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.