Doug Wilson has recently drawn considerable attention to N.T. Wright’s remarks, towards the end of Surprised by Hope, about the urgent call for global justice, in particularly, to redress the abominable oppression of Third World Debt. In response to Wright’s fairly brief remarks in that book, Wilson unleashed a barrage of no less than 15 posts over the previous two months (see www.dougwils.com), essentially hammering on the same themes over and over again. Last month, Wright finally responded to these and similar criticisms with a short summary defense which can be found here: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Debt.htm. Wilson responded to that (albeit very insufficiently, in my opinion, on his blog recently).
This interchange has served to bring into sharp relief this whole question about the Church’s duty to seek global justice, a question that is urgently relevant to the Reformed Church, and indeed the whole American Church, today. So I would like to make a few observations and raise a few questions, though I will not seek to cross-examine every statement that was made. Though I believe N.T. Wright is substantially correct on these issues, my purpose here is not to attack Doug Wilson per se. However, I do want to suggest that he doth protest too much, and to defend N.T. Wright from some accusations that I think are unwarranted. Also, I think it is important that we examine the potential pitfalls in some of the lines of argument that Wilson brings up.
The crucial question here, in my mind, is this: Which side of this argument does the Reformed Church here in America need to hear more, Wright’s or Wilson’s?
That is to say, even if I were to concede that all of Wilson’s criticisms were on the mark, that Wright had gone too far with his agenda, and all that, I would still be very concerned about the way in which Wilson had addressed the issue. Is the problem in Reformed churches today zealotry or complacency? Well, quite frankly, our Reformed churches couldn’t care less about global justice, the oppression of the poor, or all the problems that the Old Testament prophets so loudly inveigh against. Even if Wright goes too far, his is a voice which needs to be heard and paid attention to in our Reformed churches. By speaking so loudly against Wright’s call for global justice, Wilson runs the risk of simply reinforcing the complacency we find in our churches when it comes to these issues. Of course, Wilson says repeatedly that he isn’t trying to encourage complacency, but I fear nonetheless that complacency may be a by-product of some of his arguments
Though Wilson speaks at great length, his claim is fairly straightforward: Wright may be right about the fact of the problem, and the need to address the problem, but it’s a very complex problem, and Wright’s solution is simplistic and shows that he knows nothing about economics. Unfortunately, I would contend, Wilson nowhere spells out a clear defense either of the proposition that it’s a highly complex problem or that Wright’s solution is simplistic. So, at least pending a detailed and clear defense, I must take issue with these claims.
First, I want to address the charge against Wright. While Wilson insists that his answer is simplistic, it does not appear that this rests on any more than the fact that certain summary utterances of Wright’s on this topic (such as in Surprised by Hope) have been simplistic. However, I would be very surprised if more thorough statements of his views would not reveal a very well-thought-out position. Everything he’s ever written on every other issue would suggest this. Of course, he is not perfect, but, at least he is an exceptionally thorough scholar who prefers to leave absolutely no stone unturned. If any claim he makes appears to be simplistic, it usually turns out that he has backed up that claim with dozens of pages of argument elsewhere in his writings. Our assumption, until proven otherwise, should be that Wright has probably done his homework when he speaks out on an issue. This is particularly the case when it is an issue that he is passionate about, and has spoken about and argued about for years, such as this issue of Third World Debt. Furthermore, Wright’s recent response to Wilson demonstrates that he is well-acquainted with the details of the issue. You may argue that Wright is wrong, but you may not insist that he is naïve or is speaking before thinking, as Wilson seems to repeatedly insist.
This reasonably leads us to question why Wilson would make this claim, why he would suppose that Wright, so thoughtful and thorough about every other issue, would suddenly start talking foolishness on this issue? I actually used to think the same thing about Wright, so I think I might know one reason why, though of course I can only speak for myself. It’s because his statements don’t seem to fit our particular view of economics, so we assume that he must just not know anything about economics. Of course, all this means is that he doesn’t buy into the American capitalist ideology, which we blithely assume must be the only economics there is. “He doesn’t know economics,” we claim, as if capitalism were simply a fact of nature, like gravity. But it’s not, it’s an ideology, which we must repent of if we are to begin to look at justice and poverty through Biblical eyes. I have a bit more to say on this in my conclusion.
Now, what about Wilson’s claim of complexity—that this is obviously much too complex a problem to begin proposing solutions? Well, I would like to ask why this is just such a complex problem, so complex that we simply cannot begin to take action on it right now? Of course it is complex—it’s not just like requiring your six-year-old son to return the candy bar to the convenience store he just stole it from. But why is it cripplingly complex? Well, Wilson says, because we need to take everything into account. It’s not as if there’s solutions for a problem like this—rather, there are tradeoffs. That is to say, if you try to fix this one thing, you’ll create a problem somewhere else. This may be a fair point (though, of course, this is true of everything in life to some extent, but does not mean we should never take action to fix a problem), but what precisely are these terrible tradeoffs? What Wilson says is that if you forgive the debt, you’ll simply keep dictators in power and make the problem worse (there are a couple of other difficulties he points out, but this seems to be the biggest one).
He doesn’t really spell out the argument for this claim, but I would guess it would look something like this: things are so bad in these countries that the dictators are only barely clinging to power. Pretty soon, the people, tired of poverty, will rise up against them, and, then, presumably, things will get better (though I’m not sure how we can assume this, if they still have the debt burden). If we forgave the debt, however, the country would have plenty of resources for the dictator to feed upon and stay in power indefinitely, thus putting any improvement in their condition further off.
This scenario may be plausible, but it doesn’t seem much more plausible than the opposite—namely, that the only reason the dictators stay in power is that the people are too downtrodden and hungry to take any action, but that, if they were more prosperous, they would begin to find ways to reform the government. So, I’m not certain he’s wrong here, but, before dismissing Wright for failing to consider economic realities, we should do some thorough and documented study on what these economic realities are. From Wilson’s posts, though his claims may be accurate, he gives no concrete evidence from such study. In fact, the only concrete testimony on the issue is provided by Wright, who cites a number of examples demonstrating that Wilson’s prediction is false; in fact, the opposite is the case—that is, that countries that have experienced debt relief have seen rapid and very visible improvements.
Another claim worth considering is Wilson’s repeated warning against the danger of “keeping the tyrants in power.” He never really specifies what tyrants he’s talking about. Of course, there are tyrannical dictators in Africa, but the situation is not what it was thirty years ago. Sure, we hear a lot about Robert Mugabe, but that simply proves the point—if every ruler over there were a tyrant, Mugabe wouldn’t get so much press. As it is, most of the countries over there, though not under ideal government, are moving toward fairly representative governments, and are not the property of all-controlling dictators. Wright points this out in his response to Wilson.
But it seems there is another, more important point to be made in response to claims such as Wilson’s, even if all his warnings were to prove well-grounded: if we have a clear personal moral duty toward a person or group of people, their presumed response should not change our duty. If I have a neighbor with a drinking problem, and I stole $2,000 from him years ago, and am now feeling guilty about it, I cannot refuse to make restitution on the basis that he might use the money for his drinking habit. My sin is clear, my moral duty is clear, and only after I’ve fulfilled it am I in a position to look for ways to help my neighbor address his drinking problem. This debt-relief question may not be quite such an open-and-shut case, but it’s close.
In several of his posts, Wilson seems to lump together this debt relief with things like giving food aid to these countries. This is not necessarily accurate. In the case of debt relief, we are not simply doing a nice thing for these countries, not even simply doing a Biblically-mandated nice thing, but making restitution for our own sins. As Wright points out in his response, these countries weren’t simply taking a loan out from the bank—they were the victims of predatory, intentionally enslaving lending by our countries. We have a duty to repent and redress this injustice.
The root issue here is not whether the problem is complex—indeed, there are complexities, and Wilson raises other potential difficulties worth discussing—but how complexity is being appealed to. Is complexity being brought up in order to sort through it and get on with a solution, or is it being brought up as a substitute for action? That is to say, is complexity simply a shield for complacency? I am not suggesting that Doug Wilson intends to advocate complacency—he expressly says the contrary—but that appears to be the likely effect of his remarks. If someone is passionately concerned to fix a problem, they will only bring up complexity in order to set to work unraveling it and clearing a way for a solution. Wilson has not yet appeared to do that. If Wright is correct that this is a problem that urgently needs solving, our reaction should be, “Well, there’s a lot of difficulties involved here, but let’s see how we can start working through some difficulties.” It will not do to simply insist that there are difficulties, and Wright needs to do his homework, without ourselves doing the homework to show exactly where the difficulties lie.
While some of Wilson’s points need consideration and discussion (and I’ve attempted to address some of them), raising objections in the manner and tone that Wilson has may have the effect of discouraging, rather than encouraging people to solve this issue and help the needy. Whatever Wilson’s true intentions, the reader cannot help but come away with the impression that Wright is thoughtfully and passionately concerned to implement the gospel mandate, while Wilson is content to leave us with the reassurance that we’d better sit back and wait for some realistic agenda to appear.
“Then He will say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’
“Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’
“And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.”
Yes, we should be prudent, we should be thoughtful, but we should fear this condemnation enough that we never use that as an excuse for inaction. After all, Christ never says, “Depart from Me, you cursed, for I was needy, and you did not take all the necessary economics courses before proposing a solution for Me.”
I have one other note to make on the appeal to prudence in the face of complexity.
We must take care that this be an appeal to Biblical wisdom, not worldly wisdom, in the face of complexity. We must remember that the “foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” If an appeal to think through the issues more simply means to act in light of contemporary economic wisdom, then I fear we will stand condemned. This is not to say we should blindly pursue self-destructive policies, but that we should carefully examine our motivations for calls to be “sensible” in our search for solutions.
Again, my purpose here is not to “take on” Doug Wilson, because his response to Wright is not unique, but is fairly typical in our circles. But I have come to believe that we in Reformed circles need to be shaken up a bit and brought to terms with the mandate for justice that Wright is espousing, and, as postmillennialists, we should believe that effective action is possible. I hope that this discussion stimulates those in our communities, whichever “side” they are on, to take this issue seriously and find opportunities to make Biblical relief of the oppressed a reality in our world.