My Post-Election Review of Peter Leithart’s “Between Babel and Beast”

It is only fitting that I post this review of Peter Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast on this post election Thursday. It’s a book that helps us all put the frenzy into perspective.

Peter Leithart is a curious figure. A Reformed thinker, he’s always picking fights with my friends, the likes of Hauerwas and Yoder, but after I read him, I always feel like I’m more Hauerwasian/Yoderian than I was before. “This is strange” I say to myself. He challenges me on things, helps nuance others. Reading Leithart thickens my understanding of why I’ve come to think the way I do. Yet lurking in the back of my mind is a subtle distrust of where I know he eventually will go. He’s going to tell me (in some nuanced way) I should work for the Christianization of the government. Oh well. I read him anyway. He’s that good. Reading Leithart is good for all nascent Anabaptists like myself.

Leithart’s basic thesis in Beyond Babel and Beast is we cannot and must not lump all global/state systems into the one category of Empire, ala Hardt and Negri.  No, a survey of the Scriptures reveals there are different categories of empire: cherubic Guardians [of God’s people];” intolerant, totalizing Babels; and Beasts satiated by the “eat[ing of] Abrahamic flesh and drink[ing of] holy blood.” Cyprian or cherubic empires endorse and support the building of God’s temple.  They are multi-cultural and leave space for saints to gather for worship. Babelic empires are less charitable. They are occupied by the building of that singular tower by which to impose a uniform culture on all.  Bestial empires are the worse. They are founded on blood of the saints. They are seeking to obliterate God’s people as a threat to their supremacy. They get tipsy in the very act of drinking the blood of saints. Eventually they fall and are destroyed. (p. 53).

In the midst of these various forms of empire is God’s coming kingdom of which there is no end.  God is bringing his rule through His people . And so God’s people must navigate the times. We march from the Ascension to Revelation’s Great Tribulation, recognizing what we’re dealing with. There will be times when our government/Empire will be cherubic, like Cyrus of Persia, protecting God’s people allowing for the flourishing of the church. There will be times when the government/Empire will be Babelic seeking to totalize the world in the image of Empire, yet there is still space to continue the task of being God’s people. Then there will be times when the government/Empire turns bestial, indeed devouring and persecuting the church and devouring the blood of its martyrs. Here the Empire is doomed and shall fail. (Nebuchadnezzar and Rome moved between all of these stages) All in all, Leithart describes the blessing of dispersion and the territory God’s people must navigate which ever Empire it is given to deal with.

I like the thesis. And the book is an excellent survey of the Old Testament as well as some New Testament history. In the end Leithart fits the exile into his own grid but helps me see Yoder’s own thesis about the exile in a new way.  Maybe we can’t say the exile, the dispersion of Israel that resulted, was God’s ordered purpose all along.  But we can see that we must discern carefully our relationship to all  governments/Empire. It is and never can be singular. And this is a point Yoder could certainly affirm.  Is the government Cherubin to be encouraged and participated in? or is it Babel, to be tolerated and chastised? or is it Beast, to be resisted with all our might through martyrs blood?

In a classic statement in the introduction, Leithart summarizes his message with this challenge to Christians: “Remember to who you belong … to Jesus first and last .. remember that the church, not America , is the body of Christ and the political hope of the future … remember that no matter how much America will have served the City of God, America is in itself part of the city of man … remember that the Eucharist is our sacrificial feast.”( p. xiii). Could Hauerwas have written it any better?

All this having been said, what truly blows my mind about this book is the exposure of “Americanism” as a religion. Leithart exposes all its sources, all its developments with all the ways we have joined together national hubris with the use of Scripture. Leithart works brilliantly to expose the heresy behind the rhetoric of Americanism. Every pastor should mimeograph chapter four (entitled “Heretic Nation”) and hand it out for study (and of course pay appropriate royalty permissions 🙂 ).  He warns, with a stunning display of U.S. military/foreign policy history, that America is migrating dangerously from Babel to Beast. He calls for the church to be the imperium of God and to live in integrity before the various forms of govt. This is good. This is rich.

In the end Leithart eventually does disappoint an Anabaptist curmudgeon like myself. He rants on telling churches to take the American flags off their podiums and stop treating July 4th as a high holiday and then says, “churches should instead encourage Christians to discover ways to turn American power toward justice, peace and charity.” “American power” towards justice, peace, and charity? Is this not a mistake? Or at the very least a distraction? Sorry, but how can this statement make sense to us unless we deconstruct “American power” so as to separate “American” from the coercive imposing military “power” that has come to define the American imperium. It cannot be done, can it? Indeed, putting those two words together – “American” and “power” – seems to equal “Americanism,” despite all the brilliant deconstruction of it Leithart has done. We who know Leithart thinks Constantinianism can be a good thing, or at least something to be discerned, feel Leithart doesn’t get that the way of the cross is the way God will work, even when He will use other means (or empires) to provide protection. The sword cannot be the instrument of the coming Kingdom. So, in the end, even though the journey of reading this book  was worth it, I leave scratching my head. This is the fate, I suggest, of all who read Leithart. And I can deal with that.