Archive for May, 2011

Civil Religion Watch Continues: The Huckabee Contribution

Friday, May 13th, 2011

A good old dose of non-denominational civil religion here from Mike Huckabee. (HT Jason Myers) He’s founded a company called “Learn Our History” that produces animated videos for kids interpreting the alleged role of the non-denominational God in U.S. history, specifically “in America’s founding and making our country the greatest place on Earth.”

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

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

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.

Tom Wright for Everyone

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

No, that’s not a typo but the title of a new book from SPCK.

I guess this was inevitable!

Theological Reflections on the Death of OBL, part II

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Hopefully Miroslav Volf’s online piece for the Christian Century will appear later today. (On FB he has posted the first and last paragraphs.) In the meantime, lots of good reflections have appeared, including those listed here by Church of Christ minister David Smith, as I commented last night.

Two main, interrelated thoughts have struck me since yesterday. First, the common theme in Congress, in the media, and on the streets seems to be that this event has pulled the diverse and factious body of people called Americans together like nothing else in a very long time.

That should give everyone, Christian or not, at least a little ethical hiccup. How sad is it when the killing of a human being is the chief cause of human unity, even for a day or a week?

But wait–and here is the irony–for us who call ourselves Christians, the killing of a human being actually is the cause of our unity, only for us it is the being killed rather than the killing, the heroic role of victim not victor, that is the source of unity.

Which leads to my second main point. The values that are drawing Americans together at this point are not, as some have tried to argue, the high moral values of justice (in a philosophical or theological sense) and commitment to the good of the world. No, they are the old-fashioned values of nationalism, retaliation, vengeance, kick-a** power (witness the Naval Academy plebes’ video), and “American” justice, complete, in some cases, with a strong dose of civil religion. That these are not gospel values should go without saying, yet many Christian Americans are blinded to this truth by this powerful, seductive nationalism.

I conclude by quoting (as a Methodist) the Vatican’s statement issued yesterday by Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman:

Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end. In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.

This is relatively minimalist, but good. Would that American Christians could at least take this statement as their starting point.

Some Thoughts on the Death of Osama Bin Laden

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Do the horrible events of 9/11 justify murderous retaliation? What is the Christian community to think?

“Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” God, speaking through Ezekiel in Ezekiel 33.11 (HT Kurt Willems; for his full comments, go here)

“The necessary fruit of the love of God is the love of our neighbour, of every soul which God hath made; not excepting our enemies, not excepting those who are now despitefully using and persecuting us; a love whereby we love every man as ourselves-as we love our own souls.” John Wesley, “The Marks of the New Birth” (HT Doug Strong on FB)

“You have heard Jesus say… but we say unto you…” (Ian Packer on FB)

Why does the story of the terrorist-turned-apostle named Paul not give people pause in their lewd rejoicing? (Brian Gorman on FB)

And don’t forget: a son and several grandchildren were murdered in the failed attempt to kill another enemy of the state two days earlier. Apart from the question of morality, is a weekend of state killing the best way to prevent future deaths?

Chris Tilling on the Cross

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

I know it’s already Easter season, but I would point your attention to a wonderful series of Good Friday meditations by my friend Chris Tilling, given at Holy Trinity Brompton, London. Superb exegesis and theological insight given meditatively and pastorally–with a wonderful accent, no less! See

Good Friday from Holy Trinity Brompton on Vimeo.