How Craig Carter Changed My Mind, Twice

When I became a rosy-eyed Christian at the age of seventeen, I took the stance of non-violence more or less for granted.  I had been considering joining the military after high school, but joined the church instead.  It seemed like a clear case of either/or.  My recruiter seemed to think so too, and the instant I told him I was backing out of the process, and mentioned why, he backpedaled and that was that.  I guess army recruiters have better things to do than argue theology with high-school students.

It wasn’t until several years later that I began to actually begin studying a theology of nonviolence.  In the meantime, I drifted back and forth, embracing a Baptist-style casuistic ethic picked up (regretfully) from doing apologetics, and then embracing a leftist version of hippie pacifism picked up, in all likelihood, from listening to too much U2.

Enter Craig Carter.

I found his book Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post Christendom Perspective at a tiny Methodist bookstore at a retreat center in Florida.  It was the monthly special, and marked down to half-price.  I was vaguely familiar with John Howard Yoder, whose thought was at the center of the book, and I had of course read Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture for one of my ministry classes.  So I picked it up.

And it changed  my mind.

Suddenly these questions mattered deeply to me.  About half of my college friends and roommates were committed to nonviolence and about half were utterly opposed to it.  This became the center of most of our theological engagement.  I began reading all the Yoder I could get my hands on, and more than arguing for pacifism, I began arguing against Christians taking up a non-Christian understanding of pacifism.  (I guess I still took the non-violent posture of the church more or less for granted.)

But now Craig Carter is in the middle of a new rethinking.   His whole blog, Politics of the Cross Resurrected, is dedicated to this rethinking.  And this has led me to a major rethinking as well.

Carter is arguing in the same direction I had been (against Christians adopting a non-Christian form of pacifism), but much more forcefully.  Increasing numbers of left-leaning Evangelicals are reading (or perhaps co-opting) John Howard Yoder and instead embracing a form of liberal pacifism that they would then apply beyond the discipleship community.  (If Yoder and Bono are both listed as one’s spiritual influences, there is a good chance this is going on.)

The center of Carter’s rethinking seems clearest to me in a January 31 post entitled Yoder, Augustine and Christendom: What Is The Real Politics of Jesus? He begins with the observation that many self-described adherents to Yoder’s politics end up with an “individualistic and privatized” faith.  To the possible claim that such adherents are not embracing individualism just to the degree that they embrace a socialist view of society, Carter challengingly responds,

But what if socialism and the liberal democratic state are simply parodies of true community? What if, as Alasdair MacIntrye recognized, they mask a deep individualism at their roots which is more modern than Christian? Suppose we apply an Augustinian analysis to the modern welfare state. Should we not conclude that the modern state is – precisely to the extent that it privatizes Christianity – deeply idolatrous and pagan?

This resonates in my mind with Milbank’s reading of Augustine.

Carter goes on to provide a possible rereading of Christendom, drawing on Peter Leithart, that would challenge Yoder’s view that all Christendom is “Constantinian” and therefore heretical.    He begins by citing Stanley Hauerwas’s summary of Leithart on this point:

Leithart does not think his disavowal of pacifism means he has to reject Yoder’s contention that Jesus has a politics. In order to defend his own understanding of the politics of Jesus, he introduces a theme I can only hope he will develop in the future: his defense of Constantine turns on his claim that as a Christian, Constantine ended the Roman sacrificial system. Accordingly Constantine “desacrificed” the Roman political order because he understood that Jesus was the end of sacrifice. The church, for Augustine, is the embodiment of Christ’s sacrifice, and this creates a new political reality necessary to keep the state appropriately modest.

I think “appropriately modest” is the key here.  The state is appropriately modest when it does not make pretensions to be the church (or a likewise salvific body, such as the welfare state or security state).  Carter’s evaluation of Leithart’s “theme” is brilliant, and gets perfectly at the heart of the kind of political theology I have been trying to argue for.

It seems to me that what Leithart sometimes calls the “desacrificing” of the Empire, and other times the “baptism” of the Empire, could also be called the “conversion of the Empire.” But misunderstanding lurks at every turn here. This “conversion” is the renouncing of idolatry by the Empire, not the turning of the Roman State into the Church. When the State becomes a Church we have a deformation of Christendom. Rather, what happens when the Roman State ceases sacrificing to the gods is that it becomessecular (i.e. belonging to this age between the two comings of Christ, destined to pass away at the end of the age).

Implicit in the ceasing of sacrifice is the recognition of the Church as an alternative polity, a community which proclaims the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ as the call to worship the True God alone through the sacrifice of Christ and therefore to cease from sacrificing to the gods. Yet, in recognizing the Lordship of Christ, the State does not become a Christian State in the sense of the Church taking over the State; instead the State recognizes the existence and legitimacy of an alien polity within its territory – the Church. The Church is the embodiment of true religion so the State no longer has to be religion in and of itself. It is Christian precisely by being secular.

Now, I am not sure that “converted” is the best term to use.  Carter makes a distinction between what an individual should be converted to (Christian discipleship) and what a state should be “converted” to (to cease sacrifice).  Perhaps with the different meaning we could simply come up with a different, and less contested, term.  What the state is doing may not be a conversion, but may simply be taking its appropriate place in God’s economy.  It would be a just authority, in the terms of Augustine’s sermon, in the previous post.

Carter concludes by suggesting that Yoder’s inability to see this form of modest, limited state as an alternative to either unfaithful theocracy and pagan idolatry means that we must look to the Augustinian tradition rather than the Anabaptist tradition to speak well of “The Politics of Jesus.”

At this point, I am not sure that it isn’t both.  To the church in Kenya (or a revitalized Church of England, one can only pray), this Augustinian reading of theological politics sounds exactly right.  But can the church in America work toward such a vision while remaining faithful disciples in the meantime?  Or must we draw on the Anabaptist tradition and recognize that  we are a minority church in an idolatrous nation?  (If Milbank reads liberalism rightly, it seems to me that this must necessarily be the case.)

My other difficulty with this political theology is how it might compromise ecclesiology and ethics.  If I am convinced, against Augustine, that the Christian cannot wield the sword of the state, then this political theology, for all its attractiveness, is rendered impracticable.  Do I take it, then, that Carter holds no commitment to total nonviolence in the life of a Christian?  Do we see a sort of Lutheran division of loyalties: is the Christian nonviolent while dispensing the gospel, but free to use force while traveling as a citizen?  If so, I am not sure how far I can travel down this particular road.  But, so far, I still travel with hope.

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2 responses to “How Craig Carter Changed My Mind, Twice

  1. Are you familiar with or have you read any of Christian Attitudes To War, Peace, and Revolution, lecture notes for the course by the same name Yoder used to teach recently edited by a professor and recent graduate at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (where I am currently a student)? There are bits in there where Yoder actually suggests the possibility of something not entirely dissimilar from the quasi-Augustinian kind of framework above. It’s different in that as always he rejects the Christian appropriation of violence, but he makes a brief case in one section that it may have been possible for Constantine to have legitimately become converted in his exercise of the role of emperor and in another holds up the Quaker experiment in Pennsylvania as an example of the direction toward which a genuinely Christian political entity might move.

    I see it ultimately as a way of attempting to work out the logic of Body Politics, in which he argues that the church is the ultimate reality to which the world will be conformed in Christ, in a way that allows for the realization of that logic within history, and not only as an event in the eschatological future.

    • Yes, actually I just posted a bit from Christian Attitudes in response to Leithart’s recent book. Or rather, it’s going up sometime this week. I’ll have to look for the sections you mentioned and see about applying them.

      Just after I posted this, Craig mentioned that he was working on a response post, along the lines of arguing for a two-kingdoms approach to Christian participation in a just military. If so, I’m afraid it means he’s given up trying to read Yoder against Augustine and simply embraced Augustinianism and given Yoder up for dead. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case, because I think his original idea (as I understand it ) is both compelling and plausible.

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