Sunday, January 30, 2011

Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart: A Brief Review

The title "Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom" should have been "Defending Constantine from John Howard Yoder." This is not meant, I hasten to add, as a put-down. This is a splendid book and by far the most substantial response to Yoder's The Politics of Jesus to date.

Yoder's theology is interwoven with history in intriguing and rich ways and Leithart's work displays a similar inter-weaving of history with theology that take both seriously while recognizing that, in the end, it is the theology that matters crucially.

Some may have been surprised by Stanley Hauerwas' extremely positive review of this book recently in The Christian Century, but Hauerwas is right to discern in Leithart a worthy opponent and a very attentive reader of Yoder. I want to offer three points on which I think Leithart is right in this book and Yoder is wrong and then ask the question of whether Leithart's critique of Yoder is fatal to Yoder's version of the politics of Jesus, and in particular to Yoder's call for all Christians in all times and all places to embrace pacifism. In conclusion, I will return to the issue with which Hauerwas ends his review: the question of contemporary liberal democracies as sacrificial states due to their lack of openness to the Church as a "model city."

First, it should be recognized that Leithart has demonstrated the failure of Yoder's historical argument for the "fall of the Church" in the fourth century from a pacifist community to a chaplaincy status vis a vis the Roman state. Clearly, the Church got in bed with Rome and no one can deny that abuses, failures and shameful incidents followed in due course. Leithart has no interest in denying such facts of history. But Leithart raises two questions: (1) has Yoder demonstrated that the early church (pre-fourth century) was pacifist and (2) was the influence of pagan society on the Church a one-way street or did the Church actually change Rome as well as being partially corrupted herself?

I do not think that any fair-minded reader of Liethart's scholarly, historical research interspersed with his close reading of Yoder's writings will fail to conclude that Yoder did not prove that the early Church had a pristine, pre-Constantinian, purely pacifist character which it then was able to lose in its rush to embrace Constantine's offer of Imperial wealth, prestiege and power. It could not fall from a height it had never attained.

The evidence for Christian participation in war and violence is mixed all through the first three centuries and Yoder's method, upon encountering evidence of Christian's serving in the army or other evidence of Christian non-pacifism, is simply to interpret it as "creeping Constantinianism," that is, as Constantinianism before Constantine. This is an exceedingly weak rationalization, trading as it does on the assumption that where the sources are silent they would all, if known, reveal a pacifist church from which the examples of Christians serving in the army in the known sources are deviations.

Now, Leithart recognizes that the historical argument cannot be decisive. Even if the early Christians were not pacifist, perhaps they should have been. But to the extent that Yoder delegitimizes the post-Constantinian Church so easily and thoroughly, this means that his argument from history is not valid. We will see how easily the fall of the Church narrative leads Yoder to dismiss Augustine in due course.

Secondly, Leithart easily demonstrates how horribly unfair Yoder was toward Augustine and how Yoder's failure to wrestle with Augustine's philosophy of history undermines much of the force of Yoder's criticism of Christendom. Yoder makes no distinction between Eusebius and Augustine, even though it was Augustine, more than anyone else, who enabled the Church to extricate itself from the shallow, over-realized political theology of Eusebius. Leithart even makes the point that Eusebius himself was more nuanced than he is often given credit for being.

But Yoder's failure to come to grips with Augustine, combined with the failed "fall of the Church narrative," is what sinks his understanding of Constantinianism. Yoder simply did not have Augustine's robust and differentiated eschatology and so fell into the same trap as Eusebius. Just as Eusebius viewed the conversion of Constantine and the Christianization of the Roman Empire as the dawning of the kingdom of God, Yoder viewed the same events as the fall of the Church. Both overstated what was happening. The one who kept his head and worked out a view of history in which both state and Church are necessary and neither can do without the other during this time between the first and second comings of Christ was Augustine. In so doing, Augustine laid the foundation for Christendom - not the unmitigated disaster of racism, violence, persecution, colonialization, exploitation, greed etc. imagined by so many - but the attempt to fashion a society in which the vast majority of people, including the rulers, confess Christ as Lord. For Augustine, the Church contains both true believers and hypocrites and the State can be either demonic or restrained and sometimes fluctuates wildly between the extremes. This sounds like Western history.

Thirdly, Leithart's explanation of in what sense Constantine "Christianized" the Roman Empire is suggestive and insightful. He says that Rome was "baptized" by Constantine's initiative in halting pagan sacrifice; in so doing Constantine "desacrificed" the Roman empire (pp. 326ff). The death of Christ means the end of sacrifice and Constantine implemented that in the Roman world. Hauerwas appreciates this insight and writes:
Leithart seems to be of two minds about the implications of this for understanding our current political alternatives. He observes that America is not a sacrificial polity and that "we have Constantine to thank for that," but he also claims that because the modern state, now shaped by the nihilism of modern politics, refuses to welcome the church as the model city necessary for judgment, it has again become a sacrificial state. Yoder could not have said it better. In fact, in some of Yoder's last work he sounded very much like Leithart on sacrifice as he sought to remind us that one of the realities that sacrifice names is war.
Hauerwas nicely captures Liethart's ambivalence at this point. Quite rightly, Leithart wants to say something positive about modern Western society. Insofar as it remains Christendom - or, at least, what comes after Christendom - it is "desacrificed" and this is a good thing. However, Leithart's cryptic comments about "the nihilism of modern politics" point to a reality that we have to consider. (One hopes Leithart will spell out his political theology in more detail in future writings.) Hauerwas is right to name war as one of the sacrifices made in the modern state and as one of its pagan features.

But, to say "war" is too abstract. Here I suspect Leithart would push back and remind us, in an Augustinian fashion, of the ambiguities of why people fight. For a Christian to participate in war is not always to participate in pagan sacrifice. This is the heart of the disagreement between Leithart and Augustine, on the one side, and Yoder and Hauerwas, on the other.

I suggest that if we really want to point to a clear and unambiguous example of the "resacrificing" of modern, Western, liberal democracies, we should point to the clearly sacrificial practice of abortion in the name of the sexual revolution. Our daily sacrifices to the god Pleasure condemn our societies as pagan and unbelieving. Maybe another Constantine would not be such a bad thing.

Does this book constitute a comprehensive and final answer to Yoder's call for the Church to embrace pacifism as its essential posture in this world? My reading of Augustine over the past five years has convinced me that it is time to move on from Yoder's version of the politics of Jesus and be much less hasty in dismissing Christendom as I, like many others, have been. In truth, the only reason Leithart's book did not convince me of the absoluteness of pacifism as the essence of the Church's witness is that I had already been convinced by Augustine. But I predict that Leithart's book will lead many to re-consider their "Yoderian" position and ponder the possibility of a politics of Jesus that moves beyond doctrinaire pacifism.


bgreen said...

Hi Craig:

Nice review. Are you missing a negative in paragraph five, first sentence? Maybe I am missing something.

Take care,


Craig Carter said...

You are right. It has now been fixed.

jmw said...

Good stuff, thanks for the review.