Thoughts from N.T. Wright on the killing of Bin Laden

I’ve been facilitating a small email forum on various topics and the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden naturally led the recent focus of discussion. Here’s what Tom (Dr. N.T.) Wright wrote to me last week.  When I asked for his permission to post this on my site, this is what he said.  “I am quite worried about the American exceptionalism which seems endemic in right-wing circles in your country, including alas right-wing Christian circles.”

You will find what he says challenging – remember that he’s a Brit and does not see the world through American lenses.  But it’s hard to simply ignore something NT Wright says… So think about this and let’s discuss.

Direct quote begins:
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 aginst 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?


  1. JBrewer says:

    If a man is going to use Christian theology to support his position, he should at least get it right. While it is true that those who live by the sword, also die by it, Jesus was speaking of individual and personal lives of violence when He said that. The same Scriptures also make it clear, that a government bears the sword in order to execute God’s wrath on ungodly men. And as grievous as it was from a spiritual perspective, such was the execution of Osama Bin Laden.

    1. clairezip1 says:

      I think N.T. Wright has a pretty firm grasp on theology – he is one of the world’s most respected theologians. I also think that Jesus was speaking often to the whole Jewish people about the whole Roman government when he was trying to invite them to live a better way – loving enemies, real enemies, real political enemies – not just annoying relatives, or mean co-workers.

      1. JBrewer says:

        I agree that the principle can be applied to people groups and nations, and it is possible that Jesus was also addressing that aspect. The problem remains however, in that N.T. Wright has linked the killing of OBL by American Special Forces to the unrighteous use of the sword, when the Scripture clearly says it is the opposite: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Romans 13:3-4

  2. David Devens says:

    I think Dr. Wright’s perspective is spot on. We do think that way and unfortunately that idea is being bred more and more into our culture as we continue to push against others. As if it is a salve to alleviate our conscience. It reminds me of an old war on drugs commercial where this guy is pacing around a room saying to himself “If I do more coke than I can work harder so I can make more money so I can do more coke so I can work harder…”

    I think the question “What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us?” will most certainly be answered some day. Not likely with an outcome that many will like. Similar to the coke addict who’s life paradigm comes crashing down.


  3. Carl Medearis says:

    For sure we can’t say “Dr. Wright needs to get his theology right.” He’s easily one of two or three premier theologians of our day.

    So the question is about Romans 13 really… You have that right. Do those verses apply to this situation or not. That’s the question.

    1. JBrewer says:

      OK… I’ll concede the point that Dr. Wright is a noted theologian, if you’ll grant that it doesn’t make him infallible.

      We are a nation at war and that, not of our choosing. We have the moral authority to pursue evil men and to deal with them in accordance with the authority granted to our government by God in Romans 13. Does that apply in this case, you ask… why wouldn’t it? Would you argue that we exceeded our authority thereunder? How can that be, when no limits are specified in those verses?

      True, we surreptitiously entered a sovereign nation and executed a mission on their soil. A nation that has proven duplicitous in their relationship with us over the past ten or more years. One whose government is rife with sympathizers to Islamic fundamentalist groups and in some cases, has members that actually support them. Should we then have trusted our intentions to them? Absolutely not. It would have been utter foolishness to do so.

      So, if you insist on taking an opposite position, please do so with Scripture.

      1. clairezip1 says:

        27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

        32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Luke 6

        1. JBrewer says:

          Once again, Jesus was speaking on a personal level to the man on the street.

          Governments are tasked with the responsibility by God of protecting and caring for their citizens. Part of that is the punishment of unrepented evil committed against the citizenry. However, God gives every man the opportunity to repent of his evil deeds and ways, and to choose life in Him. OBL had 10 plus years to do so. He did not, hence God’s judgement fell on him by means of U.S. Special Forces.

          Did I rejoice in that fact?… hardly, as it was/is grievous. I had prayed for his salvation on a number of occasions. Sadly, it doesn’t appear that he surrendered to Christ, but none of us know that for certain, it’s only speculation based on the scant, but strong evidence we have. I would have far more desired to see mercy through the Blood of Jesus, than the judgement that fell on him.

  4. paulmaxim says:

    Personally, although I found myself agreeing with a lot that NT Wright wrote on this matter, I do not agree with his conclusion. I feel that he has oversimplified the situation.

    Perhaps I can offer another metaphor and question to the mix. If I had a mass murderer living in my backroom, would I have any legitimate complaints to law if the police came and broke down my door and gave me a hard time?

    It does get a bit complex, when we try to reconcile personal obedience to the commandments of Jesus and international law.

    One thing I am sure about is that another one of God’s commandments that gets little exposure (as well as loving our enemies) is to make every effort to live in peace with all men…. (Hebrews 12:14). I am saddened when Christians devalue and discredit one another in the public arena.

    Unfortunately, the UK is not free from exceptionalism, we have it in abundance, as do all the nations in the world that have once had empires.

  5. Towser says:

    I think Tom Wright has got it right. If the US had captured Bin Laden and brought him to justice this would have set a Godly example rather than an assassination.

    Katy Perry made an interesting comment:”I believe in justice, but don’t you think that an eye for an eye will make the world blind?”

  6. clairezip1 says:

    Another thought – if we are going to live and die by governments having freedom to bring justice to evil doers, we should at least consider that the ensuing wars the U.S. (west) has embarked on after 9/11 has left 1,000,000 civillians killed in the Middle East – exponentially greater than the two towers deaths. Perhaps our own leaders would be considered evil by their governments and according to the Bible they would be free to exercise that justice without limits according to those verses.

    1. dmmattson says:

      Where in the world did you come up with that statistic?! Is that everyone who has died in the middle east from any cause whatsoever? I was in Iraq for 3 tours with the Marine Corps, and I can assure you that we were kept in check from killing unnecessarily, even at the risk of being killed. You say “west” as a derogatory term–Who is it that other countries go to for help?


      1. clairezip1 says:

        I meant 100,000 not 1,000,000. sorry, that is a big difference. Unfortunately the original book I got that statistic from is at a friends house – so I can’t check their footnotes. It is “Jesus for President” by Shane Claiborne, but I can’t check sources right now… I did find this article

        but I don’t know how accurate it is. I will contact my friend to see if she can check the footnote of the first place I saw it.

        Either way – it is WAY higher than the 3500 death toll of civilians on American soil, and my point remains the same – under the same argument their governments could just as easily point to the Scriptures and are then just as justified to ‘rid’ the world of our government leaders who are ‘behind’ the civilian deaths on their soil – and probably seen as evil-doers in their eyes.

        which is why I think Jesus words are so important. The cycle of never ending violence and hate will continue.

        1. clairezip1 says:

          Also I said West because I am Canadian and was trying not to just point to the U.S leaders. Though my country hasn’t played as big of a role, I didn’t want to white wash Canada in my comments.

          1. clairezip1 says:

            and also I realize that stat (online) is from Iraq not Afganistan – but I was including Iraq in the ensuing wars on terror in my first comment.

          2. dmmattson says:

            Your point about the West killing people in Iraq has inflated stats. This peer reviewed study is linked at

            “We analyzed the Iraq Body Count database of 92,614 Iraqi civilian direct deaths from armed violence occurring from March 20, 2003 through March 19, 2008, of which Unknown perpetrators caused 74% of deaths (n = 68,396), Coalition forces 12% (n = 11,516), and Anti-Coalition forces 11% (n = 9,954).”

            The majority of “Unknown perpetrators” are suicide bombers (vest and vehicle).

            Stats aside, lets look at the motivation. The reason OBL destroyed 2751 lives on September 11th was because he hated anyone who wasn’t Muslim. That is evil. The reason we went into Iraq was because of weapons that, had Saddam had them, based on his violent (cowardly) past, he wouldn’t hesitate to use them to increase the death toll. We fought to save people whereas they fought to kill. There is a similar story in Afghanistan, though we went there in order to stop the Taliban and Al Qaeda, who showed that they would bring the fight to us in America if we just sat back and waited.

            This is not the ideal! Of course we would love to live in a world that didn’t need a fighting force of any kind, but there are hate-filled people out there, because of our fallen nature, and there needs to be a check to that hatred. Our International force (the UN) seems to be impotent to that end most of the time, so that leaves little choice. Granted, it can get out of hand (which is kept in check by America’s free press!!), but I don’t think that is the case in the killing of OBL.

  7. dmmattson says:

    Some discrepencies:

    IRA senario: If the IRA terrorists had done what OBL had done, I think the US government would aid the UK in finding them precisely BECAUSE we have this sense that evil must be fought (that superhero complex is pretty pervasive).

    No definition of “proper justice”. He says that America “casts” the UN as a hapless sheriff. This image is easy to “cast” because the majority of what they do is pass resolutions and make statements. Bad people are held in check when they see the real danger of their actions. If evil of this magnitude goes unpunished, what stops more OBLs from thinking this is a good idea?

    I also agree with Paul Maxim above– America is not the only nation to think they are exceptional. The only difference is that we have more to back up our claim. Our biggest claim to exceptionalism is in the realm of justice–we are the nation other nations go to when they need help.

  8. clairezip1 says:

    My sister in law recommended this movie on the topic

    It is called ‘prince of peace God of war’

    1. FOUCHER says:

      Thank you for posting this video!

  9. […] today, I read a letter by N.T. Wright posted on Carl Medearis’ website about the recent killing of Osama Bin […]

  10. dmmattson says:

    Here’s a germane addition to the discussion. In this short piece he discusses the difference between personal responsiblity (Sermon on the Mount – Matt. 5-7) and the responsibility of the state, as stated by Paul in Romans 13. He then provides the illustration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an example of this thinking.

  11. amtog says:

    Wright asks, “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 wish he would have offered us his answer because I believe that sort of pragmatic joining of faith and practice is one of his strengths.

    Do most Americans believe that Jesus is God’s self-revelation to the word? I don’t think they do. So, I’m not sure that Wright’s question can be answered.

    As for Jesus’ statement about violent men dying violently: I think the OBL story illustrates that clearly.

    I think that a better question is, “How should the followers of Jesus in America view the actions of the American government and how should they react?” My answer is that followers of Jesus in America should view the actions of the American government with skepticism and we should react to the killing of OBL with caution. We shouldn’t receive the narrative without question but we shouldn’t believe that we can or do have enough information to declare with certainty that justice was or wasn’t done that day in Pakistan. We shouldn’t dance in the street and gloat over OBL’s death. We should pray for wisdom and trust that when Jesus returns, NT Wright’s “proper justice” will be done. After all, in the fallen world it may be that “crude justice” will, at times, be all we’re going to get.

    1. dmmattson says:

      It’s difficult to discuss it without defining terms a little, I know, but I had a thought in reaction to your comment. In our discussion, “proper justice” is the ideal (I think that would be a person recieving punishment that is proportionate to his deeds from the governing body). The question I have is this: Is “crude justice” better than NO justice? I believe it would be, as God is still at work in our human condition, and the government is made up of human beings who are fallible.

      Thanks for the comment.