Buried in NT Wright’s interesting address on the role of Scripture in the Church to the Lambeth Conference is this curiosity:

All this brings us to three particular features of tomorrow’s world which stand out particularly and call for a biblical engagement that as we take forward our God-given mission.  I am here summarizing the Noble Lectures I was privileged to give at Harvard University two years ago, which are yet to be published.  The three features are gnosticism, empire and postmodernity, which fit together in fascinating ways and which provide a grid of cultural and personal worldviews within which a great many of our contemporaries live today.  I speak particularly of the western world, and I regret that I am not qualified to do more of a ‘world tour’. But I remind all of us that, whether we like it or not, when the West sneezes everyone else catches a cold, so that cultural trends in the Europe and North America will affect the whole world.  (I notice that, though the current American election will affect everybody on the face of the earth for good or ill, only Americans get to vote.  This strikes me as odd, though of course we British were in the same position for long enough and didn’t seem to mind at the time.)

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the throwaway line.  Is he suggesting everyone in the world is entitled to a vote this November?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I believe it is what the linguists call a “joke.”


  2. Jim,

    That thought crossed my mind, but given some of the things he says elsewhere in the paper, I am not entirely sure that it is a joke. I’ll hunt around for a video of the talk to see if people laughed. If it is a joke, what’s funny about it?


  3. What other observations make you think it wasn’t a joke? I didn’t read it as an endorsement of the idea of the world voting in our elections, more as a man noting the vagaries of life, along the lines of saying, “Isn’t it odd that we park on driveways and drive on parkways?” but since I haven’t read the whole thing, maybe there is more too it when viewed in context.


  4. What Josh said. British humor can be quite arid, especially when it lacks a vocal context.


  5. Wright: “We British had an empire on which the sun never set, and we have spent the last hundred years puzzling over what went wrong and counting the cost. As I have said often enough, I hope and pray my beloved American friends don’t have to do the same…All empires declare that they possess justice, freedom and peace; Greece did it, Rome did it, the British did it a century ago, the Americans do it now.”

    Wright seems to equate the American “empire” with the British, Roman and Greek empires. Maybe that’s the joke I’m missing–he’s kidding, right? Right?

    I’m well aware of the nuances of British humor, but I really don’t see it in this case. Is there a positive reason for why I should take it as a joke?

    If he is “noting the vagaries of life,” then I guess I am perplexed as to what is odd about the fact that only Americans vote in American elections.


  6. Again, if you could hear his voice, you would know whether that entire parenthetical was ironic. I thought it was a (weak) joke the first time I read it, imagining him saying it bemusedly, and getting a small laugh from his audience. (In a different context, author and filmmaker Irshad Manji gets that response for saying very similar words, though it’s along the way to making a serious point:

    Domestic politics in the United States still affects large portions of the world, to the point of determining investment patterns, immigration flows, even giving other leaders and their presumptive heirs the excuse that they need to blur the lines between God and government.

    So, it is no wonder that so much of the world today rages with anger, and a seething anger, about why it is that only Americans get to vote for the next United States president.


    It sounds illogical to even say that. But when you look at the fact that U.S. domestic politics sets a precedent for so many other countries in the world, it actually makes sense to say, hey, we deserve a vote, too, even though we’re not American.

    So, my position remains: Wright’s aside is a “vagaries of life” off-the-cuffer that probably got a sympathetic laugh, not a well-hashed-out policy stance.


  7. “Again, if you could hear his voice, you would know whether that entire parenthetical was ironic.”

    I don’t think I disputed this. From comment #2, “I’ll hunt around for a video of the talk to see if people laughed.”

    I never claimed it was a well-thought out policy position, though I always think such throwaways are more indicative of people’s sentiments than they realize. But perhaps I should have stopped myself at pointing out the vagaries of NT Wright and not raised the question of whether he is actually serious or not.


  8. I do agree that Wright was making a joke, albeit a barbed one, but he has discussed his beliefs about American empire elsewhere, Here and here, for two examples.

    Wright’s aside about the world voting for the American President reflects a belief that those impacted by a given electoral decision should have a voice in it.

    Although America is not an empire in the formal sense, our nation does have soldiers stationed throughout the world, it is currently fighting two wars, and it can exert tremendous political and economic power to influence the internal politics of other countries.

    It is a little imperious when you think about it.


  9. Here’s a quote from the latter of the two links above:

    The challenge now is to provide a critique of American empire without implying that the world should collapse into anarchy, and a fresh sense of direction for that empire without colluding with massive abuses of power.

    American empire is assumed in that statement.


  10. My comment #8 does not appear when I’m logged out.


  11. I don’t know what light it may or may not shed on this particular discussion, but I ran across this and figured I’d throw it in the mix.


    Whatever his theological beliefs, Wright seems to have imbibed a lot of the trendy leftist, anti-American political viewpoints of his context.


  12. And you’ve imbibed and regurgitate some political viewpoint based on your social, political, and economic context.

    We all have to be cognizant of that.


  13. If that’s your way of reminding me that we are all, in part, a product of our surroundings, well…duh.

    However, there is a difference between having considered and serious political and social views, and reflexive ones. The sad fact is that people with great gifts in one arena may be very one-dimensional in others. Look at Woody Allen’s films versus Woody Allen the man for a perfect, non-political example of this. Plenty of those I disagree with have well though-through views that I simply happen to differ with. Here at least, Wright seems to be spouting the reflexive and unthinking platitudes one would expect of a British academic too shallow to really think through the issues. There is a difference after all, between saying, “After examining the arguments on both sides, I believe the war in Iraq was a mistake” and “Bush lied, people died.” One is serious and deserves a respectful and serious response. The other does not.


  14. Yes, that was my intent but I was also pointing out that we can transcend those constraints if we are aware of them.

    I do appreciate your distinction between well-reasoned political views and reflexive ones. However, the former is often just a more sophisticated version of the latter, as one discovers the rationale behind them.

    Regarding NT Wright’s statements, one cannot judge the “seriousness” of a person’s political views by the manner in which they express them. The statement, “Bush lied, people died,” could have a lot of subtext but I will grant that some of those who have chanted it were not fully aware.

    Desert is an odd concept to apply in this instance. How exactly did you determine that Wright does not deserve your respect when you do not even have sufficient knowledge of his position? Public statements are almost necessarily stripped of nuance.


  15. I think you can judge the seriousness of a person’s views by the manner in which they express them. Maybe not for your average Joe on the street who has no experience in trying to communicate serious ideas, and maybe not even for a politician who gets chopped into 30-second sound bites. However, if we cannot judge the seriousness of a man’s ideas when that man is a trained communicator, public intellectual, and is speaking at length without interruption, then when can we judge them? We can also judge them by when and where they choose to opine. If Wright had not believed this forum was one that would provide an appropriate venue for expressing his views in a manner that is both lengthy and nuanced enough to do them justice, I have to imagine he would have bit his tongue rather than risk misinterpretation.

    I didn’t determine that Wright does not deserve my respect. I said the statement “Bush lied, etc.”(which Wright has not, to my knowledge made) doesn’t deserve a serious or respectful answer. I also said the statements I have seen seem to lack seriousness of thought. But, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the man. He probably does more good (from a theological standpoint) on a bad day than I’ve done in my entire life. I just think that his reasoning, or at least as much as I’ve seen of it in this arena, is terribly flawed, and therefore I wish he’d stay within his wheelhouse.


  16. I meant to ask how you determined that Wright’s statements about American empire were not deserving of your respect.

    Not that Wright himself did not deserve your respect.


  17. Josh writes: “I just think that his reasoning, or at least as much as I’ve seen of it in this arena, is terribly flawed, and therefore I wish he’d stay within his wheelhouse.”

    This is very wise. Wright is a ridiculously good Biblical exegete–I mean, he has changed the way we read the Gospels significantly, and his stuff on Paul is fantastic (albeit, not as revolutionary as he’s sometimes credited with being and it doesn’t solve the problems he claims it does). But when he steps even into areas like systematic theology, I start to get nervous because it’s not nearly as good.

    This is why I don’t want a wheelhouse–I’d rather be terrible in every area!


  18. Well, first of all, the very fact that he speaks of an American “empire” shows serious problems. While America obviously has great indirect influence over vast swaths of the world: a. our ability to influence the world is greatly exaggerated, b. empire is a loaded and inaccurate term that people only use when they want to portray America in a negative light. Historically, the term “empire” has never meant a nation that is merely influential. It has meant a nation that bring other nations into direct political and economic subservience. The US, in contrast, bends over backwards to protect the right of self-determination in other countries. We are the only conquering nation who picks up and leaves voluntarily after our wars. Therefore, anyone who starts by using a term as loaded as American “empire” is starting with serious problems, unless they do some work defusing the term ahead of time.

    Secondly, the idea that “All empires declare that they possess justice, freedom and peace; Greece did it, Rome did it, the British did it a century ago, the Americans do it now.” is both historically inaccurate and a non-sequitur. I don’t remember reading any Greeks who claimed that they were conquering in the name of freedom or peace. For their citizens maybe, but most empires have pretty openly acknowledged that everyone else can just kiss off. And even if it were true, the idea that because groups have lied about a topic in the past means anyone who makes the same claim now must be assumed to be lying as well makes no logical sense without supporting evidence, which he does not provide. Lastly, by the standards of their day, the Greek, Roman, and British empires actually WERE pretty humane and free. This is one of the big errors that non-historians and even many historians fall in to. You can’t judge ancient nations by anachronistic standards. The Greeks weren’t as free as 19th century Britain, but they were more free than any empire that preceeded them. 19th century Britain was not as free as modern-day America, but it was freer than anything preceeding it. Human history is a progression. I stand on the shoulder of Locke, who stands on the shoulders of Aquinas, who stands on the shoulders of Aristotle. If I spend too much time focusing on who is below me, I tend to forget that just because I’m on top doesn’t change the fact that I’m still only 5’10”.

    Anyway, I could go on, but this blog really isn’t about history/politics/sociology. The point is, if a man of his academic and intellectual qualifications makes a throwaway comment in a speech, I feel perfectly comfortable judging his ideas on the basis of that comment. If he’s not comfortable with that, he should have either expanded on his comment to make it defensible or kept it to himself.


  19. Matthew: How does the old saying go? “Jack of all trades, master of none.” =)


  20. I wouldn’t say “terrible” at all things. Perhaps mediocre?

    Empire is a loaded term, I concur. When I first heard it applied to the US, I thought it was absurd but was Hawaii not a colony before it was a state? There’s a present-day example for you but it does not prove that the US is some kind of global empire.

    I have address one point:
    “We are the only conquering nation who picks up and leaves voluntarily after our wars.”

    Then why is there such an enduring US military presence in Germany and Korea, not to mention the hundreds of other locations throughout the world where the U.S. has not even fought a war? Also, economic coercion is nearly as effective.

    There has always been a significant gap between the rhetoric and realpolitik of our nation’s leadership and little has changed.

    America should strive more diligently to live up its very high ideals. Let’s at least agree to that.


  21. “Then why is there such an enduring US military presence in Germany and Korea, not to mention the hundreds of other locations throughout the world where the U.S. has not even fought a war?”
    Let’s first of all stipulate that having a military personnel stationed in a place does not make a military presence in the colonial sense. Otherwise, England would still count us as a colony, since they have many officers stationed in places like D.C.

    As for substantial military presences like the ones in Germany and Korea, those are at the request of the government in question, and cost us quite a bit without any material benefit. A couple years back there was some talk of moving some troops out of a base in Germany (can’t remember which one) as a PUNISHMENT for their lack of support in Iraq. The mayor of the nearby city FREAKED OUT. Again, not the best argument to claim America is a colonial power in any sense. As for Hawaii, that’s a complicated story, but whatever your view, it happened over 100 years ago. From 1900 onward, Hawaii was a self-governing territory, and the decision regarding statehood was supported by the vast majority of the populace.

    As for economic coercion, you’ll have to explain that in a bit more detail. It’s one of those terms that gets used a lot, but not defined much. What’s the difference between economic coercion and looking out for your nation’s economic interests, which every country does? When we set up a trade treaty, for example, should our negotiators just say, “Well, we’re bigger and richer, so we’ll just let you write the terms so people don’t accuse us of empire” or should they try to get the best deal possible just like the folks on the other side of the table?

    This is getting pretty far afield of the post topic, so feel free to respond, but I’ll probably let it rest here. Thanks. It’s fun to know that I can’t justpost a comment here without thinking it through first.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.