Between Babel and Beast
May 28, 2013
Peter J. Leithart, Between Babel and Beast (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012) 200 pp. $24.00. ISBN 978-1-60899-817-3 (pbk.).
Peter J. Leithart has established himself as a leading evangelical and Reformed voice on a dizzying array of subjects: just within the past couple of years he has published books on literature, patristics, New Testament studies, and political theology. But it would probably be fair to say that within the broader theological world, it is his contributions on the last of these that has created the greatest buzz. With his 2010 Defending Constantine, Leithart positioned himself as one of the most interesting critics of the neo-Anabaptist political theology of such ethicists as John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and William Cavanaugh. Dismayed by the success of American civil religion, in which Christians have identified the military successes of the United States with the progress of Christ's kingdom, many in recent decades have rallied to the neo-Anabaptist call for a pacifistic disengagement of the church from the state. Unlike many critics of this turn, Leithart shares the neo-Anabaptist emphasis on the church as in some sense its own political community, the present manifestation of Christ's kingdom. However, he poses the penetrating question, "What if they listen?"--that is, what if political authorities actually hear and respond to the church's proclamation? How should they then rule? Unlike the neo-Anabaptists, he is willing to give a positive account of a Christianized politics, in this drawing particularly on the work of Oliver O'Donovan.
In his 2012 follow-up to Defending Constantine, entitled Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective, Leithart starts to flesh out this positive account, and demonstrates in the process that he is every bit as willing to challenge American civil religion as Hauerwas or Cavanaugh have been. The result is an original contribution to a discussion--the theology of "empire"--that seemed to have yielded its last original insight several years ago, following the barrage of Bush-era critiques of "American empire." Leithart's vigorous and fluid prose is on fine display here, though in considerably more densely-packed form than we have grown accustomed--the ideas expressed here could have easily occupied twice the book's 200 pages.
Among the original contributions is a qualified biblical apologia for empire, a refusal to join the anti-imperial bandwagon of recent decades. Instead, Leithart argues that there is no primordial essence called "empire"; there are particular empires, nation-states writ large, and they are capable of both good and evil, and sometimes great evil, capable of being guardians, Babels, or beasts. The Bible treats these three differently, and so should we. We also find here a development of Leithart's intriguing reflections on sacrifice from Defending Constantine. The chief political contribution of Christianity, he argues, was its desacralization of politics, its refusal of political unity founded on sacrificial bloodshed. In the Eucharist, the church replaces bloody sacrifice with the unbloody memorial of Christ's once-for-all sacrifice, substituting a unity based on martyrdom for a unity based on murder. Somewhat more ambiguous is Leithart's concept of the Church as God's "Abrahamic imperium," the true empire already founded and mediating Christ's rule, challenging all earthly empires.
The book is at its strongest in chapters 1-3, which comprise Leithart's overview of Biblical teaching on empire. These chapters offer a tour de force of Leithart's richly typological and intertextual hermeneutic, weaving together themes from across the Scriptures in a densely argued and, on the whole, quite persuasive exposition. From the Babel story Leithart takes his foundational Biblical image of empire as an arrogant attempt to seek glory and bring unity, uniformity and order, all of which is founded upon sacrificial bloodshed. Babelic power is not straightforwardly bad; indeed, its impulse lies at the heart of all political order, and inasmuch as it brings order and unity for the sake of justice and the advancement of God's kingdom, it is beneficial. Empires that are oriented toward God's purposes in this way, like Cyrus's Persia, are guardians. First-century Rome, while fundamentally Babelic, was capable of being a guardian at certain points, protecting the church from persecution. Yet in its arrogance, it was also capable, like all Babels, of becoming bestial--raising itself up against God and turning itself murderously upon his church and upon the innocent.
Perhaps equally strong are chapters 5-7, in which he offers a searing yet measured critique of "Americanism," a heresy in which "the American nation takes the place of the church as the sacred community" (xii), justifying self-serving and oppressive uses of violence. Although much of this critique might seem old hat within more liberal circles, it is a fairly new and courageous move within Leithart's own conservative evangelical context, and it is to be hoped that it will help open eyes that till now have remained blind to our national injustices. Perhaps most chilling is Leithart's chronicle of the mass murder of civilians that was a crucial plank of America's WWII and Vietnam aerial bombing strategy.
But what about chapter 4, which I notably omitted from the praise above? It is here that Leithart's continuing fidelity to aspects of the neo-Anabaptist paradigm becomes particularly clear and problematic. Leithart's ecclesiology seems to suffer from the same kind of overrealized eschatology and opposition between church and world that plagues Hauerwas's, but without any hint of quietistic withdrawal. The resulting juxtaposition raises troubling questions. Whereas for Hauerwas and Yoder, the whole church community stands apart from political structures, for Leithart, believers should fill the halls of power as well, even as "the church" continues to stand over against the state as "an independent polity or order of its own" (63). Do the lay Christians in power count as part of this polity, or is it defined, as in medieval papalism, in terms of the institutional structures of the clergy? Such a worry does not appear altogether unreasonable in light of Chapter 4's nostalgic and romanticized portrait of medieval Christendom as a time when emperors deferred to "God's imperium" and sacralized violence ceased, as well as Leithart's lament that the church does not excommunicate wayward politicians enough (110).
To be sure, Leithart would seem to prefer, as is fashionable in contemporary political theology, to find the political identity of the church not in insitutional structures per se, but in the Eucharist, defining Christendom as "the civil order's (often grudging) acceptance of the quasi-civic order of the church in its midst, the acknowledgment of the Eucharist as the sacrificial center of a polity" (63). But the phrase "quasi-civic order" is veiled in layers of ambiguity, and it is not always clear how Leithart understands the Eucharist to anchor this order. Indeed, we are puzzled to find him lamenting the Reformation as a time when "The church utterly lost its eucharistic center. No longer did the Eucharist function as a locus of union of all nations and peoples." After all, hadn't the late medieval church already undermined the "eucharistic center" by its focus on private masses and exclusion of the laity (who only communed maybe once a year, and even then were excluded from the wine)? The Reformers, by contrast, tried (not always with success) to reinstate weekly participation in the sacrament by the whole church community. The influence of Radical Orthodoxy's narrative of the Reformation is clear also in Leithart's claim that in the sixteenth century, "The sacredness of the Eucharist was increasingly co-opted by the state, which demanded absolute, sacrificial loyalty. Kings were quick to seize on the relatively new ideology of holy war" (66). In fact, "holy war" was centuries-old by this time (as Leithart's own narrative has already revealed), and Luther's writings display a repudiation of sacralized politics and holy war at the center of his theological agenda.
The ambiguities of chapter 4 set the stage for a brief, enigmatic, and somewhat unsettling Conclusion. America, we have learned, is a mostly baleful Babel, one which often consorts with bestial nations like Saudi Arabia. As a witness to Christ's rule, Leithart recommends that the church forsake the idolatry of Americanism, preach against sacralized violence, and seek "the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood" (152). All these are undoubtedly salutary prescriptions. However, we are treated also to darker hints of an apocalyptic showdown in which "Christians must risk martyrdom and force Babel to the crux where it has to decide either to acknowledge Jesus as imperator and the church as God's imperium or to begin drinking holy blood" (ibid.), renewing the ecclesial polity in a wave of martyr-sacrifices. We are indebted to Leithart's reminder in this book that allegiance to Christ may often bring us into confrontation with the rulers of this age; however, the ambiguities surrounding his concept of "the church as God's imperium" leave us somewhat unsure as to what mode this confrontation should take.
Dr. W. Bradford Littlejohn is completing a Ph.D under Oliver O'Donovan at the University of Edinburgh and has written several articles on political theology. He blogs regularly here.