N.T. Wright Rightly Reflects on the Death of Osama Bin Laden

N.T. Wright comments below on the recent situation with Osama bin Laden in light of the Myth of Redemptive Violence.  I think we Americans need to listen to relevant evangelical Christian voices from across the pond.  Also check out these other posts on the situation with Osama bin Laden: “Mourning the death of Osama bin Laden… and the loss of Every other Life” and “Osama bin Laden, God the Violent Warrior, and Loving Our Enemies”


Former Bishop of Durham Dr Tom Wright has sent us this:
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?
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  • I think Wright nails it.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for posting this Kurt! Great thoughts from Wright.

  • This won’t be a very popular idea with a lot of Americans despite its truth. It’s always interesting getting the viewpoint of people outside of America, perhaps even more so it being NT Wright. I have American friends who live in Germany who are telling me of the German Christians surprise, not at the celebratory acts done here, but the lack of the Christ’s values being embodied by the Church. I believe this could be a watershed moment for disciples of Christ to present Jesus, his kingdom, and his peace.

  • What Wright fails to take into account is the
    complex agreements we have already established with Pakistan about
    searching for Bin Laden and what both countries agreed to. Since this is
    not published information it isn’t known in great deta…il.
    I have to believe that we have extensive State dept. agreements with
    Pakistan. We give them billions of dollars of aid. We don’t do that
    without agreements. I am sure Bin Laden was part of the deal. On
    the surface Wright’s commentary makes sense. It just is too simplistic
    for reality and doesn’t take account of the facts. I am sure he doesn’t
    know them any more than the rest of us. Yes, American
    exceptionalism is a problem, but every country in the world benefits
    from it in many ways that are not acknowledged. Europe saves hundreds of
    billions from our military actions that they don’t have to engage in. Pakistan
    gains points with their own people by protesting our actions, but they
    also benefit from Bin Laden being taken down as his followers would also
    love to topple Pakistan and take over if they could. All this is much more complex than Wright’s simple analogy would allow.

  • Lifelonglearning

    Hi, the analogy of IRA terrorist fails, because USA and UK are allies. USA would more likely extradite the terrorist to UK as opposed to habouring them. The world is suspicious of the Pakistani regime of habouring terrorist.

    In relation to justice and Jesus, the world (i.e. the non-believers) finds it hard to wait to the Judgment day to have the full and final satisfaction. This is understandable. So don’t be so hard on the non-believers.

    • Actually, I recall that the UK suffered serious heartburn a few years back when various U.S. entities welcomed Gerry Adams from Sinn Fein long before there were any negotiated agreements on the eastern side of the Atlantic, so this is not so far afield as you might think.

    • Revjackal

      I agree that the story makes more sense if it a country that feels they couldn’t trust America. Say Iran is attacked, then sends a crack team in to catch the bad guys.

    • @7dad04b5d33ef432bad9083c023be0ec:disqus , you fail to see that the analogy that you say breaks down because of the UK and US being allies is exactly the point. Wright uses that outrageous scenario to illustrate the ridiculous reality of American exceptionalism / empire.

  • Joe T

    I love NT Wright, but I find this article trite, condescending and ignorant.

  • Thanks for this, Kurt. Extremely relevant post, and Wright is (not surprisingly) right on the mark.

  • Tomsterbens

    There is a little known background on NT Wright’s social parody….

    Few people know the history behind the Lone Ranger. Prior to dawning mask and gun and becoming “The Lone Ranger,” Joe American was an independently wealthy innovator who had moved to an area of the old west where a lawless bad guy Alberto Kyda (Al for short)was tormenting the towns people. Al had an incredibly large gang that was overwhelming to the local sheriff, whose name was P. K. Stan. Sheriff P.K. Stan and his deputies were grossly under-manned, under-trained, and under-funded to fight the network of Al’s bad-guys.

    Joe America decided to help. Joe met with Sheriff Stan and agreed to provide funding, training and all the necessary resources to rid their region of Al Kyda and his gang. Over the course of nearly 10 years Joe provided approximately 20 billion dollars worth of resources to Sheriff Stan—in fact Joe thought they were the best of friends. (Joe even developed an endearing reference for Sheriff Stan, he called him “Kemo Sabe). The agreement between Joe America and P.K. Stan was a seeming unending supply of resource with the single goal being to rid the land of Al Kyda and his gang. Joe America even assisted in supplying technology for the sheriff to have nuclear capabilities to defend against tribe of Indians that were wanting to take over as well.

    In time Joe America learned that Sheriff Stan had become good friends with the bad guys and even helped provide a place for them to live in safety—a place from which they could operate their ongoing bad guy stuff. All the while the towns-people still suffered from the actions of Al and his gang. The day that Joe dawned the mask and became the Lone Ranger, was the same he discovered Kemo Sabe Bin Lyin about the location of Al Kyda..

    And that’s the true story.

    • Tomsterbens

      Shouldn’t that be “donned” vs. “dawned” …..man I hate that! LOL!

    • Petecustomcraft

      Grew up on the Lone Ranger. Watched every episode. He never shot an unarmed man.
      He wore a white hat and rode a white horse.

      Now on the other hand, a more current hero Steven Seagall, wears black.

      It is what it is.

  • Mary Hart

    N. T. Wright is a less than convincing theologian, and an even worse political commentator. America is to be applauded for investing billions of dollars and putting the entire military might of the nation into a 10 year hunt and ultimate assasination of an old man in a rundown fortress in a third rate nation.

    • You must not believe in the bodily resurrection. He is the most convincing arguer of that central truth… possibly in hundreds of years. I don’t know of an academic book that comes close in that regard to “The Resurrection of the Son of God.” @2940a596fa2f58b273a77f3b367e4d42:disqus we clearly disagree. Blessings to you this weekend!

      • Shane

        I think it’s supposed to be sarcastic…

    • Mary, if I was wrong and you were being facetious, my apologies for the earlier comment. Either way, thanks for coming to the blog…

  • Sane

    Like much of Wright’s work, this is trash.

    • Please use less rude language. Peace.

      • Taejohndo

        True. He is British — rubbish, then.

  • The fact that America would or would not like some nebulous scenario of someone coming in an killing criminals does not lessen the fact that justice would have been done. Very simply, ANY NATION, whether America, Pakistan, etc., that stands in way of justice being done cannot claim the moral high ground if someone disregards their “sovereignty.” Such things become null and void in the face of protecting evil.

    How do we know, Brother Wright, that if a Pakistani policeman had shot Bin Laden that you would not have then bemoaned that he had not had a trial. And if he had had a trial in Pakistan, how do we know that you would not then have said, “You can’t get a fair trial in Pakistan”? Or if in front of the World Court, you might have said that America was playing puppetmaster, forcing this or that?

    Further, throughout history, God has used men, kingdoms, armies, to do His will. To punish evil, to correct disobedience. Further, “living by the sword” certainly does not mean “to execute justice”! Didn’t Paul say that leaders “bear not the sword in vain”? They are there to execute a certain level of justice.

    Of course, it might be that you, Brother Wright, would have been satisfied with nothing less than if an angel appeared and personally escorted Bin Laden to hell. But God often uses temporal means to effect His will.

    If America ever harbored evil men, and someone came and shot them, we don’t have to like it. We might get very angry. Yet if those men truly executed justice, then they are in the right, and we are in the wrong. Just because we wouldn’t like it if someone did that to us is not argument that it shouldn’t be done! And may it be that America would never harbor evil men while the blood of the innocent cry out for justice. If we do, we have a lot more to worry about then foreign helicopter raids.

  • Anonymous

    Seems like a fallacious equivocation on the
    term, “exceptional.” People have different meanings for the
    concept of exceptionalism. Tom and I once had a discussion of the early
    American concept of Manifest Destiny, and I think he takes a stronger
    view of such things than need be. Any nation that is
    sufficiently stewarded by its Church members within the country can be
    mightily used by God. In that sense, any nation can become more or less
    exceptional to the degree they conform to the will of God. That does not
    mean they are “excepted” or exempted from the law of God, which seems
    to be the meaning Tom puts on such things (unwarrantedly, IMHO). He gets
    on a bit of a rant box sometimes and has a less than robust political
    theology of how Christians are to steward their respective nations for
    the King of kings. But I’ll probably talk to him about these things
    again this fall and ‘set him straight,’ as it were 🙂

    Furthermore, the universalization of the “die by the sword” passage is puerile abuse, taking the Scripture way beyond its context in a way usually left to the most hermeneutically tendentious, not to a serious professor of the Word of God.

  • Taejohndo

    Actually, I’m American, and I’d be fine if the SAS came in and killed the IRA scum.

    Osama and his ilk wouldn’t hesitate to kill you all — happily, I might add. And while you might think it fine to die without a fight for your principle, the fact is if we all take that approach, we would all be dead — or Muslim. You willing to convert and worship Allah? If not, shut up and let us kill the bastards to protect ourselves — and your sorry asses.

    • Revjackal

      Let me start by saying I am glad Osama is dead. But I think the danger you might not be considering is the example being set by the methods that seem to have been necessary. If the US can go into a foreign country, what moral reason can be given to other countries for not following their lead. Even if you think the action was justified, surely you could allow that there are grey areas in authorizing entry into a sovereign nation.

      • Taejohndo

        I agree– there are many grey areas. I would submit this is not one.

        In a perfect world — in an ideal world–we would have no need for such tactics.

        The world is neither ideal or perfect. Do you (does one) want to stand by and allow the radicals to continue to kill at will. Because there is a point where no amount of talking or understanding will stop them. Only death. Theirs, yours or ours. Are you willing to die –are you willing to let them continue to kill until there is a world Caliph? Because that is their end goal. Well, I’m not.

        I think my kids will be better off in an imperfect US or UK then a world ruled by the likes of them.

        Given a choice, I would rather not have our men go into Pakistan and kill them. But I don’t think we have much of a choice given the imperfect world we live in.

  • Jonathan

    “What’s more, such actions invite
    retaliation. ”

    These words are haunting. God help us.

    • Taejohndo

      They cite the Crusades as reason for retaliation.

      Their goal is a world composed of a sharia ruled Islam nation. I chose to not comply with their desire.

    • Angau

      In-actions also invite retaliations, as by the way would public trials. Remember the response to cartoons – imagine the responses to a ‘guilty’ ruling, let alone the sentence that would follow. Was this the right action? dont know, but I DO know some of the responses are …well lets say “unrealistic”.

  • Jonathan

    “What’s more, such actions invite
    retaliation. ”

    These words are haunting. God help us.

  • tu

    Wright’s problem is his analogies. They are grossly incorrect, as most are. Begin again!

  • Back in the day, a Pope announced that the killing of Elizabeth I, queen of England would not be murder. This shocked me. The US Attorney General has done something similar over Osama bin Laden. This killing was legal under US law. This shocked me less, but the parallels are clear.

    The problem with the UN is that many of its members are corrupt. It is not good and true just because it is an international organisation.

    But every country makes exceptions for itself. It’s just patriotism, which is a collective way of saying that other people’s rules don’t apply to me. The US is just bigger and stronger, but it is also less bad than many other nations, so there is a difference between the US waltzing into a sovereign nation, armed, intending to kill and without that nation’s consent and many other countries doing the same. Why? because of the target. Many who don’t like what the US has done in killing Osama bin Laden won’t mourn his passing.

    Finally, I noted that the BBC’s editor of US News said that while bin Laden’s killing will do much to bolster his chances of re-election, only a lowering of the price of petrol can guarantee it.

  • Cliff Martin

    Thanks Kurt. Perhaps his IRA analogy overreaches a bit … America would not likely have sent commandoes into GB, France, or Russia, e.g. America:Pakistan is not analogous to GB:America. Still, his underlying points are on target.

    At the very least, even assuming one could build a meaningful apologetic for America’s actions in Pakistan, the glee and triumphalism coming from certain quarters within the church are deplorable.

  • Tomsterbens

    Hi Kurt – Admittedly my first post was satirical 🙂 However, could you guys offer some commentary/dialog on Romans 13:1-4, in particular verse 4 (below). I am no right-wing religious zealot advocating whatever right-wing religious zealots advocate, not in the least—but the mention of “the sword” as a seeming extreme, final or last-ditch response to evil, appears to be a compelling point of dialog on this matter.


    tom sterbens

    Romans 13:1–4 (NASB95)

    1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.

    2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.

    3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;

    4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

    • Tom, here’s one perspective on the passage you reference that may be helpful. The short explanation is that the Romans 13 passage you cite is bookended by two passages: Rom. 12:17-21 and Rom. 13:8-10 that make abundantly clear that the role of the follower of Jesus is to conduct himself peaceably and lovingly. Putting the Rom. 13:1-4 in the middle of these two leads me to believe that Paul is saying “This is how followers of Jesus should behave; in stark contrast, the valid (though not necessarily Godly) role and behavior of the secular power is entirely different.” By implication there are things that secular powers can do, in which Jesus followers cannot participate. That message was not lost on the early church, as I show more fully in a post on Tertullian’s writing.

      But I would add two follow-on thoughts…people seem often to assume that killing Bin Laden is synonymous with justice being served. While that may be cathartic and satisfying in a Hollywood or mythic frame of mind, I don’t think it necessarily bears up under close scrutiny. Second, the Old Testament is full of examples of God having used evil nations to accomplish his will…read the prophet Amos for a perspective on how God looked at those nations, even if they might have been seen as his tools vis-a-vis Israel. I’m not sure that’s a paradigm we ought to be too enthusiastic about appropriating…

  • Mindi

    Our President did the right thing. Who made you a judge and an overseer of us? When did being a religious leader turn you into a political or military expert? One day you will give an account to God for slamming us as a nation. Words matter.

    • Jonathan

      So Mindi, why is there anything wrong with calling out a country’s actions? The U.S. is not truly, intrinsically perfect, accurate, right, honest, moral or ethical. We have to be willing to speak against injustice.

  • >> 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.

    Well, Wright is living perhaps in a far distant past. You’d need to be bloody far off the Nova Scotia Coast — as in, seeing Iceland without the aid of a telescope — for Ottawa not to be asking you what the bloody hell you’re doing there without signing into those waters first.

  • DFobian

    “What we need to realise is that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic.” ML King Jr. as quoted byAdam Kahane

  • guest

    You’re right, Mr. Wright.  🙂  But I would make one difference.  If the scenario between England and America really happened and it meant so much to the people of England to get justice against the bombers, don’t you think they would first try requesting extradition from the U.S. government?  And if they found hostility from the U.S. government, would England go so far as to declare war against America before they raided the bombers’ hideout?   I ask that because Americans are being told that that is exactly what we’ve done.  We declared war against Al-Qaida and those who harbored them.
    That said though, I cannot decide if it was right to go to war with Iraq or Afghanistan.  I don’t like foreign wars, especially if it looks like we’re fighting for a free market.  I think they only time to really fight a war is when our families are in danger.  However, muslim terrorists have been killing Americans on planes since Clinton’s administration, kidnapping and murdering Americans on ships and planes for years.  It’s all still a quandry to me. 

  • Anonymous

    Might makes right. That’s the end of it. Wag your fingers all you want. Won’t change America’s policies.