As I said, I loved about 90% of N.T. Wright’s book, “Surprised By Hope.” I agree that the resurrection demands, not just acceptance and belief, but an active response in the here and now. But I think he gets seriously off track when he discusses the specifics of what that response should be.
Let’s start with his suggestion that the church work for justice. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Who could possibly object to “working for justice?”
The problem comes in defining what is and is not just. This is relatively easy when there are clear written laws to follow. Justice means punishing those who break the law. Injustice would include punishing people who have not broken the law, or failing to punish a lawbreaker. But even here it is rarely black and white. That’s why there are juries, judges, attorneys, and appeals procedures. And we still often cannot agree. Want to stir up some lively debate? Start with this premise – “O.J. Simpson got what he deserved. The verdict was just.”
But defining “justice” when there are no laws to follow is nearly impossible. I know many people in health care who will maintain that it is absolutely unjust that the uninsured get less health care than the insured. But I know just as many who would argue it would be unjust if the insured did not get more health care, given that they pay maybe $10,000 a year for coverage. Why should someone who paid nothing get the same? Now that would be unjust — and not just unjust, but profoundly impractical. Why would anyone pay $10,000 if they could get the same care for free?
The Occupy Wall Street people think that income inequality is unjust. The Tea Party people argue people should be paid according to their efforts and talents – it would be unjust to pay everyone the same regardless the quality of their work. What one person calls justice another would call injustice.
Same applies to N.T. Wright. What he considers the great injustice of our time is – wait for it — third world debt. Third world debt? This is left over from the “Jubilee 2000” movement of twenty years ago when many people were calling on the developed world to forgive the debts of the undeveloped world. Wright equates forgiving third world debt as a moral crusade on a par with abolishing slavery. He writes:
“… this is the number one moral issue of our day…. The present system of global debt is the real moral scandal, the dirty little secret… of glitzy, glossy Western capitalism. Whatever it takes, we must change that situation or stand condemned by subsequent history alongside those who supported slavery two centuries ago and those who supported the Nazis seventy years ago.”
He dismisses other views by saying:
“… notice how the rhetoric regularly employed against remission of global debts echoes the arguments against the abolition of slavery.”
He is so convinced of the correctness of his position that he calls other views “rhetoric” rather than reasoned arguments and tars his opponents with the brush of being like defenders of slavery and Nazi-ism. He goes on for page after page in this vein, bashing the “Western global empire” and mischaracterizing and trivializing the views of anyone who doesn’t agree with his opinion of “justice.”
Where to start? Wright’s rhetoric is so outlandish that I really need to spend some time with it.
First, you probably haven’t heard much about this movement in the past ten years. It was a momentary fad, like the “nuclear freeze” movement of the 1980s. One has to wonder about Wright’s judgment in ramping up such inflammatory rhetoric over a passing fad.
Associating every reform movement with the campaign against slavery is intellectually lazy and is a great way to kill constructive discussion. This is not a new tactic. Consider the Temperance Movement. It followed Abolition as the next great societal improvement cause of the Christian church, at least in America. Like Wright, the proponents of it closed their ears to any caution or objection, and marched full speed ahead with banners waving. A little humility would have served the advocates well. Prohibition was a completely predictable disaster.
Slavery was in a class all its own. It had been a near universal condition of human kind for as long as we have records. Changing our minds about it was an amazing achievement, but it was also one that was made possible with advances in technology, especially the invention of the steam engine. Industrialization in manufacturing and agriculture was rapidly making slavery obsolete anyway.
Debt isn’t anything like that. Debts come and debts go. Even since Wright first formed his opinion twenty years ago, conditions have changed dramatically. Some of the “third world” countries that held the most international debt are no longer considered third world. These include emerging powerhouses like Brazil and India. Even nations like Indonesia and Malaysia are developing economies that can easily handle their debts.
These are examples of the fact (and it is a fact) that countries can control their own destinies. Granted some nations end up with corrupt leaders who rob their own people blind, but that has always been true on every continent. Successful economies can pop up in the least likely of places. Consider Hong Kong and Singapore – tiny nation-states with small populations and no resources. The only resource they have is entrepreneurialism and the wit of their people.
Who would have ever thought in the time of Jesus that England would one day become a global empire far exceeding Rome? It was a small, poor, uneducated backwater of a country. I would argue two things allowed for England’s success: Christianity and capitalism.
The Sub-Saharan debt Wright is really concerned with was not an evil plot by greedy capitalists. Almost all of it is held by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund – governmental organizations, not private banks. They made the loans with the best of intentions, trying to help poorer countries develop. The loans were made to the governments in power at the time, which was probably a big mistake given how corrupt those governments were. But the idea was to help them grow into the world economy. If the loans had not been made, the Wrights of the world would have called that decision an injustice – greedy capitalists hoarding all their money to keep the poor from advancing. These institutions have no interest in keeping these countries poor and dependent. There is no advantage in that to anyone.
One final point on this topic. Wright cites the Lord’s Prayer to support his case – “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Indeed. But we can only forgive those who have sinned against us. I can forgive Joe for what he has done to me, but how can I forgive Joe for what he did to Sally? How do I have the authority to do that? Doesn’t Sally have something to say about it?
It is easy enough, you might call it “cheap grace,” to forgive someone his debts if you are using someone else’s money. It makes you feel good, and it makes the debtor feel good, and as long as you can dehumanize the third party it isn’t necessary to feel any guilt about what you have done to him.
And this brings us to another problem with Wright’s approach – he makes no distinction between the corporate church and the church as a people. He sees part of the mission of “the church” as influencing –
“The world of space, time and matter… where parliaments, city councils, neighborhood watch groups, and everything in between are set up and run for the benefit of the wider community… And the church that is renewed by the message of Jesus’s resurrection must be the church that goes to work in precisely that space and claims it in advance as the place of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’s lordship, or the power of the Spirit.”
There are two problems with this, in my view. One, it is veering dangerously close to a theocracy in which the church is responsible for governing civil society. That may seem unremarkable in Wright’s England, where the Queen is also the head of his church, but it is completely alien on this side of the Atlantic and it makes me shudder.
Second, as we are seeing with the good ol’ PCUSA, the more the church involves itself in politics, the more it alienates half of the population. Look at how contentious and divisive Wright’s opinions on global debt are. He doesn’t just disagree with his opponents, he despises and belittles them. Is that really the best way to proclaim the gospel?
Individual Christians may and should get involved in every aspect of human life and stand up for Jesus in whatever vocation they may pursue. The corporate church should support and nurture them in these activities, and it should equip them with knowledge and love. But it should not dictate to its members, or to the larger community, what political views are acceptable to Jesus.
I think Michael Horton has it about right when he says –
“The Reformers were convinced that when the church is properly executing its ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline, there will be disciples who reflect their Christian faith in their daily living. The goal of the church as an institution is not cultural transformation, but preaching, teaching, baptizing, communing, praying, confessing, and sharing their inheritance in Christ. The church is a re-salinization plant, where the salt becomes salty each week, but the salt is scattered into the world.” (Christ and Culture Once More)
I have spent my entire life in politics, policy and economics. I don’t need the church for that. Indeed, I find the church is not very good at it — ham fisted and clumsy. I need the church to teach me about God’s love. Once I am grounded in grace, I can apply that grace to the world as I encounter it. A church that is wrapped up in political posturing is of no value to me whatsoever. Which is why I am leaving the PCUSA.