot of good in the arena of New Testament scholarship. But he would be wise to heed to words of Clint Eastwood's character Harry Callahan, from the “Dirty Harry” series (and the “Magnum Force” movie in particular): “A man's got to know his limitations.” For Wright, those limitations include speaking out on international affairs, the war against jihadism, and Iraq.