Those of us Protestants whose heritage is relatively congregational may sometimes find ourselves thinking things would be better if only we had bishops to provide the sort of guidance that gives the church theological direction in a world that constantly raises new and difficult questions. Such a longing may be moderated, however, simply by looking at the guidance bishops sometimes give. Allow me to puzzle over a case in point.
In early November 2006 (just after the midterm elections here in the United States), N.T. Wright, the well-known New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop of Durham, delivered a public lecture in Durham Cathedral asking, "Where is God in 'The War on Terror'?" Parts of the talk rehearse briefly Bishop Wright's reading of the story of Jesus, and he is always worth hearing on that subject. Parts of the talk engage in some philosophical reflection on what it might mean to think of God "intervening" in our world. I don't think this discussion goes very deep philosophically, and I pass over it here. But Bishop Wright's central aim in the lecture is to offer theological judgment-indeed, a critique that discerns God's own judgment-on the efforts (chiefly by the Bush administration) to oppose terrorists by waging war in Iraq and elsewhere.
It turns out that God is present in "the calling to account that has taken place in America" in the November elections. Indeed, it is, in Bishop Wright's judgment, "heavily ironic that, in the week which has seen a tyrant with rivers of blood on his hands [Saddam Hussein] condemned for the abuse of power, we have also seen the architects of a bloody, ill-thought-out and reckless war rebuked at the polls."
This kind of moral equivalence is given a theological ground by Bishop Wright's assertion that, contrary to the "incredibly naive and shallow analysis of the problem of evil" that has been adopted by "the leaders of the western world," the deeper truth is that "the line between good and evil doesn't lie between 'us' and 'them,' but runs as a jagged line through each human being and each human society." This is quite true, of course. Before God we are all-simply and equally-sinners. It would be helpful, though, if Bishop Wright were to think more about Reinhold Niebuhr's suggestion that this equality of sin is compatible with an inequality of guilt-that some of us sinners have produced more injustice in the world than have others. And, we might add, that God also can make such distinctions.
Niebuhr did not invent such a distinction. St. Au-gustine, while quite capable of asserting from one angle that every city that is not the City of God is merely an association dominated by the lust for domination, was simultaneously able to distinguish the nobility of an earlier Rome from the degradation he noted in the Rome of his own day. There is almost none of that sort of nuance in Bishop Wright's public lecture, and, as a result, his understanding of politics can scarcely help anyone who turns to it for instruction and guidance.
In fact, though he seems intensely concerned about the political realm, it's far from clear whether he thinks politics matters. On the one hand, he is quick to oppose those who insist that God-being in the business simply of "saving souls for a disembodied eternity"-will have "little or nothing to do with politics." But, on the other hand, he is scornful of those who think increased free trade and expanded parliamentary-style democracy might be useful tools for diminishing the impulse for terror. So uncontrolled is his scorn, that he is entirely unable to characterize their view in anything even resembling a fair way. Their "reaction to 9/11" was, in his depiction, "astonishingly immature: 'Goodness, there seems to be some serious evil out there after all! What on earth shall we do? I know-let's go and drop some bombs on it, that'll sort it out!'" And we are - evidently to take this as an example of mature political judgment.
Of course, it is true, as Bishop Wright several times asserts, that democracy is not the answer to the world's problems, though it is not clear that anyone has claimed it is. He also asserts several times that God cares more about how rulers rule than how they come to power. That claim-which, if analyzed, probably suggests a God more interested in stability than freedom-may be true, but it calls for some theological argument, and such argument is markedly missing from the lecture. More generally, though, when one considers the volumes that have been written by political theorists and political scientists on the nature of political institutions, one ought to be struck by how little Bishop Wright actually seems to have thought about these institutions before venturing forth on the sea of political analysis.
Thus, Bishop Wright's God-though, to be sure, he "wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic"-seems to be present among us only as Jesus takes on himself the world's pain and rebellion. This God does not seem to be present in the kingdoms of this world, using them to preserve the world toward the new creation begun in Jesus. Bishop Wright is not wrong, of course, to note that "all authorities and governments face the temptation to become bullies and arrogant"; yet, the bullying and arrogant tone of his own critique suggests that the response "Physician, heal thyself" would not be - misplaced.
There are serious-but also, we must add for Bishop Wright's sake, complicated-questions about whether our government's decision to wage war in Iraq was justified. And whatever one says about that jus ad bellum question, it seems evident that we have failed to pass the jus post bellum test (to use a phrase from Michael Walzer). We do not seem to have thought as carefully or thoroughly as was needed about what would come after a successful military campaign, nor whether we as a people would have the will and the resources to do whatever was needed.
This failing is a serious one, though not, in my mind, the sort of failing that should call forth Bishop Wright's suggestion that an "angry superpower, like a rogue elephant teased by a little dog, has gone on the rampage stamping on everything that moves in the hope of killing the dog by killing everything within reach." I myself cannot find in that analysis the mature political judgment for which Bishop Wright calls. It fails to pay close attention to who is actually doing much of the killing now taking place. It fails to pay attention to who is actually observing rules of war and who is not (an unsurprising failure in one who thinks that making war on terrorists is simply fighting "one kind of terror with another," an astonishingly imprecise analysis). And, perhaps most of all, it misses the (quite possibly misguided) idealism that has to a large extent undergirded our venture in Iraq.
One despairs even more of the bishop's powers of political analysis when one considers the alternative policies he offers. They amount to two. First, "the only way to fight terror is by working for mutual understanding and respect-winning hearts and minds....Throwing stones at a wasp's nest because one wasp has come out and stung you is not the best way of addressing, let alone solving, the problem." (I note in passing that I myself have on more than one occasion found a heavy dose of wasp-and-hornet spray to be very effective in solving such problems.) At another point in his lecture, Bishop Wright makes basically the same point. What we need to do is "to discover what makes people tick within worldviews quite unlike our own." I wish Bishop Wright well in this endeavor; indeed, I would rather have him doing that than giving public lectures such as this one. But along with the probing of terrorists' psyches, responsible government officials must also use and be prepared to use force against those whose willingness to commit inhumane acts is announced and well known.
The second suggestion to emerge from Bishop Wright's analysis is that multilateral rather than unilateral global military action is needed: a better functioning United Nations and International Court of Justice. "To continue to resist the making real of such an internationally credible police force, as many on the right in America have done, is more and more obviously a way of saying that now that we're in power we will use that power utterly for our own advantage." Here again, Bishop Wright is not much given to argument in support of his advice. It is not clear why we should-to borrow again from Michael Walzer, who is hardly a man on the political right in America-be "convinced that the world would be improved by having only one agent of international rescue." Moreover, until the day when the kingdom of Christ is fully established, there is in the political world no universal mediator of God's rule, and we may therefore have both theological and political reason to prefer a pluralistic world with many centers of power and sovereignty.
In short, there's too much wrong in the analysis and prescription offered by Bishop Wright. This lecture is the sort of thing that tempts some folks to say that bishops should stick to theology and avoid politics, but, in fact, what's wrong here is both political and theological. A little less confidence and a lot more nuance would be needed before some of us could be attracted by such episcopal advice.
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Phyllis and Richard - Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.