Redeeming Politics and Redeeming the State

Whew! I have finally finished Peter Leithart’s book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. It took me longer than normal because, in my current schedule, reading deeper books is a somewhat sporadic affair. (I renewed this book four time, for example, and at 340 pages, it’s not all that long.) And I have finally figured out what Leithart wants to accomplish.

Leithat wants to redeem politics, and through that redeemed politics, wants a redeemed state. A state which can be a ground for Christians — and individuals and as church — to live out faith in love (to borrow a Lutheran phrase which he does not use). He tears Yoder’s history apart because he wants to preserve the ability of Christians to purposefully use the state to act. Leithart does a reasonably good job of proving John Howard Yoder’s history wrong — there were no “pristine” Christian church that in the two centuries before Constantine swore off violence and statecraft, only to be later seduced by the serpent of power. Yoder’s history is an Anabaptist narrative, and it does not reflect the reality of the pre-Constantinian church. Indeed, I have read several church fathers from the second century AD in which they write two things about persecution:

  1. As Christians, we are willing to suffer persecution and even die as martyrs — witnesses — to the faith at the hands of the Roman state because Jesus Christ our Lord did;
  2. But we shouldn’t have to, because as Christians we are the Empire’s best citizens, praying for the emperor and for peace.
Leithart also writes two very important things: that the church pre-Constantine had no systematic theology about either war or the state. This is true enough. We confess nothing about the state, one way or the other, and from that, it is clear there was little or no theological dispute about the Roman state (even during the persecution of Diocletian). There was also no systematic theological approach to soldiers, the Roman army and war. Leithart states that Tertullian’s and Origen’s opposition to the military has less to with war itself and more to do with the pagan religious rituals central to state worship. If the objection is pagan idolatry, and not war itself, Leithrt asks what then would happen when the state and its agents were stripped of pagan idolatry and need for pagan ritual (such as sacrifice)? Every clue we have suggests that Christians easily accommodated themselves to the Roman state.
There were also regional differences in how Romans view the military:

Opposition to military service was most prevalent in safe “interior of the Pax Romana” and [was] less prevalent in the frontier provinces menaced by the barbarians.” The exception to this generalization was Rome, where the church was more accommodating to military service than elsewhere. The Hellenistic East, with its base in Alexandria, was the most rigidly opposed to military service. (p. 262)

This makes sense. Where military service was seen as a necessity for survival, it was most likely to be theologically accepted. But not to the point of needing to be confessed. The church also early on decided that homicide in war is not “murder” in the sense of the law — νομος — and thus not punishable, though St. Basil did state that soldiers fighting in war needed to abstain from communion for three years, presumably to do some kind of reflection and penance (Leithart, p.276).
Let me state up front that I still agree with Yoder’s theology, even as his history has been shredded. Leithart does not. He was to “re-baptize” the state, set it on a new trajectory, to become a place and ground where the Kingdom of God can be made known:

… only through reevangelization, only through the revival of a purified Constantinianism, only by the formation of a Christically centered politics, only through the fresh confession that Jesus’ city is the model city, his blood the only expiating blood, his sacrifice the sacrifice that ends sacrifice. An apocalypse can be averted only if modern civilization, like Rome, humbles itself and is willing to come forward and be baptized. (p. 342)

Only that? If Leithart has a partisan political axe to wield, he doesn’t us it in this book. He has no program, confesses no understanding of what a “baptized” politics would include, what the polity’s confession of Christ as Lord would mean. Before I go farther, it’s necessary to quote Leithart at length on his exceptionally accurate description of politics in modern nation-states:

Modern states, first, do not welcome the church, as true city, into their midst. They are happy to welcome the church if it agrees to moderate its claims, if it agrees to reduce itself to religion, or private piety, or aesthetical liturgy, or mystical piety. Modern states are happy to be Diocletian, supporting the priesthoods as a department of the empire. The modern state will not, however, welcome a competitor. It will not kiss the Son as the King of a different city, and it will not honor the Queen unless she is a floozy. [I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that word in print before — CHF] All modern states denounce the Constantinian system; that is what makes them modern states. There are differences, and important ones. Totalitarian states attack the sacrificial city of the church, seeking to turn it into Diocletian’s sacrifice of Christians. Democratic states more or less peacefully marginalize the church, and the Christians of democratic states too often cheer them on. For all their differences, totalitarian and democratic systems are secretly united in their anti-Constantinianism.

Second, because the modern state refuses to welcome the church as city, as model city, as teacher and judge, the modern state reasserts its status as the restored sacrificial state. This means that there must be blood. Medieval life was rough and brutish in plenty of ways and had it share of blood. But believing that the Eucharistic blood of Jesus founded the true city provided a brake on the bloodshed. Bishops imposed the peace and truce of God, and monks and others continuously modeled Christ before kings. Modern states have no brakes. Modern nations thus get resacrilized because they are resacrificialized, they demand the “ultimate sacrifice” (pro patria mori), they expel citizens of the wrong color or wrong nationality or religion. In modernity, “Constantinianism” that Yoder deplores becomes a horrific reality, as the church has too often wedded itself to power. 

This is the origin of nihilistic politics. Nihilistic modern politics is not the product of Stoicism or nominalism or any other system of ideas. Nihilistic politics is the product of the history of Western politics, from Constantine’s desacrificialization of Western politics back to modernity’s re-sacrificialization. Nihilistic politics arises when the modern state reassumes the role of sacrificer but then realizes that there are no more gods to receive the sacrifice–no more gods but itself. And there can be no more goats and bulls, since animal sacrifice is cruel and inhumane. Yet there is blood, more blood than ever, more blood than any ancient tyranny would have thought possible, and all of it human. … [W]e might say that modern nations are post-Christian; they benefit from the covenant privilege of handling the sword and the fire but refuse to listen to Jesus when he tells them how to avoid cutting or burning themselves. (pp. 340-341)

I think this is a marvelous description, and Leithart clearly states at the end what he believes: the church as separate sovereign, empowered to advise and restrain the state. He points to many examples (Ambrose upbraiding Emperor Theodosius) of the church acting courageously before power. And it’s true — the church has done so. Also essential to Leithart’s thesis is a kind of dispensationalism (he does not use the term). Under the “new covenant,” humanity are now full-participants in God’s creative work, and waging war is one of those works. (Yes, trust me, this is what he writes.)
Here I have to state, I am still theologically with Yoder and Hauerwas. For Leithart’s thesis to work, there has to be a kind-of high water mark when the church and state functioned best together, and modernity is really a fall from good medievalism. I do not know where Leithart falls politically, whether he would sup gladly with the like of Walter Wink, but clearly Leithart believes the “powers” to be redeemable. And he knows what a redeemed world looks like — building a cathedral as cast in a medieval painting. A world of harmony and order.
But let me suggest something else — nihilistic politics is politics. There is no difference between power wielded today and power wielded in Christendom 1,000 years ago because human beings are no different. The nature of power is no different. Because the powers are born as a result of human sinfulness, did not pre-exist, and thus cannot be redeemed because, once humanity is redeemed, there are no powers. It is my understanding that Christian theology understands essential human institutions — family, state, and church (religious community) — to be things we walked out of Eden with. Thus, they are redeemable, and God uses them to impose God’s good order on the world. I don’t believe this. I see no scriptural evidence that we walked out of Eden with any of these (not even family, which one can assume most easily), and thus all of these human institutions are created in the fall. Nowhere in Eden are human beings ever given dominion over other human beings. Yet outside of Eden, we insist upon having it. Leithart wants to redeem the unredeemable.
Second, in a liberal age — an age of individual freedom and autonomy — anything that even hints at illiberalism is a non-starter. Monarchy, hierarchy, elitism, all of these things are human realities that liberalism effectively denies, and most of the supporters of the above, even if they are principled (I believe in the moral superiority of monarchy to democracy, for example), are still, in the end, advocates of illiberal government. Leithart’s ideas are fundamentally illiberal. In a liberal age, no one will listen.
Finally, I must always hearken back to the political ideas that animate me so — opposition to state violence. Leithart, like all who want to preserve the state’s ground (and the church’s) to act on behalf of justice, seek the possibility of having their faith active in love manifest itself as violence or coercion. The problem is, if love is relational, then it must be experienced or encountered by the other party in the act of love as love. Violence is — how do I say this? — open to significant misunderstanding. You are asking a lot of people you are clobbering (or bombing, or incarcerating) to see what you are doing as an act of love.
If it is not experienced by the other as love, is it really love?
I think Leithart says some very worthwhile things about Constantine, that he was not who we think he was. The early church was complex and faithful and human But until I know exactly what kind of things he thinks a “redeemed” state would do, I have to say no thanks.

One thought on “Redeeming Politics and Redeeming the State

  1. My internal radar started pinging as soon as my pastor announced his intention to read Defending Constantine. Your review confirms my suspicions about the timing and very-American purpose of Leithart’s attempted redemption of the first famous marriage of Christianity and Empire.

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