I have never been comfortable with America’s militant hegemony. As a young adult this especially troubled me when it was yoked with Christian exceptionalism. My angst hit a tipping point when I began my university education in Canada. Canadians have a love/hate relationship with America. They are acutely invested in American wellbeing but see clearly (in my experience) our imperialist and fiscally amoral tendencies. In conversation with theologians, seminarians, and intelligent lay-folks in Canada, I found that my Christian identity and my American identity were at odds. I was a muddle of contradiction: sometimes defending the America that I loved against hateful comments (a Canadian roommate said to me on the morning of September 11th, “What do I care? It’s not my country”); sometimes railing against America’s sense of collective vengeance.
I discovered Tom Wright in my fourth year of living in Canada.
Wright and John Dominic Crossan didn’t agree on much in those days, but they had this in common: they both argued that following Jesus and supporting a military hegemony are incompatible. Wright especially provided me with a theological critique of empire at a timely moment in my moral development. Say what you will about Wright’s notion of the “Kingdom of God” in Mark (I agree with Helen Bond that we might have played this card too often in Jesus studies). But his work allowed me to clarify some of my misgivings about the unholy union of Christianity and imperial power.
Wright’s critique of the Christian mythology of heaven also helped me find theological placement for my environmental concerns. His critique (alongside Dunn and Sanders) of the Protestant misunderstanding of first-century Jewish soteriology undermined any latent notions of exceptionalism I harbored. His adaptation of critical realism provided a necessary foil for my own interest in historiography. I am no Wright sycophant; I probably disagree with him more than I agree (when I find myself qualified to do so). Even so, I appreciate and respect the importance of his voice for the field and for my own development.
Today I learned that an anti-religious gunman murdered three Muslims near the university campus at Chapel Hill. Two weeks ago Duke University reversed it’s decision to allow a Muslim call to prayer. Two days after President Obama exhorted religious hospitality, he has asked congress for approval and funding of another war against Islamic militants.
America is rife with holy war. We continue to be blinded by our Islamophobia and imperialistic tendencies. Given Tom Wright’s caché among American Christians, I want to hear his voice more, not less. We don’t have to agree with his warnings of American imperialism, but we ought to have him in the conversation.