Defending Constantine: First Thoughts

Stanley Hauerwas has a review of Peter J. Leithart’s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, available for free here. After reading it, it sounds like Hauerwas is being very gracious and receptive to what Leithart has to say, but it appears that Leithart has a plurality of arguments, lacking any single thesis other than that Yoder is wrong about some things relating to Constantine and war/pacifism. I own the book, and have not yet had time to read it in full, but based on my skim of the final chapter and Hauerwas’s review, I am unimpressed so far with his arguments against pacifism (or with his motive for this aspect of his book).

I am all for admitting the ambiguity and complexity of history, and this will be a good book for us to wrestle with–to keep us from simplistic accounts of the “fall of the church”–but I am suspicious of where Leithart ends up. For example:

Leithart worries, however, that Yoder comes close to suggesting that the community Jesus creates is what is unsurpassable- rather than Jesus himself. This leads Leithart to press Yoder to say more about which Christ and which community is unsurpassable. He does so because he fears that Yoder’s unsurpassable crucified Christ fails to do justice to the resurrected Christ.

In my mind, the image of the resurrected Christ we are to look to is the one in the New Testament, especially the books of Acts and Revelation. I love Rowan Williams’s reading of Acts in Resurrection: An Interpretation of the Easter Gospel, in which the judgment of Christ consists in the nonviolent confrontation between the ultimate victim (Jesus) and his oppressors (who are those who killed Jesus on behalf of everyone, which means we are all oppressors; there are two points Williams makes here: 1) we too, crucified Jesus in our oppression our victims, because Jesus has identified with every victim, and 2) and our only source of hope is in the faces of our particular victims). Williams speaks of Jesus as the one always absorbing violence, but never as the purveyor of divine violence (page 9). I understand that I am not providing all of the necessary exegetical arguments right here in a blog post, but Williams draws upon many passages in John’s gospel to arrive at a picture of Christ the judge. When Christ is resurrected, this is the image of his judgment in Williams’s words:

The exaltation of Jesus to be judge, to share the ultimate authority of God, is thus God’s proclamation to all earthly judges, to the condemning court and the hostile city, that it is the pure victim alone who can ‘carry’ the divine love, the divine opposition to violence, oppression and exclusion. And so far from being passive, it is the pure victim alone who is capable of creative action, the transformation of the human world, the release from the pendulum swing of attack and revenge. (page 9)

This is just a snippet of the exegesis of another scholar, but I challenge anyone to find a reading of Acts that portrays a non-non-violent politics of the resurrected Jesus in the book of Acts.

As for Revelation, another obvious place to investigate the nature of the resurrected Christ, we are dealing with a text covered here and there in Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (especially chapter 10). Central to the vision of John is that the slain Lamb alone is worthy to receive power (Rev. 5:12), and this resurrected Lamb, is still the crucified Lamb. Not only is the resurrected Lamb the same one as the crucified one, but this is the Lamb slain from the foundations of the world (Rev. 13:8). It may be that Leithart does not split the resurrected and crucified Jesus into two different politics (as Hauerwas’s review suggests), but if the resurrected Jesus is still the crucified Jesus, then the politics of the resurrected Jesus ought not to be thought of as different than the the politics of the crucified.

I have no idea where Leithart obtains his view of the resurrected Christ, but if he ends up with a political Jesus, who is also not committed to nonviolence, then I can only assume he is looking somewhere other than the New Testament witness for his vision of Christ.

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12 Responses to “Defending Constantine: First Thoughts”

  1. Thomas J Bridges Says:

    A better review, by John C. Nugent, is available here. Thanks to Andy Alexis-Baker for alerting me to both reviews.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m sure it’s a coincidence that there’s been such an uptick in pro-Constantine/pro-Christendom positions while the West is engaged in a supposed struggle against Islam.

  3. Rod of Alexandria Says:

    Ditto, Adam.

    I believe in anticipation of democracy’s (i.e., neoliberalism’s) final victory over radical Islam, Constantinian Christians are lining themselves up to be the ones that proved that non-violent Christianity was in error. That way, after the war of Terror is supposedly over, church historians can pull a Eusebius and say it was g-d’s will that the West triumph. Craig Carter will be a hero, and those liberals who aren’t on his side, the villains.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The verb “to pull a Eusebius” should be more widely used.

  5. Thomas J Bridges Says:

    Or, alternately, when the West destroys itself from the inside out from its “war on terror,” someone will have to pull an Augustine and explain why the fall of the empire was not the fault of Christianity…er, wait… it will have been the fault of “Christians!”

  6. skholiast Says:

    Have not yet read Leithart’s book, but am struck by this sentence of your critique:
    “Central to the vision of John is that the slain Lamb alone is worthy to receive power (Rev. 5:12), and this resurrected Lamb, is still the crucified Lamb.”
    I know I am not making an original point here, but it has always seemed decisive to me that the risen Christ bears the marks of the crucifixion.
    Also impressed by your gloss of Rowan Williams, that “our only source of hope is in the faces of our particular victims”. I take this to mean: No detour via some idealized victim called “Christ” is available.

  7. dbarber Says:

    Interesting here as well is Leithart’s insistence on the fact that Constantine was a sincere Christian. Since when is sincerity an index of the political?

  8. dbarber Says:

    While we’re at it: some here might be interested in new essay by Hauerwas, in which he partly responds to Kerr’s criticisms directed against him. If interested you can find it under google books (i was able to access the entirety of the essay) — Walk Humbly with the Lord, eds. Mortensen and Nielsen

  9. Thomas J Bridges Says:

    Skholiast:

    My gloss on Williams is really just an abbreviation of his argument. He insists that we must ask our specific victims for forgiveness–yes, you are right, there is no detour. He insists that in Peter’s Pentecost sermon the emphasis is on “this Jesus, whom you crucified.” This is an emphasis on the concrete, recent events in Jerusalem, not some victim in the abstract. But the other side of the coin is Jesus’ identification with our victims, so, e.g., in Acts chapter 9 Saul is confronted with Jesus, whom Saul has been persecuting in his persecution of the Christians. Williams elaborates on how we can receive healing as we repent and face our victims; only our victims can forgive us.

    dbarber:

    Thanks for the reference; I need to go read that essay.

  10. Hill Says:

    I had forgotten about “the lamb slain since the foundation of the world.” What the heck does that mean?

  11. skholiast Says:

    The only interpretations I can think of off the top of my head verge upon a problematic identification of creation and fall. Or rather, of creation and crucifixion.


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