N.T. Wright: Healthcare and Expertise

on November 9, 2013

Twice in the last week, the name of  N.T. Wright has found its way into my field of vision. The first came in Fr. Barron’s critique of Reza Aslan and his “scholarship.” I quote: “There are far, far better accounts of the historical Jesus than the book under consideration. I would recommend studies by E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, Richard Bauckham, Ben Witherington III, or N.T. Wright. What they will show you is that the real Jesus remains far more interesting and compelling than the superficial caricature offered by Reza Aslan.”

It is certainly true that Wright knows his way around the Bible. That level of expertise makes it all the more shocking to read the scholar’s words concerning the healthcare debate in America:

In [the United States], for example, there seem to be Christian political voices saying that you shouldn’t have a national healthcare system. To us, in Britain, this is virtually unthinkable. Every other developed country from Norway to New Zealand has healthcare for all of its citizens. We don’t understand all of this opposition to it over here in the U.S. And, we should remember: In the ancient world, there wasn’t any healthcare system. It was the Christians, very early on, who introduced the idea that we should care for people beyond the circle of our own kin. Christians taught that we should care for the poor and disadvantaged. Christians eventually organized hospitals. To hear people standing up in your political debate and saying—”If you are followers of Jesus, you must reject universal healthcare coverage!”—and that’s unthinkable to us. Those of us who are Christians in other parts of the world are saying: We can’t understand this political language. It’s not our value in our countries. It’s not even in keeping with traditional Christian teaching on caring for others. We can’t understand what we are hearing from some of your politicians on this point. Yet, over here, some Christians are saying that it’s part of the list of boxes we all should check off to keep in line.

(From the blog of Denny Burk, here.)

Mr. Burk rightly argues that the nationalizing of healthcare in this country has been used as a means to attack the rights of conscience and I am sure that right now writers wiser and smarter than I will continue commentary in that same vein. But there is one thing I wish to add. We mustn’t be surprised that an expert in one field could be so mistaken when he applies his mind elsewhere. The limits of expertise, especially when it comes to deciding the nature of justice, are made plain by G.K. Chesterton at the end of his essay, The Twelve Men: 

Now it is a terrible business to mark a man out for the vengeance of men. But it is a thing to which a man can grow accustomed, as he can to other terrible things; he can even grow accustomed to the sun. And the horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it.

Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place. They do not see the awful court of judgment; they only see their own workshop. Therefore, the instinct of Christian civilization has most wisely declared that into their judgments there shall upon every occasion be infused fresh blood and fresh thoughts from the streets. Men shall come in who can see the court and the crowd, and coarse faces of the policeman and the professional criminals, the wasted faces of the wastrels, the unreal faces of the gesticulating counsel, and see it all as one sees a new picture or a play hitherto unvisited.

Our civilization has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men. It wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things that I felt in the jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity.

We mustn’t be too surprised when expertise fails us. After all, it is a short walk from expertise to pride. To understand the true nature of healthcare and Christianity, we may have to stop turning to our experts and instead find twelve men standing around a church hall.

  1. Comment by Alastair on November 9, 2013 at 8:33 am

    I am in favour of some form of universal affordable healthcare coverage and am thankful to live in the UK, where we enjoy the NHS.

    That said, Wright’s remarks, like so many others’, completely ignore the particularities of the American situation and of Obamacare. Bringing forward Norway and New Zealand as examples is bringing forward countries of the size of Arizona and Alabama. These things don’t always scale well.

  2. Comment by Grant LeMarquand on November 9, 2013 at 9:59 am

    As a non-American who lived in the USA for years (and has a wife who practiced medicine in the USA for years – although in an explicitly Christian medical clinic that provided health care for the uninsured) I simply want to echo Bishop Tom. His simple message was “the rest of us in the developed world don’t understand American Christian objections to any form of universal health care.” That’s all he said. So-called ‘Obamacare’ is not the issue since for Canadians (yes, I’m Canadian) the system introduce by President Obama did not even look like an attempt at providing health care for everyone in the US. It continued the sad legacy of keeping health care under the control of big business – the insurance companies. The obvious objection will be “we don’t want big government controlling health care.” Fair enough. No universal health care system is perfect (the UK’s isn’t, Canada’s isn’t), but it is sure preferable to the level of care experienced by many of the millions and millions of Americans who don’t have insurance – because the insurance companies are driven by profit, not by a desire to heal.

    It may also be a fair criticism to ask if Bishop Tom has any expertise in this area…a number of years ago the Catholic bishops in Canada criticized the then-liberal government of Pierre Trudeau for its economic policies. Trudeau quipped “what do the bishops know about economics?” A sharp CBC broadcaster responded: “one might ask whether the Prime Minister knows anything about ethics.” Health care is too important to be left to the “experts” in medicine or economics. It affects all. Someone from outside of the US with experience of living in a different system from the American should be welcomed for being able to provide a fresh perspective, not vilified.

    John – I don’t want to get too personal (ad hominum arguments are always tempting) but your bio seems to imply that you are a philosopher (ie not a medical specialist or an expert in economics) – and yet you seem to feel free to speak out about health care while saying that Tom shouldn’t. Isn’t that a double standard?

    In conclusion, I would also point out that ANY form of western medicine is preferable to the ‘system’ that my wife and I see around us every day – we live in the least developed part of Ethiopia – although in her wide experience of providing medical care she has only seen patients with gangrene twice – in Africa and in the inner city of the US.

    Bishop Grant LeMarquand, the Horn of Africa

  3. Comment by John Goerke on November 9, 2013 at 11:44 am

    I am not a philosopher. I study philosophy. There is a very importance difference between the two. To understand my tone in this post requires looking at the link I posted to the blog of Denny Burk. We are both befuddled that a Christian intellectual as respectable as N.T. Wright would support a law that has been used to (metaphorically) bludgeon Christianity out of the public square. G.K. Chesterton’s point, which I here invoke in response to Mr. Burk’s befuddlement, is that expertise in one area can make one’s perception in other areas skewed.

    You are right to point out that we as American’s don’t know what it is like to live in Ethiopia. Thank you and God Bless you for the work you and your wife are doing. But, the opposite holds true. Being on the ground in America provides a sobering view of reality. The health care law, while being packaged as a form of charity and altruism, has taken away medical coverage from people and given tax dollars to the abortion industry. Opposition to it has been a major part of political ecumenism in the last couple of years. Thank you for raising your questions. I hope I have answered them clearly. Keep us in your prayers and we keep you in ours.

  4. Comment by Grant LeMarquand on November 9, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    thanks John, Just one last rejoinder: neither Tom nor I were discussing the particular health laws introduced by the current US government. What Tom was initially discussing was the way in which many conservative Christians in the US react negatively to ANY suggestion of universal health coverage. This was true before ‘Obamacare’ (I know – I was living in the US during much of the Clinton era and all of the [2nd] Bush era).
    And – you haven’t exactly come clean on what expertise you might have that allows you to make public statements on health care. Maybe you do have such credentials, but since you demand them of Tom (and that is, as you say, the point of your essay), you perhaps you could let us know yours.

  5. Comment by John Goerke on November 9, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    Chesterton’s point (and mine) is that sometimes the most lucid judgements come from ordinary men in the streets, not from the experts in the ivory tower. As my friends and ex-girlfriends will attest, I am quite ordinary. That is my credential.

  6. Comment by Adrian Croft on November 11, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Being an elderly Bible scholar does not make someone an expert on economics or health care. Being an expert in one field does not make one an expert in others. I respect Bible scholars but have found most of them to be supremely ignorant when they venture outside their specialty. Having hobnobbed with many liberal clergy over the years, I have always been amazed at their conviction that possessing an MDiv degree from a seminary somehow makes them wise about politics and economics and science, three areas where they are abysmally ignorant.

  7. Comment by Rainer Moeller on November 20, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    I suppose that Germany is a developed country. Germany has a system of healthcare for the employees and a quite different system of healthcare (as part of social support) for the unemployed, but no obligatory healthcare for the self-employed. So, in Germany there is NO universal healthcare, and Mr. Wright is not knowledgeable.

  8. Comment by Dwight on November 25, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    The early church, and subsequent generations of believers, were filled with the love of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This led them to share with others in much the same way Jesus did, healing the sick, raising the dead, delivering the oppressed, teaching, encouraging, giving, and loving in many ways the hurting broken world around them. They shared their resources with each other so that none were left wanting, and they were known for their generosity by their secular neighbors. They did these things freely; not under compulsion. It was the Spirit of Christ at work in them. I do not read where they wrestled with their governing authorities to provide universal welfare or health care of any kind. That would almost seem idolatrous in light of what the Spirit of Christ was doing. They often healed without doctors or medicines. It was the Spirit of Christ. They did build hospitals and missions, they led medical research, and they developed charities of all kinds and still do. Expecting that it should be the compulsory burden of all citizens to provide these things for all those less fortunate or in need is something that I don’t see in scripture or history books. The Good Samaritan took care of the man on the side of the road himself and paid for him out of his own purse. If NT Wright and others feel they must argue for universal health coverage, perhaps it is because the Spirit of Christ has been quenched.

  9. Comment by John Goerke on November 26, 2013 at 8:11 am

    I admire your general spunk and finesse, even the general drift of your argument, but you may be over-stepping to say that, in NT Wright and others, “the Spirit of Christ has been quenched.” I hope it is clear that that is not the claim I am making. Where you are right is in pointing out the origin of medicine from the generosity and love of the early Christians. Where you go wrong is in diagnosing the soul of Dr. Wright. His area of expertise is Biblical scholarship and he is one of the best minds alive writing about that. But we know that there are many parts to the body of Christ. He oversteps his role as, shall we say, part of the mind of the body of Christ (in a metaphorical sense), by commenting on what the hands and the heart are doing. I think he is simply confused. If everything I do wrong were counted as evidence that the Spirit of Christ had been quenched, I would probably be excommunicated. I think NT Wright made a mistaken judgement and we are called to correct our brother in charity and in truth.

  10. Comment by Earl Foote on December 6, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    I agree that expertise in one field does not guarantee expertise, or even close-to-correct thinking, in another. The most famous example was William Shockley, who won the Nobel prize in physics for inventing the transistor–and who promulgated racist ideas about intelligence and genetics. As to Bishop Wright, I have a deep respect for his Biblical scholarship. He is entitled to his political views, of course, but he is no more of an economic expert than I am. To take a general Biblical principle (healing the sick, ministering to the poor) and insist that a specific government program is the only way to address this mandate is always risky. Another example of this for Bishop Wright (with all due respect) is his support for the Palestinian cause, although his pronouncements in this regard are considerably more moderate than the statements of some other Church leaders. As others have pointed out, his ignoring of religious-liberty concerns connected with our health care law should not be overlooked.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.