I’ve been reading Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine lately. A lot has been said about Leithart’s bashing of John Howard Yoder. To me, it’s just not that big a deal. I think Yoder’s proposals for ecclesiology in post-Christendom are exactly right (I’m a “homer”). And since the new post Christendom cultures of N America is where I believed I’m called, I’ll follow Yoder. The squabbles over history and assessing Constantine’s Christianity are certainly interesting. But I don’t see it as much of an issue. The question is, how do we Christians be the people of God when we are not in power, or losing power, or indeed when we are in the missionary situation. I agree with Leithart that the question “what do we do when the emperor converts to Jesus as Lord?” is more complex than Yoder would have it. And indeed there is something positive to be learned from Constantine about Christians “in power” in these ways. But we’re not there right now. And I don’t see the pursuit of the world’s power, the power of the sword, or the corporatist power that is polluted by all things Mammon, as the legitimate pursuit of Christians. So let’s get on to how we are to be Christians in the post-Constantinian cultural situation we find ourselves in (which is large parts of N. America).
And here is where Yoder got it right eh? Let me quote Leithart on Yoder’s description of how to be church. This is what Leithart describes as Yoder’s Jeremian ecclesiology based in Jer 29:1-7. Leithart says:
For Yoder, the Jeremian model of Jewish life and identity does more than simply provide a way of making sense of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. It provides a model for the church in its relation to the powers …Yoder’s Jeremiah instructed the people to settle into the galuth, exile, not as a temporary “hiatus” before a new kingship and temple were established, nor simply as a punishment for their sins. Jews were to “seek the salvation of the culture” of Babylon by accepting their dispersion as a call to mission. They were to retain their separate identity by adherence to a peripatetic moral and liturgical life, … (they) established places of worship without priesthoods whenever ten households gathered, … (they) found the “ground floor of identity” in the common life, the walk, halakah,” and confounded kings and emperors “with the superior wisdom and power of one authentic God.”
Jeremiah’s vision for Israel in exile was neither an effort to “Hebraize” Babylon … nor a retreat from cultural engagement. Jews served “the entire ancient Near East world as expert translators, scribes, diplomats, sages, merchants, astronomers.” … Far from being a place of resignation and lament, “Babylon itself very soon became the cultural center of world Jewry.” … (according to Yoder) this is the cultural and political program that the church inherited from Judaism.” 294-295.
Leithart says that Yoder’s vision of Christian engagement is “invigorating and just right in many respects.” He disagrees with Yoder over whether such a vision is the permanent social strategy for Christians. There is the goal of history, Leithart says, to move back from Babylon to Jerusalem.” Leithart asks what happens when the emperor becomes Christian.
This is good stuff. I’ve enjoyed the book. But for right now, I want to emphasize two things that have become clearer after reading Leithart. 1.) Leithart’s critique aside, Yoder’s vision of the church is the one most apropos for the current cultural situation many of us are living in – i.e. N America’s New post Christendom cultures. It is compelling. 2.) We can learn from Constantine something similar to what we learned from Yoder – We should not seek power as dictated by “the world,” the power of the sword, or the corporatist power that is polluted by all things Mammon. This applies for in the church as well as outside. For whenever we do this, we doth separate ourselves from the gospel. We should not try to compete or win (for Jesus) against the existing people in governmental power on the world’s terms. That very second, the world has won, Jesus has been lost. Our witness absorbed into the ways of sin (Did not pres. George Bush lose his ability to rule as a Christian the moment he slung the sleaze and the mud at John McCain, nevermind Al Gore or later John Kerry.) We should never seek to exercise power in the world’s terms. Instead, the most subversive thing we can do to change the world is seek the salvation of the individuals in government, and ask them to renounce the world’s corruption at all costs. When one of these people, truly gets saved, happy days!! But as Hauerwas reminds “Yoder also encouraged Christians to believe that emperors could be Christians. He observed that if they tried to rule as Christian, it might result in an earlier death than they had anticipated- but, he observed, most emperors die early anyway.”
I think the Jeremian vision for the church is the way of the gospel for the challenges the church faces in Mission in the West. What say you? I’m off to Ambrose University for a few days, but I’ll try to chime in when time and internet allows.
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