Have You Forgotten?

I’ve been reading through some of Martin Luther King’s speeches this morning, and reading this passage from “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, I was shocked by how prophetic his words about his own coming death were. Reading through them, it felt like there was a Johannine parenthesis coming: “He said this to indicate the sort of death he was to die.”

Conspiracy theories abound, and I applaud those who are at work trying to bring more light to the convoluted events surrounding the death of Dr. King, especially with this year’s revelation that one of those closest to him was an FBI informant. Yet regardless of what is discovered there, there is no mistaking the fact that Dr. King was killed for the same reason that Jesus was: he spoke the truth about a corrupt society while, or rather by, bearing witness God’s beloved community which is dawning on us even today. Let us remember Dr. King by affirming with him once again that our “ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them.”

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the “Vietcong” or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

I cataloged a book today with one of the best dedications ever. Martin Haug and E. W. West dedicated their Essays on the Sacred Language, Writings, and Religion of the Parsis (Kegan Paul, 1878) as follows:



This revision of the

first attempt, in the English language,

to give a correct account of their

ancient Zoroastrian religion and literature,


in memory of the old times

of friendly intercourse enjoyed

both by the author and by

the editor.


Here’s to old times and friendly intercourse!


I just came across this incredible TED lecture over at the Daily Durias, where Derek Sivers explains the findings of sociological research demonstrating that expressing your goals verbally actually makes you much less likely to achieve them than had you kept quiet. He argues that the voicing of your intention to do a certain thing creates a social reality, which creates an effect in your brain equivalent to your having actually done it. Moreover, actually accomplishing the goal has no effect on the identity formation at stake: either way, you have announced yourself as the sort of person who would do something like this.

My thought immediately was that this is exactly what Jesus was concerned with in his injunctions to keep our faith secret, whether that was not telling our left hand what our right hand was doing (Ethics/Training-in-virtue) or keeping quiet regarding his identity as the Messiah (evangelism). My friend Chris once remarked about how weird it is that Evangelicals call reading their bibles “doing devotions” – shouldn’t we call “doing devotions” the actual doing of what the Bible says?

I think this has large implications for our understanding of witness to Christ. Thoughts hereby solicited.

The action of God is the Cross, the Passion…Participation in suffering means to suffer with Christ, to encounter God, as Jeremiah and Job encountered Him; to see Him in the tempest, to apprehend Him as Light in the darkness, to love Him when we are aware only of the roughness of His hand…Our present human existence–itself not eternity, yet bearing within it eternity unborn–is overshadowed by suffering, as by a dark mantle, by a drawn sword, by an overhanging wall. As such, our life is wholly debatable; there is in it no repose, because, as finite, it is defined and constituted by ambiguity. Our experiences of the temporal limitations of our existence, of the narrow emptiness of our natural powers, of the great and petty tribulations which, as fragments of earth, we must ‘endure in pain’, are but the shadows of our essential finiteness. That sooner or later we must encounter the final barrier is the Pain of our pains…In the Spirit, we are enabled to know the meaning of our life, as it is manifested in suffering. In the Spirit, suffering, endured and apprehended, can become our advance to the glory of God. This revelation of the secret, this apprehension of God in suffering, is God’s action in us.

– Barth on Romans 8.17

John Milbank has an essay up at the ABC Religion & Ethics blog. The title is “Power is Necessary for Peace: In Defense of Constantine”, which sums up the argument pretty well. Here are some excerpts, along with my comments.

In either case also, for (Rebecca) West, the issue is whether a tradition that includes a significant refusal of ‘cruelty’ can itself reluctantly embrace violence from time to time.

Her answer is that it must, on the grounds that the other option is too individualistic: one may save one’s own soul but one risks losing the entire cultural sphere within which the pursuit of salvation is possible, if one takes it to be the case that renunciation of cruelty is a crucial aspect of this pursuit.

It is thus tempting to read West’s writings as a kind of Latin riposte to Dostoevsky’s Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Yes, compromise with power risks reducing the pursuit of salvation to mere worldly pragmatism. On the other hand, the embrace of charity without power risks handing over power to a complete lack of charity and justice.

As the rest of the essay will bear out, Milbank squarely sides with West’s Latin riposte. In fact, Milbank does not even attempt to challenge the binary of Jesus vs. The Grand Inquisitor, or offer a new construal of his own–he just plain sides with The Grand Inquisitor! How sad is that? Taking The Grand Inquisitor’s side is like campaigning for president on a platform of raising taxes. Not a smart move.

Although it has been said countless times in numerous places, State Power and Individualism are not the only options laid before us. The Power of God unveils itself in our midst as a way of being together (politics) that is a gift of God’s Shalom. As Yoder makes absolutely clear (and Milbank absolutely disregards), that Shalom does not occupy a space parallel to State Power, but rather that space itself. It is the table prepared for us in the presence of our enemies.

But a deeper danger lurks here. Charity without power, an ineffective charity, is not really charity at all, but rather an impossible aspiration, because it is ironically doing nothing.

Thus when Pascal called for justice to be combined with power he was not only calling for the redemption of power, but also for there to be actual justice.

There were some people in Jesus’ time, too who confused effectiveness with charity. Lots of folks were impressed by the massive donations of wealth that certain people were able to give. They oo-ed and ah-ed, thinking “what a confirmation of God’s blessing! What security for the future of the temple!”

Jesus did not confuse effectiveness with charity. Instead he pointed out to his disciples a poor widow giving a single coin, saying that she had given more than any of the others.

The point is that charity in the Kingdom of God is not a matter of cause and effect. It is, rather a participation in the only real charity there has ever been–the kenotic self-giving of the crucified Messiah. And by participating God’s charity, we find ourselves invited to be “freed from the compulsiveness of the vision of ourselves as the guardians of history” (Yoder).

However, this means that the realm of total mutual exposure, the realm of weakness within which “all defences are down,” might ironically be seen as requiring defence against an exterior which refuses this exposedness.
At the very least, I would suggest, the New Testament makes it quite clear that Christians are involved in paradoxical warfare: a power-struggle in which one seeks to extend the powerful reach of the very sphere of powerlessness itself.

The question here, obviously, is how we can be said to be living in a state where “all defenses are down” while we are, well, setting up defenses.

Yet even if one agrees with the Mennonite tradition that the church itself is the place where charity is combined with power of a new and more profound way, there remains the question of the relationship of this power to contaminated, compromised coercive power.

It is here, however, that I find the avowed anti-Constantinianism associated with the Mennonite tradition – through John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas – both politically disingenuous and theologically dangerous.

For, does not sheer anti-Constantinianism actually risk Marcionism? As Augustine argued in Book V of The City of God, the gospel transcends and fulfils, yet does not abolish, the political level of the Old Testament, just as charity fulfils and surpasses yet does not abolish the need to pass laws and administer justice.

It would seem that, for Milbank, either we fulfill the universal social vision of the Old Testament in the coercive power of the nation state, or we are Marcionites. The fact that Milbank cannot conceive of a way of fulfilling the Old Testament other than at the political level of the nation state is telling both in regards to his lack of any political creativity or imagination, but also in his apparent disregard of Scripture. The New Testament could not be clearer in telling us that we are not capable of fulfilling the Law. The Law is fulfilled in Christ. There every jot and tittle met its final end, without remainder, such that any attempt on our part to fulfill it is nothing but a lack of faith, and while we are bandying heresies about, sheer Docetism.

And further, without the addition of power to charity would the church have survived at all? To refuse this addition is in a way to refuse the resurrection, and the fact that in the end it is Christ’s kingly role which is eternal, and not his mediating priestly role.

Because there is clearly no possibility for the church to exist in an atheistic, godless state like Communist China. To believe that Christ’s kingly role is exercised in the paternal protection of the State over its charge the Church is to deny that Christ fulfilled his kingly role once and for all on the cross. Unfortunately for Milbank, the New Testament tells us very clearly that Christ reigned over sin and death in the cross. The cross is not a deferral of Christ’s kingly role, but its absolute fulfillment.

Here I would suggest that perhaps the most uncomfortable historical fact for contemporary Christians is the debt that they owe to kings. Should Charles Martel in the face of the Muslims or Alfred of Wessex in the face of the pagans simply have laid down their swords?

If one feels that that would have ensured their salvation then one has to add that it would also have apparently rendered impossible our own within the course of historical time.

I cannot imagine a more clear identification of the power of God with the power of Kings. Do I need to point out that this is blatantly idolatrous? So in response I will say as clearly as possible that the power of God is not the power of force and coercion. The power of God is the power of Cross and Resurrection, the power to overcome Death. The power of force, though cedes all authority to Death as the Lord of existence.

For the survival of Christianity was enabled by acts of military defiance and its survival otherwise would have been either marginal or non-existent – the religious pluralism of the American polity being nowhere yet in sight.

Could it be more clear than this? For Milbank, a marginal existence is quite simply not an option. Christianity for him must be triumphal or nothing. The unfortunate thing about seeing things this way is that it is diametrically opposed to the sort of life lived among us by Jesus himself (see especially the portrayal of this life in Luke’s Gospel). If the Son of Man had no place to lay his head, then our search for security will lead us away from Jesus.

It is therefore clear that Alfred won his military victory in highly Augustinian terms and that an unqualified coercion grounded on violence was defeated by a qualified use of coercion grounded upon an eschatology of peace.

To say this is not in any way to deny the Mennonite attempt to incarnate a peace-seeking process that passes through non-resistance, suffering and forgiveness.

I would say, on the contrary, that it absolutely is just such a denial. For it is the same sort of “backhanded compliment” (Hauerwas) that was given the Mennonites by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture. Namely, that the Mennonites provide a nice, inspiring testimony to the fact that one day the lion will lay down with the lamb, but in the mean time, those of us who are mature will make sure you have the safety and freedom to do your peace thing. This is nothing other than a patronizing dismissal of the real claim of Mennonite Witness, which is that Jesus’ call to discipleship is a universal invitation, regardless of social status.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings expresses with genius just how the Christian strategy is double and paradoxical. Gandalf coordinates a military campaign while Frodo self-sacrificially seeks to destroy forever the idol of absolute power. Both tactics are cooperatively necessary, and yet Frodo’s tactic is more than a tactic. It is rather at one with the ultimate goal itself which is of peace and the renunciation of power for its own sake.

I wont belabor this point much, since not much is at stake in whether The Lord of the Rings actually illustrates Milbank’s Constantinianism. I will admit that both of them care a great deal for English lore, and seem to be looking for some salvation there.

I would like to point out, however that Gandalf’s campaign is decidedly not a military one, at least not in the modern sense of a military. That role is much more clearly played by the Saruman’s building up of the military-industrial complex at Isengard. There is no easy conflation of the Axis with Isengard and the Allies with the Shire. Isengard encapsulates both as societies that have staked their survival on military strength. Remember, Gandalf is a wizard, who operates by magic and luck, not strength and calculation. If anything, he is much more analogous to the leadership of Gideon. (Although we cannot get into it here, it is telling that when Milbank appeals to the Old Testament, he seems by default to assume that the Monarchies with their standing militaries and security state are held out as exemplary, which is the opposite of the case.)

The same combination of tactic and goal can be seen in the practice of political non-resistance by Martin Luther King Jr. Such a practice, like practices of penance and reconciliation within the church, are at once means to the end and already the end itself.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violence protest was not “the same combination of tactic and goal.” I don’t even need to argue that–I’ll just deny it as flatly as it was asserted. HIs models were Ghandi and Jesus, not Churchill and Constantine. Seriously, you can’t just claim MLK like that.

Here’s a few links to some things I’ve been up to, because having a blog is about self promotion.

Interview with J. Kameron Carter for Cultural Encounters I did last year. There’s some incredible stuff–interviewing Carter is like pitching batting practice to Albert Pujols. I tried to throw him a few pitches at points, but he just hits everything out of the park. And good luck finding it without the link–navigating that site is quite a challenge.

Then I figured while I was at it I might as well review Carter’s Race: A Theological Account. Check it out over at The Other Journal.

Also, I’ve joined in with Matt and Cabe over at Die Kirchliche Blogmatik in their task of reading through Barth’s Church Dogmatics 5 pages per night. Join along as we slug through the magnum opus of the greatest combination of endless repetition and theological profundity since St. John.

A.O. Scott is an absolutely brilliant film reviewer. He is always able to get to the heart of what a movie is about so quickly and succinctly. It’s incredible. His comments on the portrayal of friendship in “The Social Network”:

THE great virtue of Facebook — as articulated early in “The Social Network” by Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard student who was one of that site’s founders — is that it is “exclusive.” This may sound counterintuitive, given that one of the seductions of Facebook in the real world is that it is open to everyone. Far from exclusive, the network seems to have the potential to become universal.

But of course what the fictionalized Zuckerberg means is not that access to his nascent network is limited (though at this point in the story it exists only within the already restricted pool of Harvard students), but rather that the people who enlist can choose the company they keep. The film’s viewers, even those who have resisted the charms of Mr. Zuckerberg’s company, will recognize the logic, both human and mathematical, that has turned the word “friend” into a transitive verb with a newly formed opposite. Every Facebook user, friending and unfriending at will, can travel freely in intersecting circles of his or her own design.

In the utopian version of this resulting horizonless network, status is not something inherited or enforced by others or even earned: it is something you can change, update and revise according to your own whims. You are who you say you are, and what you want to be — a citizen of a perfect Emersonian republic of self-selection and self-reliance.

Except that the mood of “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher from a script by Aaron Sorkin, is dark, sinister and paranoid. The disjunction between Facebook’s sunny communitarian promise and these ambient tremors of unease — the paradox of a deep loneliness in a world of friendship — is summed up in the character of Mark Zuckerberg himself.

Facebook accelerates a way of pretending at friendship that uses others as identity markers, as ways of becoming who we are based on our associations. This friendship is a “relational ontology” of the worst kind, where you strategically make yourself who you are through careful selection of acquaintances. With so many so eager to jump on social networking as a succor to the church, we need to question whether social networks really bring us out of ourselves, or cast us further inward on our drive to self-determination.