N.T. Wright on Osama bin Laden’s Death

Tom Wright has submitted the following surprisingly strong text to the Times of London.

By Tom Wright

(Rt Revd Prof N T Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham, now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews)

Consider the following scenario. A group of IRA terrorists carry out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the United States, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this is not far from the truth.

But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we’ve still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.

What’s the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not. By what right? Who says?

Consider another fictive scenario. Gangsters are preying on a small mid-western town. The sheriff and his deputies are spineless; law and order have failed. So the hero puts on a mask, acts ‘extra-legally’, performs the necessary redemptive violence (i.e. kills the bad guys), and returns to ordinary life, earning the undying gratitude of the local townsfolk, sheriff included. This is the plot of a thousand movies, comic-book strips, and TV shows: Captain America, the Lone Ranger, and (upgraded to hi-tech) Superman. The masked hero saves the world.

Films and comics with this plot-line have been named as favourites by most Presidents, as Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence pointed out in The Myth of the American Superhero (2002) and Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil (2004). The main reason President Obama has been cheered to the echo across the US, even by his bitter opponents, is not simply the fully comprehensible sense of closure a decade after the horrible, wicked actions of September 11 2001. Underneath that, he has just enacted one of America’s most powerful myths.

Perhaps the myth was necessary in the days of the Wild West, of isolated frontier towns and roaming gangs. But it legitimizes a form of vigilantism, of taking the law into one’s own hands, which provides ‘justice’ only of the crudest sort. In the present case, the ‘hero’ fired a lot of stray bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan before he got it right. What’s more, such actions invite retaliation. They only ‘work’ because the hero can shoot better than the villain; but the villain’s friends may decide on vengeance. Proper justice is designed precisely to outflank such escalation.

Of course, ‘proper justice’ is hard to come by internationally. America regularly casts the UN (and the International Criminal Court) as the hapless sheriff, and so continues to play the world’s undercover policeman. The UK has gone along for the ride. What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us? And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?

I am indebted to my friend Mike Bird at Euaggelion for pointing this out. Mike thinks that terrorists fall outside the the rules of war and therefore permit nations to do what the U.S. has done. But Wright, who has not identified with the pacifist position in the past, makes good points about functional American exceptionalism (that is, even if other countries do such things on occasion, the U.S. would not approve of it if the shoe were on the other foot) and about core American myths, and he brings the most fundamental Christian perspective to bear on this issue.

11 Responses to “N.T. Wright on Osama bin Laden’s Death”

  1. Greg Smith says:

    Terrorism is certainly different in some respects than war, as least as we have known war in the past. Generally, that is one sovereign entity declaring a state of war exists and engaging in a military campaign against another. Bin Laden did declare a state of war of sorts and engaged in a military activity. He did so not as a head of state but as the head of an organization whose goal is to bring the world under Islam. If the nature of war has changed and we have to change the rules to adapt then let’s do that. But let’s not say we can do nothing in the interim.

    OBL is not just a terrorist, he is an enemy combatant. As the info secured in the raid begins to come out we see that he was still actively engaged in plots to terrorize the US. A duly elected president of a sovereign power gave the order to take out an enemy combatant. The order was not given by a vigilante and executed against some kingpin somewhere. This is Rom 13:4, plain and simply.

  2. Ben Griffith says:

    Great piece. Thanks for sharing!

    A lot more needs to be done by theologians exploring issues of war/politics and American Exceptionalism. I appreciate Tom Wright’s willingness to speak into the issue rather than merely critiquing from the sideline (as a pacificst).

  3. Michael says:

    Indeed, this is a great piece. Thanks for bringing it to all of us who don’t read the Times.

    Greg, I’m confused. Are you saying the assassination of Bin Laden is analogous to the regular crucifixion of terrorists (and Christians) by the government Paul is referring to in Romans 13? Comparing the U.S. to the Roman empire would seem to support Wright’s argument, rather than question it as you suggest.

  4. [...] Rowan Williams and N.T Wright have given responses to the killing of Osama bin Laden here. (HT: Michael Gorman and Michael Bird) Ian Paul comments on Wright’s statements [...]

  5. Michael says:

    Mike, I agree with Wright’s critique of the Captain America ideology whereby American hegemony (military, economic) is an essential good and it is viewed as benevolent (or should be) by the rest of the world – typical neo-con fantasy.

    From a legal point of view, terrorists don’t come under the Geneva conventions for Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC). That doesn’t mean anything goes ethically, but Govt.’s are in a legal no man’s land as it were when it comes to this sort of thing. But he was a dangerous man and the USA was right to stop him. The fact that he was unarmed does not really make any difference in my mind. It may not have been possible to have taken him alive. We just don’t know what happened in the midst of the fire fight. This was not like Gibraltar in 1988 where the SAS gunned down three unarmed IRA operatives in broad daylight in public. This was an attack on a fortified bunker complete with RPGs and AK-47s. Also, asking Pakistan to bring him in would be like asking Dracula to pick up a specimen from the Red Cross blood bank – it ain’t gonna work.

    As an ex-Army guy I am admittedly biased I guess. Me ponders, what would Bonhoeffer think?

    Mike Bird

  6. MJG says:

    It’s been a long day since I first posted this.

    Mike Bird,

    Glad we agree about American mythology, etc. But why does this not affect your view of the events of last weekend? It’s as if you note the ideology and move on; it has no hermeneutical import for you. It that because you are an “ex-Army guy” and suspend your hermeneutic of suspicion for all things military, even American? (I do mean to be direct here at almost midnight, but not rude.) I’ve also wondered about Bonhoeffer, but I’m probably a bit more interested. like NTW, in “what would Jesus think”–at least about our view of it all as Christians. I’m also not sure bin Laden and Hitler are parallel figures.


    Lots of assumptions here. (1) Who’s the “we” to whom you refer? Do “we” as Christians change the rules of war, or do refrain from military combat and alter the kind of conflicts we willing to engage in? (2) Whatever Romans 13:4 might mean, “This is Rom 13:4, plain and simply” is a claim that requires all kinds of justification; it is not at all self-evident. For one thing, you claim that “A duly elected president of a sovereign power gave the order to take out an enemy combatant.” But that head of one sovereign state ordered action in another sovereign state where he had no jurisdiction. Moreover, the action taken was not portrayed by the U.S. as an act of war but as an act of justice, which suggests, on the surface, a legal remedy for a crime, but since this act was completely extra-legal it is better called an act of retaliation, “pure and simply,” as most Americans have happily called it. Or, as Wright suggests, it was indeed a vigilante act of vengeance. And most Americans are perfectly fine with an act of vengeance in this case.

  7. Jacques says:

    Since he is not a bishop anymore, is it not inappropriate to still call him “Rt Revd”?

  8. MJG says:

    A bishop is a a bishop for life even after retiring or otherwise leaving office, as far as I understand it.

  9. [...] out Michael Gorman’s blog where he re-posted an interesting article by the british scholar, N. T. Wright (was Bishop of [...]

  10. paul zerovnik says:

    N T Wright preety much nails it down. Just like the movie (falling down) with Michael Douglas. the main reason for this disconnect with this war on terror is that Justice cannot be established when it is intertwined in myth, lies and disinformation.

  11. MJG says:

    Well said, Paul.

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