Posted by: gmscan | May 24, 2012

Where Wright Goes Wrong

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.




  1. Thanks, Greg, for your cogent thoughts. It happens I agree with you, but even if I didn’t I must appreciate the quality of your thinking and expression. People continually miss the point of Jesus’ ministry: inner transformation of individuals. His social agenda was entirely dependent upon transformed individuals acting in society. I was a pastor for almost 40 years; if I had it to do over again, I would lead/manage/administrate less and preach/teach/counsel more, and the substance of my preaching/teaching/counseling would be Jesus’ agenda for inner transformation. “Above all else, guard your heart, for from it flow the wellsprings of life.” Proverbs 4:23

  2. Greg,
    The comment in your ending paragraph sums it up well, “Once I am grounded in grace, I can apply that grace to the world as I encounter it.” And where you will apply it is in your field of expertise.
    When members of the church have not acquired the needed understanding, and not acquire it from those among the members that do have it, they do not represent Jesus well.

  3. Greg,

    Another really good post. And as usual, they inspire a couple of comments.

    First, about justice. You state “Justice means punishing those who break the law”. That is not really the biblical definition of justice. Look closely at the Mosaic code and you will see that for the most part it is about restitution and reconciliation. The American legal system is about punishment, but punishment does not provide for restitution or reconciliation. Injustice is the lack of restitution and lack of reconciliation.

    (Have you noticed that in the Mosaic Law, a person is never sent to prison for an offense? Never. No prisons in Biblical Israel)

    I have not read Wrights book, but I would be surprised if he missed that nuance. When he speaks of justice, he is likely speaking of Biblical justice, which is in fact only fully obtained through Jesus Christ.

    I share your concern with some of the PCUSA committee’s interest in secular politics. But historically, over the last 1500 years, the US is the one leading exception when it comes to separation of Church and State. The rule has been that Church and the State have been ruling together. Not theocracy, but a partnership. You will notice that in all the confessions of the Church up through the Barmen Declaration, a very big part of the confession is about figuring out who’s in charge, the Church or the State. The State starts getting out of control, and the Church feels a burning need to establish some boundaries. Even the Presbyterian Church is the State Church of Scotland.

    Much of the last two and half centuries in America have been about figuring out again what it means to be a Church without the backing of the State. The birth of denominationalism is all about deposing and replacing State churches. Many long to go back to that. Having the law on your side is so much easier to resolve doctrinal disputes than trying to use rhetoric. 1500 years have made us fat and lazy. So both the right and the left seem to crave something from the State.

    In the 1800s in America there arose the Holiness movement, which held that religion was a private thing only, that our corporate loyalty to the State allowed us to serve the demands of the State while not compromising our private loyalty to the gospel. I look on that theology with some suspicion. But those feelings run deep within the Evangelical community. The first time in recent history they broke with it was with Jerry Fowel and the Moral Majority movement. That sure went sideways in a hurry, but with all that baggage, I am not surprised to see Evangelical authors trying to grapple with how the Church should be in dialog with the State.

    Perhaps you are right. Perhaps it should not be in dialog at all. Perhaps if it focuses on revealing God to His people, something different and better will happen on Monday morning than if it does not. In fact, I am sure of it.

    But are you sure that is really what bothers you about mixing Church and politics?


    PS BTW, I was in Brazil when the private banks were loaning “petrodollars” to Brazil, the interest on which eventually overwhelmed the Brazilian GNP. It very much was private banks looking for high interest returns for their exceedingly wealthy (Saudi?) depositors. The gig was to give individuals with signing authority enough “incentive” to sign away their country’s future by borrowing money at rates their countries could not possibly pay off.

    (How much of an incentive would >>you<< require?)

    And when they could not pay off the debt, the IMF and World Bank picked up the tab, thus saving the banks, the investors, and the debt strapped countries.

    “They made the loans with the best of intentions, trying to help poorer countries develop.” Really? Altruistic bankers, trying to make the world a better place to live? And here I thought the beauty of Capitalism is that it channels unbridled greed for the common good.

    • Jodie, Seems to me justice at the time of Moses may have included reconciliation, but failing that, there was a bit of stoning to death, too. I think imprisonment was seen as a humane improvement over stoning, flogging, and hanging.

      As for church and state, as you say this continues to be a very lively topic. There are those who believe the only appropriate place for faith is in houses of worship and at home. They argue that faith should be banished from “the public square.” There are others who say faith should be recognized, but only as a historical cultural quirk. My distinction is between the church as an organization and the church as a people, but in both cases in the United States there is an absolute freedom to practice religion — any time, any place. I would constrain the corporate church’s involvement in politics on practical grounds rather than moral or constitutional grounds. I want the corporate church to welcome all of God’s children.

      I wouldn’t question your experience in Brazil, other than to point out that Brazil is doing just fine these days. My focus was on Sub-Shara Africa which is not doing so well. Of course the loans were not made for altruistic reasons. But that doesn’t mean the financiers want their borrowers to fail. They want the borrowers to succeed so that the loans can be paid back. (Though I grant you this dynamic has been poisoned lately with our bailouts of lenders.)

      • Greg,

        I think I agree with the point on moving the focus of the corporate church away from politics on exactly the same grounds. I would refocus that energy on things that we have been successful in the past: Schools, health care?

        Yup, Brazil is doing much better. It took a socialist president to figure out how to make capitalism work. Go figure.

        Don’t think they had hanging and flogging in the Mosaic law. Lots of death by stoning. But it was mostly about purification, not punishment. But they also had special laws about letting the ox eat from the field it was working, about leaving the corners of fields unharvested so the poor could get some, ending the practice of cutting off just the leg of the lamb so you could eat the rest later, stuff like that. All of those principles fall under the blanket of “justice”.


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