Apocalyptic is all the rage these days. More precisely, an uptick in efforts to recover the Apostle Paul’s “militant” soteriology has roused old debates concerning the merits of a Käsemannian dictum, namely that apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology.
Naturally, Pauline apocalyptic has been a munificent partner with dogmatic theology, a reality highlighted by the influence of J. Louis Martyn, whose commentary on Galatians had such a monumental effect on the theological world that Römerbrief comparisons no longer sound overly romantic. What might seem unnatural, however, is the reverberation of Pauline apocalyptic throughout certain corners of Continental philosophy. What hath Tarsus to do with France, Italy, and Slovenia? Well, that’s a question for Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek, each having produced works that transpose the Apostle’s categories into a new key.
There’s yet another road less traveled among proponents of this project. Fellow pilgrims will traverse the same path in due time, but not until the thickets are removed from the winding trail leading to a messianic political theology that’s unreservedly apocalyptic and unapologetically Anabaptist. P. Travis Kroeker is the right pioneer for the task. Indeed, Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics is the culmination of a career in trailblazing, a constructive theological achievement that throws into stark relief the inner ratio of Kroeker’s entire corpus. This collection of essays demonstrates an impressive adeptness at engaging apocalyptic across a nexus of overlapping concerns, including but not limited to the dogmatic, philosophical, and radically reformed impulses mentioned above.
The subtitle—“Essays in Exile”—evinces a provocative thesis that becomes explicit in the first few pages, namely that Christian theology and discipleship should be practiced with a posture of dispossession. The cross is the symbolic catalyst for such an insight, for the mystical body of Christ finds its existence at the apocalyptic juncture where two ages collide at the site of crucifixion. If the church is rooted in this space, as Kroeker believes it is, then it must conceive of itself in diasporic terms. Each chapter in Kroeker’s monograph wrestles with the political implications of this claim, and the contributors of this symposium have provided a rich set of essays that manage to provoke and interrogate while still embodying a form of scholarship that is “endlessly kenotic and dispossessive rather than acquisitive and accumulative” (29). May their tribe increase.
Chris Huebner begins this symposium with an insightful reflection on the book’s mode of presentation, suggesting that its unsystematic form also constitutes exilic content. Taken as a whole, the chapters perform the book’s thesis by presenting essays that are literally displaced. Taken individually, the chapters present apocalyptic themes that subvert conventional apocalyptic images which are, in Huebner’s estimation, predisposed to eschewing patience and dispossession (note the phrase “militant soteriology” above).
While Huebner sees Kroeker troubling the waters of apocalyptic theology, Kristen Deede Johnson sees the same with regard to the theme of exile. Placing Kroeker in conversation with Rod Dreher, whose Benedict Option articulates its own theology of exile, Johnson explores the similarities and differences between their liturgical and pedagogical sensibilities. Her astute distinction between Dreher’s seasonal vs. Kroeker’s normative understanding of exile is worth the price of admission, for it clarifies the stakes involved for both parties. Finally, despite her sympathetic take on Kroeker’s exilic project, Johnson—and here we see glimpses of her Torrancean pedigree—pushes his account of imitation further in the direction of participation.
As one might expect from a panel comprised mostly of Anabaptists, the issue of power comes to the fore with vigor. Peter Iver Kaufman is not an Anabaptist, but his expansive range of intellectual proficiency makes him a suitable conversation partner for P. Travis Kroeker, and he uses Agamben to problematize the latter’s notion of a “messianic counter-sovereignty.” Maybe, just maybe, we should dispense with the logic of sovereignty altogether. Malinda Berry offers a paradigmatic alternative to Kroeker’s broadly Yoderian messianism, giving a nod to Rosemary Radford Ruether while asking the uncomfortable but necessary question concerning the enabling effect Yoder’s “messianism” had on his sexual ethics. Samuel Adams concludes the symposium by cautioning against the ecclesiocentrism that became popular after the publication of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Over against theologies that reify or centralize the church’s existence, apocalyptic reminds us that our being is located outside ourselves. Whatever implications this has for political theology, the answers will likely be provisional and, dare I say, dispossessive. Kroeker, I suspect, would have it no other way.
On Kroeker’s Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics
The theme of exile permeates the essays of P. Travis Kroeker contained in Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics: Essays in Exile. That “exilic” is the most faithful way to characterize the political life to which Christians are called is one of Kroeker’s most animating convictions. He roots this conviction in Scripture, noting that “the theological and political symbolism of exile-exodus-diaspora in the biblical imagination is beyond question” (2). He reinforces it with Augustine, drawing on Augustine’s conviction that Christians are called to be pilgrims in this saeculum. In exploring what this pilgrim identity might mean in our contemporary context, Kroeker engages a whole host of topics and a wide range of thinkers in the essays that make up this thought-provoking volume.
In a recent New York Times bestselling book, Orthodox Christian and conservative journalist Rod Dreher offers his own exilic vision for the church today. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017) seems to have hit a nerve, at least judging by the coverage and controversy it has sparked since its publication in 2017 (in places as mainstream as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, alongside religious journalistic venues such as the Christian Century, First Things, and Christianity Today). Shaped by Alasdair MacIntyre’s conclusion in After Virtue that we need a new Saint Benedict to lead us through the decline of reason and virtue that marks this cultural moment, as well as his own readings and explorations of St. Benedict and Benedictine communities, Dreher articulates “a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace ‘exile in place’” (Dreher, 18).
Given their overlapping emphases on exile, what might we learn by placing these two works in conversation with each other? Exploring the similarities and differences between them might help sharpen our convictions about the nature of Christian engagement in our time and place. Although we will uncover some significant differences, the two works do share some interesting commonalities.
Dreher, for example, encourages Christians today to adopt a contemporary version of the Rule of St. Benedict and focus on engaging their churches and other institutions more than on fighting partisan politics. He acknowledges that his vision is nevertheless deeply political, in that it is a vision shaping the common life of a particular community, noting that the telos and therefore the politics of Christian communities are different than that of a liberal democracy (see Dreher, 88). This conviction permeates Kroeker’s writings, shaped as he is by John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, among others.
Both Kroeker and Dreher share the Augustinian conviction that our lives—individually and corporately—need to be ordered towards and by love of God, and that the disorder we see within public life is connected to the disorder found within the inner conscience of humans (see Kroeker, 49, 59–60; Dreher, 54ff., 96). Both articulate the need for liturgical worship. Kroeker describes this as the need for “a liturgical worship that is also always presented as an incarnational ethic that takes the servant form of diaspora or pilgrimage in the secular world” (7). Dreher suggests that “liturgy reveals something of the divine, transcendent order, and when we submit to it, it draws us into closer harmony with that order,” reminding us that our faith is a “way of life” that will set us apart in the world (Dreher, 108, 110).
Another area of common concern is education, more specifically the formation that occurs within secular education. For Kroeker, this is connected to the concern that technological mastery has taken over our universities and their curricula to such an extent that we need an alternate ontology that enables us to ask ethical questions, cultivate virtues, and engage the theological question that has historically been central to a liberal education: “How should we speak the truth about the good so as to distinguish between a good life and bad one?” (182). If we leave things as they are, we will continue to allow the “unthought ontology” of technology to reign, an ontology that is exclusivist in its insistence on externalized, mechanistic, instrumental reasoning (and whose metaphors increasingly dominate our language and thinking) (64–65, 173, 176–177).1
Dreher also counsels his readers to be attentive to the formative power of technology, noting that it is not neutral but contains within it ways of viewing the world, ourselves, others, and God that are limited and distorted. Like Kroeker, he is concerned about the impact of “thinking mechanistically” and instrumentally on our capacity to engage in moral and ethical reasoning, especially in light of the bioethical questions facing us in the coming decades. In response to the disordered loves that contemporary technology so easily engenders, Dreher encourages digital fasting and the cultivation of contemplative lives.
When it comes to his concerns about education, Dreher argues that education has largely become utilitarian, with success in worldly endeavors as its goal rather than the cultivation of virtue and wisdom. Dreher draws attention to the flawed anthropology that he finds at the heart of secular education, which has become increasingly distanced from questions about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. In response, Dreher calls for the cultivation of classical Christian schools that can provide Christians with “an education that is rightly ordered . . . based on the premise that there is a God-given, unified structure to reality and that it is discoverable” (Dreher, 146). Another aspect of this classical Christian education is learning the history of Western civilization through engagement with the art, literature, and philosophy of the Greco-Roman and Christian past. He understands this as a new counterculture that can prepare Christians for the harsh realities they will increasingly face in the future.
Here one can begin to see some of the differences between these two exilic approaches emerge. Kroeker’s perspective is overtly “apocalyptic.” By this he means that Christians in every age “live in an apocalyptic world in which the mystical body of Christ is constantly being crucified (in the church no less than in the world)” (1). We are always in a state of diaspora, exiled, on pilgrimage. This is connected to his interpretation of Augustine as deeply apocalyptic (not just eschatological, contra most interpretations of Augustine). The two cities that shape so much of Augustine’s political thought are drawn from the apocalyptic judgment of Revelation. The earthly city retains its bondage to the demonic powers, ruled by love of self that leads to love of power. The heavenly city, by contrast, has been liberated by the death of Christ that enables the proper ordering of its will and loves in relation to God. This liberation leads not to heroism but to martyrdom; in this saeculum, the heavenly city is “a community of penitent martyrs who relate the earthly peace to the heavenly peace—but as pilgrims in Babylonian exile” (59). This is an apocalyptic vision with service, humility, and martyrdom woven into the very fabric of what it means to be a pilgrim people in this age.
Interestingly, Dreher also uses language of Babylonian exile and martyrdom, but in a rather different sense. His understanding of what is transpiring in the culture today might be more in line with popular notions of “apocalyptic,” meaning the end of the world as we know it. Dreher introduces his book with the conviction that “we Christians in the West are facing our own thousand-year flood. . . . This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind will deny it” (Dreher, 8). He argues that it is time to recognize that the culture war has been lost to the “swift and relentless currents of secularism” and to acknowledge that faithful orthodox Christians are now exiled from a country they thought was their own (Dreher, 9, 79, 99). This is what leads him to articulate the strategy of the Benedict Option: Christians need to withdraw from the deforming convictions and institutions of the larger culture in order to cultivate practices and communities that can withstand the “raging floodwaters of modernity.” Because of these raging floodwaters, Dreher anticipates decreasing influence and increasing suffering for Christians in the years to come, possibly even to the point of martyrdom (Dreher, 120).
In other words, for Dreher, because of the march of secularism, the church is in a particular season marked by exile and the possibility of martyrdom whereas for Kroeker, in this saeculum, the church is always called to be an exilic people marked by a spirit of martyrdom. Writing on the theology of the book of Revelation, Richard Bauckham notes that those receiving John’s prophetic insight would have found “a vision of the incomparable God, exalted above all worldly power, which relativized Roman power and exposed Rome’s pretensions to divinity as a dangerous delusion.”2 Kroeker views this power dynamic as one to which Christians need to attend in every political arrangement in this age, writing, “It would be false for anyone to imagine themselves as un-implicated in the empire political economies of their own time and place” (3). Dreher, by contrast, seems to operate with the assumption that it is possible for Christians to be un-implicated, and indeed he laments the breakdown of the political economy that is passing away without recognizing ways we might have needed to acknowledge its “dangerous delusions.” In sum, while some of their diagnoses about the challenges of this particular cultural moment are similar, and while overlap exists in their use of biblical language and theological categories to describe the church’s posture within this cultural moment, they are operating with significantly different theological assumptions.
These differing assumptions can be further illuminated by considering how they conceptualize the relationship between the church and the larger culture. Kroeker tries to hold a tension between separation and assimilation, noting that this tension is built into the “diaspora paradigm.” Rather than embracing either accommodation or resistance to the dominant norms and institutions of a culture, Kroeker finds in the biblical narrative support for cross-cultural engagement that celebrates plurality. He interprets, for example, the story of the tower of Babel to mean that God is not in support of one univocal interpretation of reality imposed by an imperial sovereign but rather that God offers the possibility of shalom through diverse, local communities. When considering the exilic reality that the Hebrews faced when they were in exile in Babylon, Kroeker writes,
Here again the scattering experienced by the people is interpreted as a good, so long as they can remain focused on the creation mandate: be fruitful and multiply, set down roots (build houses, plant gardens, intermarry) in a foreign land, build community amidst differences, and above all, seek the shalom—the shared common well-being and just flourishing—of the empire city into which you are being sent, for in its shalom you will find your shalom. (76)
In this interpretation of Jeremiah 29, Kroeker finds support for his conclusion that God’s call is to avoid assimilating the empire ethos of Babylon or its contemporary equivalent while also avoiding the temptation to a separationism that strives for “religio-cultural purity and isolation” (76).
Dreher’s vision seems to fall more in the separationist side, although that has been a matter of some debate. When reflecting on the exile of God’s people as portrayed in Jeremiah, Dreher writes, “If the ancient Hebrews had been assimilated by the culture of Babylon, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church” (Dreher, 19). This, alongside his language of retreat and withdrawal, leaves the distinct impression that he’s advocating the separation of Christian communities from the larger world. But even this separation would be for the short-term, until the cultural and political conditions change. As he reflects on the best way to fight the flood of modernity, he asks,
Could it be that the best way . . . is to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation. (Dreher, 12)
In other words, the retreat from the culture war that he advocates under contemporary conditions of exile doesn’t seem to be about actually making peace with the church’s ongoing exilic reality as much as it is about building a resistance that can outlast and eventually win once the rest of the empire has crumbled. Dreher, in some follow-up to the book, maintains that his is not a strictly separationist vision, arguing that he does want the church to continue to engage with the larger culture. In the conclusion of the book itself, reflecting on the same passage in Jeremiah 29 upon which Kroeker reflects, he writes, “We live liturgically, telling our sacred Story in worship and song. We fast and we feast. We marry and give our children in marriage, and, though in exile, we work for the peace of the city” (Dreher, 241). And yet he goes from there to share a final story of the crumbling of the Basilica of St. Benedict and how the monks had survived because they had already headed for the hills and could now rebuild among the ruins, making an analogy to the role he sees the church playing in the future once the crumbling of the West is complete after its season of exile and retreat. Perhaps the best summary of Dreher’s vision is that it’s separationist in the short-term. And in that short-term, it’s hard to know what it looks like for Christians to be working for the peace of the city.
This passage from Jeremiah to which both Kroeker and Dreher appeal has been a popular one for Christians trying to make sense of the calling on the church in relation to the larger cultural and political realities of their day. It, for example, stands out in one of the most famous passages of Augustine’s City of God, book XIX, in which Augustine reflects on the ways that the those on pilgrimage towards the heavenly city are called to enjoy and use the peace of the earthly city. It captures the spirit of the “Jeremian shift” that Yoder articulates to further support his interpretation of the politics of Jesus. Kroeker notes that both Eric Voegelin and Oliver O’Donovan affirm that Jeremiah has a paradigmatic role to play within political theology.
It is not surprising that the book of Jeremiah is so often turned to within these conversations about the relationship between the church and larger political entities, especially in tumultuous political times. Within the span of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, as biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier notes, the Assyrian Empire fell after a century of domination within the region; the Neo-Babylonian Empire arose to take its place; this new empire conquered Judah; and as a result of their loss of land, temple, and kingship, the nation of Israel ceased to exist as a political entity.3 Clearly these developments raised profound questions for God’s people.
In the midst of that profound question-asking, we find Jeremiah 29. This chapter contains extracts of letters written between those in exile and those who had remained in Judah, with the first one being from Jeremiah to the exiles. Prophets in Babylon were spreading the word that the fall of Babylon was imminent and that the exiles would soon return to their homeland. Jeremiah writes to counter the deception and false hope that such prophets were offering to God’s people. In contrast to their short-term hopes for the end of exile, Jeremiah declares that it will be seventy years before God returns to bring God’s people back to their land. In other words, exile will be the reality for the rest of their lifetimes. Jeremiah’s oft-cited words in vv. 5–7 speak into this context, encouraging the exiles to settle down and stay awhile:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
These words are communicating to the exiles that they need to find ways to live within this new political reality because it will be their reality for quite some time. It is not a hopeless message, but a reminder to the exiles to place their hope not in their external circumstances changing soon (as the false prophets were promising) but in the promise that God’s long-term plans include their welfare, as well (Jer 29:10–14).
This perspective seems closer to that found in Kroeker’s exilic vision. Kroeker notes that the biblical images related to being strangers, exiles, and sojourners “help envision how messianic faith enables people to face the challenges of a pluralistic, multicultural world—not as established or privileged rulers of the domain, but as itinerant servants on pilgrimage who need certain portable skills that enable them, as Jeremiah exhorts the people as they are being exiled to the enemy empire of Babylon, to ‘seek the shalom of the people to whom you are being sent, for in its shalom you will find your shalom’ (Jer 29)” (Dreher, 180–81). To be distinct but not separate, to engage with the world around us as itinerant servants with “portable skills” that we can offer, not to reclaim our privilege but to seek the welfare of those around us—these seem like aspects of a biblical exilic posture worth imitating today. As Johannes Oecolampadius wrote in the sixteenth century, reflecting on this same passage, “they should resolve to remain . . . and to do everything that might support the welfare of the city of Babylon.”4
The vision that Kroeker offers of supporting the welfare of the city as exilic disciples is a beautiful one, with much to commend it. While I love the vision in theory, I did find myself with some questions about how we will be able to live out the call to servanthood and humility that Kroeker issues in his apocalyptic political theology. When it comes to the practical component, Kroeker encourages those who are seeking to follow Jesus today to adopt a posture of imitation of Jesus, describing this variously as “messianic imitation,” “obedient imitation to the form of the servant,” “the model of imitation we are given to follow in Christ,” “the proper human disposition as the sharing in and imitation of Jesus’s humble obedience” (10, 57, 151). I am, perhaps, not as hopeful as Kroeker that we have the capacity to undertake this imitation.
While I certainly admire his admonitions that our posture today be one of Christ-like servants in exile, I found myself wanting to better understand how Kroeker connects our imitation of Christ to our participation in Christ. To put this in the language of the book of Revelation, central to that book is imagery of the throne; this imagery communicates that God’s rule and reign are what lie at the very center of reality. When we look closely at that throne, what do we find in the center? A lamb who was slain (Rev 5). Following Augustine, Kroeker describes the city of God as one ruled by the slain lamb, and he describes the martyrs as those who imitate the crucified Christ (53). But when we look closely at Revelation 5, we see a song of praise being offered to this slain lamb: “You were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth” (Rev 5:9b–10). This suggests a distinctive role for the slain lamb, one that we are not called to imitate but that has dramatic ramifications for our lives. That is to say, we ourselves do not need to ransom saints, nor do we have the power to turn those ransomed saints into a kingdom and priests, but by the sacrifice offered we have become participants in something new—drawn into the kingdom, made priests who can serve our God. This seems different than mere imitation of the example of a sacrifice. How does Kroeker hold these together?
Related to this, how does Kroeker connect the sacrifice of the messiah to the atonement practices of the high priest? Beyond mentioning Charles Taylor’s critique of juridical-penal understandings of the atonement (a critique with which I have some sympathies despite my location within “Calvinist Protestantism”), I did not see any attention given to atonement (46). This leaves me with little sense of how to relate the sacrifice of Christ to our calling to living sacrificially beyond imitation, which does not seem to capture the fullness of the biblical narrative. Drawing on Augustine, Kroeker discusses the concept of mediation. He attributes the category of mediation to Philippians 2, but wouldn’t there also be reason to connect it to the mediatory role of the high priest as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, who mediates between God and Israel and through whom the people of Israel participate in things like the day of atonement? Kroeker acknowledges that the death of Jesus Christ makes our participation in the divine life possible, but before unpacking what that entails, he immediately moves to the claim that “equally important here is the model of imitation we are given to follow in Christ” (57). How would he connect these categories of participation and imitation?
In that same section, Kroeker suggests that God is the primary actor in the drama of this world, but then he continues, “we learn what it means to take part in this divine agency when we follow the path of human love.” Similar to his emphasis on messianic imitation, this seems to put all the weight on human agency, on our capacity to follow that path. This is where language of participation might be helpful. Could it be that the Holy Spirit draws us in to participate in the drama and that it’s by the power of the Spirit that we are given the capacity to follow the path of love?
Kroeker rightly emphasizes that we need to resist the formation of the empire to follow the path of service and humility set before us by the slain lamb. And yet I was continually left wondering how we will possibly find the power to resist the dominant path and follow the narrow way. How can we be empowered to live out the messianic imitation that Kroeker so nobly upholds? I want us to be a people known for servanthood, humility, and seeking the welfare of the city as we live in exile, but I need help from Kroeker to understand how, theologically and practically, we can get there.
Messianisms and Magistrates:
Augustine, Anabaptism, and Agamben
Professor Kroeker’s wonderful, wide-ranging book is especially timely. His Augustine comes at a particularly critical time in the study of political theology in late antiquity, a point to which I’ll return, and his introduction of Giorgio Agamben into the conversation of messianism gives us a superb staging area from which to explore diaspora ethics in the twenty-first century. To begin, however, I want to endorse Kroeker’s fine elaboration of Anabaptism’s existential theology and to underscore what I think are crucial contributions sixteenth-century radical reformers made by recovering the critical elements of Christianity’s diaspora ethics: estrangement, discipline, and witness (or discipleship).
Calling attention to the seed analogy, Kroeker unearths the very basis of the radicals’ existential theology, “the continual self-giving gift of God’s creative spirit” (96). It should go without saying that growth was and is expected. To imagine otherwise or to assert growth was exclusively an affair between the soul and God, cuts us off from the rich tradition interpreting growth as paying forward God’s love in one’s love for others. The radicals’ estrangement from their magisterial Protestant colleagues was, I believe, part of their witness to the faith’s resistance to compromise and not, as has been said—especially with reference to early Swiss Anabaptism—a necessity forced upon them and only then turned into a virtue. Emphasis on the radicals’ “hard-earned countercultural identities” (87–88) suggests Kroeker agrees and thinks them well worth preserving without sacrificing the obligation of compassion. And if so, he might not object to one wedging in a few references to the urgency expressed by the radical who, for a short time, while Luther was in hiding, presided over the reformation in Wittenberg, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt.
Kroeker decided to follow his fine exposition of the existential basis of Anabaptist witness, documenting the two directions that “apocalyptic eschatology” took by contrasting Thomas Müntzer’s militant effort to “establish the Reformation through the visible community of believers” with Michael Sattler and Schleitheim. The chapter is neatly packed and paced. If one were to calculate the distance between Luther’s less ethically strenuous—politically more prudent—solafideism and the obligation of compassion so central to the Anabaptists’ witness, Karlstadt’s tactics to “establish . . . the visible community of believers” suffice. He worried that Catholic prelates would dissimulate to win the confidence of their religiously reformed neighbors and exploit reformers’ delays to restore the veneration of those idols remaining in many of the city’s churches. Genuine love (rechte Liebe) occasionally required disruptive, iconoclastic measures, Karlstadt insisted, claiming that magisterial reformers, who said that neighbor-love required authorities to be patient with those of feebler faith, the partially or half-heartedly reformed, mistook condescension for compassion.1
Karlstadt should count among “Luther’s more radically apocalyptic fellow reformers” (102). After returning to Wittenberg in 1522—in effect, evicting Karlstadt—Luther paired his predecessor with Müntzer. Their impatience endangered his reformation. For his part, Karlstadt was accepted the call to another parish. There, he prohibited infant baptism but is rarely cast as an Anabaptist; nonetheless, his emphasis on genuine love echoed in the work of others who were and who applied it similarly. The prolific Pilgram Marpeck, who was with Sattler in Strassburg, disavowed the use of stinging rebuke, yet he made fraternal correction the principal expression of rechte liebe. He speculated that such compassion might not only maintain discipline in the sectarians’ communities but also throw unloving others elsewhere off their game. The love circulating in communities in diaspora, that is, might net for the evangelical faith—and for the radicals’ communities—persons whose cunning may have made them successful in the ways of this world but whose longing for something more (and different) left them restless.2
All I’ve done in haste is to add a few examples from the early history of the radicals’ reformations to emphasize a point that Kroeker italicizes using specimens from the sixteenth century and insightfully drawing in examples from contemporary literature. In a discussion that branches from Chaim Potok’s Asher Lev to Hasidic cosmology and Martin Buber, he stipulates that Anabaptism’s “existential theology as a way of life,” much as Karlstadt, is “not be afraid to break those idols . . . that enclose, entomb, encapsulate the light of God’s presence in the world.” This is an immensely important provision to attach to every conversation about diaspora ethics, inasmuch as sectarians then and now, Kroeker knows, are taken to be defending “narrowly and self-righteously” their “partial truth[s]” (89–90). So, welcoming contemporary sources into the discussion of radicals’ estrangement and witness or mining for early sixteenth-century sources for both, one should always confirm that growing the seed at the base of existential theology means not only “cultivating [the] meaning” of God’s saving power in the disciplined lives of committed community members,” but also opposing unrighteousness.
The early Anabaptists were known to offer concessions. In 1538, just before Bernese preachers adjourned their disputation with local Anabaptists, Matthis Wiser proposed to omit names from the radicals’ indictments of unrighteousness, sparing the town’s leading citizens—and perhaps a few of its reformed pastors—if only he and his fellow radicals could define and despise iniquity in general terms. Presumably fearing the repercussions from general criticism, Bern’s authorities ordered the execution of Anabaptist spokesmen and, should reindoctrination fail, of persistent lay critics.3
My only reservation, as I collected a few additional early sixteenth-century proponents of diaspora ethics and add them to Kroeker’s lineup, concerned his suggestion that their fate was to fall in “a war of messianic sovereignty over against all other political sovereignty” (167). Putting Sattler back into the discussion here, Kroeker astutely pairs pacifism with belligerence to remind us of “the war aged by martyrs.” The question I’ll raise when I conclude with Giorgio Agamben is whether we might also (or better) consider the martyrs’ wars and messianic political theology as campaigns against the very logic of sovereignty. But before that, I want to appreciate what Kroeker has done with and for Augustine.
His book’s discussions of Augustine’s political theology are perceptive and, as I said, especially timely, for it became fashionable over a decade ago to turn Augustine into a Clinton Democrat, to have him advocate significant political improvements in his time and provide resources for an “ethic of democratic citizenship.” That he could have been the theorist and protagonist of diaspora ethics was unthinkable as long as estrangement was the dominant precondition for its witness. Alas, matters have gone from bad to worse recently, for he now enters political science journals as an Obama Democrat, a champion of hope and of the changes that would, these admirers of an unconvincing Augustine say, renovate the civic order. His controversies with the Manichees did lead him persistently to propose “the ontological and moral priority of goodness” in creation, yet that hardly means that the fabric of political culture could be laundered by the civically or religiously pious. Malfeasance prevailed. And Augustine was too mindful of the lusts for domination, the obsessions with possessions, and the self love in the terrestrial city—a city of gaud—to “carve out” a political role for love and hope amounting to more than damage control, well shy of a messianic transformation.4
Would-be reformers were far more restricted than they imagined. Augustine was all too familiar with the difficulties they faced reading political players’ motives. He explained that the secret chambers in every mind were inaccessible. One could cite his many repudiations of the Donatists’ and Pelagians’ claims to read and evaluate character correctly, but one might contend that the bishop’s polemical purposes make them less reliable, so contemplate for a moment a sermon in which Augustine confided his own difficulties reading parishioners at prayer. Their postures suggested piety, but were they praying for deliverance from sin or for relief from the creditors hounding them? Did they understand the liturgy? Were they expressing gratitude to God or making demands on their deity?5 The lesson, that most motives are obscure, is hardly irrelevant if one wants to “carve out” significant roles for theological virtues in addressing a tangle of political vices, which, as noted, ostensibly displayed a devotion to self-promotion that, for Augustine, fueled the lust for domination and was the one motive an informed onlooker could see driving provincial and imperial political practice. So Augustine suggested that the faithful mistrust the hopes, affections, and faith expressed by the impresarios of what he called “the business of Babylon” and cultivate a different hope, faith, and love from those of and in this wicked world (in hoc saeculo maligno).6 Hence, Kroeker is quite right; aside from a few unguarded remarks in letters to magistrates Macedonius and Marcellinus, which the acolytes of Clinton-Augustine and Obama-Augustine misread as typical, Augustine saw life as “a struggle between the city of God and the earthly city over the true (spiritual and political) meaning of justice and peace” (159). This side of the grave “the spiritual and political tension between the two cities” sketched in Augustine’s compendious City of God is ineradicable. So Kroeker’s calls are sound. The conflict between the two cities along with the messianism of Augustine’s political theology are apocalyptic (49).
But Kroeker seems disappointed that Augustine was not consistently uncompromisingly apocalyptic. The bishop was opposed to sectarian secession. The Donatist Christians he rebuked were not altogether unlike early modern Anabaptists. For Augustine, diaspora was something of a state of mind, consciousness that one was a pilgrim passing through, and not a citizen at home in this wicked world. As a prelate and pastor, looking out for the welfare of his parishioners, he sometimes appeared to be complicitous with authorities. A notorious passage in his City of God consoles a Christian magistrate who, given the clogged docet of the courts and authorized by a grim custom, tortures witnesses and accused alike to get to the truth. Augustine tells him to do what is expected yet to pray for deliverance from such “necessities.”7 Kroeker infers from this that Augustine “advocated participation in the liturgy of torture” (62). That might be a tad too strong. Augustine grudgingly allowed some unsettling practices. If the faithful were called to government service, they ought to serve. He endorsed their participation in what Kroeker aptly describes as “the security state.” Early in his career, Augustine sought ways to escape political obligations. He had been politically ambitious and, as an orator with influential colleagues, he was well on his way when he wearied of delivering fraudulent, encomiastic accounts of clients’ virtues to auditors who knew he was lying. He gave it all up even before his conversion, and he tried to interest colleagues in forming countercultural communities for learned conversation and study to escape the snares set by ordinary affairs (vincula . . . hujus mundi).8 Once he committed to Christianity, he realized that the escape he had sought would be temperamental and was a gift from God. As for the sixteenth-century radical reformers, the gift would be a seed planted by God and would inaugurate Christ’s reign “in the hearts of the citizens of the city of God on pilgrimage in the world.” There’s no better exposition of this and of the “vision of justice that lives by faith” than Kroeker’s (58–59).
The diaspora ethics related to Augustine’s apocalyptic political theology are, to my mind, less conspicuous and more qualified—due to the duties of his pontificate—than the diaspora ethics of the Anabaptists, but Kroeker deploys Augustine effectively against those to whom he refers as “Hyper-Augustinians [who] foster a seamless and puritanical connection between piety and the social order” (47–48). As a bonus, his results also decisively dismantle the connections political ethicists forge between Augustine’s piety and civic piety. When correspondent Nectarius looked to compare the latter to Christian piety, Augustine answered; admiring patriotism, he refused in no uncertain terms to link it with Christianity.9 Neither patriotism nor public service could be counted on to address the challenges social disharmony and political competition posed in late antiquity as long as concupiscence burned in youth and alternately smoldered and reignited thereafter. In Augustine’s judgment, pastors defining piety for their parishioners—and preaching deliverance from evil—were well advised to disregard the vagaries of political life. He stepped further: they should shame devotees of the security state (albeit profiting from the security it offered) and promote a grateful acceptance of the strength grace offers nature to pay God’s love forward.10
To Giorgio Agamben, the security state is far more than an obstacle to piety. Agamben drags large clumps of the Western intellectual tradition—from classical antiquity to postmodern political theory—into his criticisms of sovereignty and of the marketplace, media, and sovereign powers (be they institutions or persons) keeping individuals—Agamben calls us “singularities”— from realizing the insidious influence of statists and capitalists. Kroeker’s study has misgivings about Agamben, who, grazing in the Pauline epistles, misses their “apocalyptic mood” (5). Yet something can be teased from Agamben’s screed against the security state—in his lexicon, “the state of exception”—that might complement what Kroeker has done. To be sure, Agamben will not look to the church for answers. Churches, he says, have clotted the messianic message and adopted many of the juridical protocols and apparatuses statists use to keep singularities from realizing their potential (ha congelato l’evento messianico). It is a claim the early Anabaptists might have made, as he did, to oppose “the Christian ethic of [genuine] love” to the juridical compromises propose as prudent measures. Agamben seems to have overlooked the apostle’s “apocalyptic mood” yet presses for accountability and declares that a decisive reckoning is at hand (viene . . . a una resa dei conti decisiva).11
But one must not get overexcited. Agamben is sure only of what will be deactivated and “nullified” and unsure of what alternatives would take the place of conventional protocols. He suspects only that they will develop from the insights of outliers—refugees or pariahs—who acquire unique perspective on the apparatuses that enslave them. And, despite his attention to religion, which surfaces in many of his volumes, Agamben seems to know (or care) little about radicals, either the Reformation’s or contemporary communities in diaspora. Addressing “the church of Christ sojourning in Paris” (how Augustinian!), he grieves that established churches shuttered their eschatological windows (sportello escatologico).12 Secular countercultures disappointed; ditto, the avant-gardes promising to cross cultural frontiers. To Agamben, the promise, which was spiritual, becomes commercial; resourceful sovereign powers, he suggests in one of his earliest works, know to commodify nonconformity and put off messianic revivals.13
For Augustine, some solace seems on offer in God’s presence to the faithful, sustaining pilgrims’ longing for their celestial home. They neither long for nor look for any comprehensive reconstruction of this wicked world. The corruption of political cultures and the corruptibility of humanity prevent civic regeneration from approximating anything, over which God would want to claim sovereignty. The rule of God, in spiritual terms, amounts to a breakthrough to believers, specifically, God’s descent in the gifts of faith, love, and longing.14 I imagine this would pass as a preamble to Augustine’s “existential theology” and correspond with Kroeker’s presentation of the radical reformers’ existential theology. And we may imagine Augustine endorsing Kroeker’s apocalytpic messianism, particularly its insistence that “the rule of God can only be construed in material terms as a direct sovereignty . . . which . . . has political purchase only . . . at the second coming.” And it is improbable that he would object, as Kroeker continues to clarify that “in between, [God’s rule] has force only as a doctrinal teaching requiring the consent of faith, a private matter that makes no reference to some imagined spiritual agency or order with political significance here and now” (72–73). If Kroeker would allow that “private matter” to find communal expression, as it did among Anabaptists, and would allow opposition to the sovereign powers’ dehumanizing “state of exception”—and to the logic of sovereignty inexorably leading to it—to count as “political significance here and now,” he might find Agamben a more promising resource for diaspora ethics, if not also for apocalyptic messianism. To be sure, Agamben’s alternative poleis are neither christocentric nor theocentric (and they have yet to acquire the degree of specificity that would make their estrangement and witness comparable to the communities Kroeker studies), yet Agamben’s apocalypticism and secular version of messianism get played into his hopes that readers undertake what could be construed as micro-Armaggedons, intense combat (corpo a corpo) with the apparatuses that sovereign powers devise to keep them captive.15 Just a thought.
See Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, “Ob man gemach verfahren und die Schwachen mit Ärgenisse verschonen soll in Sachen, so Gottes Willen angehen,” in Der Linke Flügel der Reformation: Glabenszeugnisse der Täufer, Spiritualisten, Schwärmer und Antitrinitar, ed. Heinold Fast (Bremen: Schünemann, 1962), 253–54, 262–65.↩
Pilgram Marpeck, Von der Liebe, in Briefe und Schriften oberdeutscher Täufer, 1527–1555: Das “Kunstbuch” des Jörg Probst Rotenfelder, gen. Maler, ed. Heinhold Fast, Gottfried Seebass, and Martin Rothkegel (Gütersloh: Güttersloher Verlagshaus, 2007), 157.↩
For Wiser’s offer, see Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer in Der Schweiz, vol. 4, ed. Martin Haas (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1974), 459.↩
But compare this assessment with those in Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), and Michael Lamb’s forthcoming “Between Presumption and Despair: Augustine’s Hope for the Commonwealth,” American Political Science Review.↩
Augustine, sermon 22(A).1. References to Augustine’s work are given by titles or abbreviated titles and employ the customary section divisions. Access to J. P. Migne’s edition of Augustine’s works in Patrologia, series Latina is convenient—http://www.augustinus.it/latino/index/htm—but I also consulted Augustine’s works in a more recent and critical edition, Corpus scriptorium ecclesiasticorum Latinorum.↩
Augustine, De civ. Dei 18.49 and 18.54; for “the business of Babylon,” Augustine, Enar. in Ps. 136.1.↩
Augustine, De civ. Dei 19.6.↩
Augustine, Conf. 6.6.9; Augustine, Soliloq. 1.19.6; and Augustine, letters 26.2 and 27.6.↩
Augustine, epistle 91.1.↩
Augustine, Contra Julianum opus imperfectum 2.235 and 3.26–27.↩
Giorgio Agamben, Mezzi senza fine: Note sulla politica (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri), 104–5.↩
Giorgio Agamben, La chiesa e il Regno (Rome: Nottetempo, 2010), 15. “The sojourning church,” though Augustinian in temper, is, of course, drawn from Clement’s letter from Rome to Corinth.↩
Giorgio Agamben, Stanze: La parola e il fantasma nella cultura occidentale (Turin: Einaudi, 1977), 63.↩
Augustine, Soliloq. 1.2.22; Augustine, De gratia et libero arbitrio 19.40.↩
Giorgio Agamben, Che cos’è un dispositivo? (Rome: Nottetempo, 2006), 26.↩
Yoderian Messianism Isn’t My Cup of Tea
Within the world of Mennonites, identity is often a highly contested topic. Passions run deep and opinions strong in and among the various subgroups who claim the name. The interplay between Anabaptism and Mennoniteism is an added piece of these conversations and debates. When I picked up Travis Kroeker’s volume this backdrop came to the foreground and I read the essays picking up on the subtleties that allow me to suss out that Kroeker’s from Mennonite Brethren (MB) background which is quite different from the “Old” Mennonite (MC) background I am from. In the Canadian context Mennonites, in part because of their national context of multiculturalism, tend to be regarded as an ethnic group as much as, if not more than, a religious or confessional group. That is, because of different patterns of immigration from Europe to the Americas, for some Canadian Mennonites, of which Kroeker is one, being “Mennonite” is a complex identity involving the narratives of exile and patterns of assimilation. In my ornery and idealistic moments, I object to our ethnocentric ways on theological grounds: “As part of the Believers’ Church tradition the only way one can be Mennonite is by being an active member of a Mennonite congregation,” I want to insist.
But religious identity is never this neat and tidy. And this is at the heart of my response to Kroeker’s collection of essays. In addition to using my personal ecclesial connection to Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics (however tenuous given the historical, geographical, ethnic, cultural, and denominational differences between MCs and MBs), I am interested in assessing these “essays in exile” from a few additional perspectives or paradigms. First is the theological methodology known as “lived theology” conceptualized and developed by participants in the Project on Lived Theology’s Virginia Seminar. Second is Rosemary Radford Ruether’s perspective on messianism developed over the years beginning with her 1970 The Radical Kingdom: The Western Experience of Messianic Hope.
In addition to being a Mennonite Church USA Mennonite, I join this discussion as a seminary professor, and the model/paradigm of theological education we use identifies our seminary as having a “twofold vocation” that involves educating Christian ministers and preparing people to provide “theological leadership for the teaching ministry of the churches” (quoting from our foundational document “Theological Education and Ministerial Formation in Mennonite Perspective”). My alignment with AMBS’s paradigm is tight making my alignment with the Project on Lived Theology as described in the 2017 collection of essays Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy equally as tight because both my teaching context and my methodological approach to theology are interested in questions like these: “How might theological writing, research, and teaching be expanded or reimagined so as to engage lived experience with maximum care and precision? How might the discipline of theology, in its method, style, and pedagogy, appear anew if narrated accounts of faith-formed lives were appropriated as essential building blocks of theological knowledge?”1 In the introductory essay, Charles Marsh, following Ainsley Quiros’s lead, distinguishes between lived religion and lived theology—where lived religion focuses on human practices, artifacts, behaviors, beliefs to better understand religious phenomenon, lived theology turns toward these things “to understand God’s presence in human experience.”2
I frontload my essay with these details to explain that as a professional theologian, I attend to the task of theology as one that presents as confessional, ecclesial, and ecological before it makes any clear philosophical turn. In other words, I am a theologian so I can help the parts of the Christian church I am linked to weave together our worship, our community-building, and our critical reflection on our particular and shared lives of faith. This leads me to a place where I stand at a significant distance from theology and ethics as an endeavor concerned with Yoderian messianism.
I do not mean to stand at this distance saying, “Yoder got it all wrong.” I say things more like “Yoder’s has never been the only voice” and “It’s important to remember there is a tradition of Anabaptism and many streams of Mennoniteism before, during, and after Yoder.” The center of gravity for many of us may have been John Howard Yoder, but allowing his influence to dominate us is simply ordinary subordination, nothing revolutionary.
* * *
As I read Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics I began at the beginning, but soon decided to turn to the twelfth essay, “Mennonite and Métis: Adjacent Histories, Adjacent Truths?” with Métis scholar Carole Leclair. Given my lived theology and feminist proclivities, I wish this would have been the opening essay. While the ordering may demonstrate a developmental trajectory, my criticism comes from a wish to see the insights Kroeker offers there to be a lens through which to read and interpret the rest of his essays.
One of my greatest puzzlements as a Christian theologian (both confessionally and professionally) has been and continues to be this: Why don’t more of my men colleagues engage feminist theology and the women who develop it? I pose this question here because there are both feminist theologians and scholars within the Mennonite sphere and because there are feminist theologians and scholars beyond our immediate sphere and conversations all who care deeply about social change and transformation, which is what messianism is all about (I will elaborate on this point below).
I want to be careful my confusion does not come across as sour grapes or a cheap shot as a new day for gender justice is dawning. In fact I am asking my question because with multiple generations of critical, woman-centered scholarship available—scholarship birthed through cries “the personal is political”—the persistence of such scholarship remaining on the margins of political theology projects like Kroeker’s is disheartening. To be sure, our conversation partners are who they are for all kinds of reasons, and in “Mennonite and Métis,” Kroeker demonstrates how he has extended his table of conversation partners.
Kroeker learns from this exchange with Leclair that as theologians “our first task is a disciplined, open attention” because the work we do and world we do it in have not “fostered such vulnerable attention very well” (203). He goes on to note the importance of particularity for nurturing spiritual disciplined cultural practices that enable resistance to the global progressivism he believes “requires the oblivion of many forms of life and knowledge crucial for the flourishing of human dwelling” (204). Really?
Kroeker’s critique of global progressivism has its roots in Walter Benjamin’s 1940 essay “On the Concept of History”3 with a stark and terrifying description of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus.4 While I find Benjamin’s lament powerful and his Hebraic sense of time and history compelling, I think the opposite of Benjamin’s angel is closer to John Gast’s American Progress (i.e., imperialist progressivism) more than it is to forms of liberalism and progressivism that help eradicate disease, build better solar panels, or create space for women to be their own light, rather than reflect the light of men.5 The hybridity, particularly in the postcolonial sense of the word, of our lives in the twenty-first century certainly brings into focus how difficult it is to sustain monolithic interpretations of reality. (If there’s one thing we Menno-types are good at, it’s taking cheap shots at various forms of “liberalism” without acknowledging where we would be personally, ecclesially, and intellectually without it.)
Held together with a commitment to bioregional particularity,6 some forms of progressivism manifest as a natural compliment to any number of movements seeking to support human flourishing. Consider those organized to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery which has, through the work of Mennonites Sarah Augustine, Elaine Enns, Alison Brookins, and others, brought into focus Mennonite settler paradigm of ethno-religious identity Kroeker is being reflective about.
I got stuck on these issues because I don’t share Kroeker’s appreciation of Augustine’s apocalypticism as a point of departure for political theology in an Anabaptist-Mennonite key, even as I appreciate the kind of honesty it affords him, specifically in the essay titled “Rich Mennonites in an Age of Mammon.” My own methodological approach involves turning to Ruether. While her treatment of Anabaptism is limited, she rightly notes in several of her writings an important theological feature of the Radical Reformation: contrary to Martin Luther’s “alien righteousness” the lefties of the Protestant Reformation conceptualized human nature not from a place of fallenness but from a place of origin. The truth of human nature is defined first by our original and natural capacity for God and second by sin against and rebellion from God. (This corresponds to Pilgram Marpeck’s teaching on Gegenerb, our counter-inheritance from Adam and Eve.) Furthermore, I point to Ruether because she, I think rightly, characterizes Radical Reformers as heirs of late medieval mysticism and pietism more than the Magisterial Reformers were. But here is another essential point: seeing salvation in an extrinsic rather than intrinsic way, the Magisterial Reformers followed Augustine in ways the Radical Reformers simply didn’t.7 In other words, for whatever else may be in the bath water the proverbial baby is contentedly splashing around in, we Mennonites have yet to grapple with our tradition’s relatively high theological anthropology, something that puts us at some odds with Augustine. I consider this gap to be both tragic and ironic given how vital discipleship is within our worldview.
The messianic and exilic components of Kroeker’s project are understandable given Russlander experience and context, but one of the things I think we generally fail to perceive is the way Yoder’s use of messianism (and to some extent exile) became a tool to insulate himself from politics, either of the victorious Lamb or the compromised, responsible State while being deeply embroiled in them from the beginning of his so-called experiment in Christian sexual ethics until the day he died. Messianism, like other forms and ideologies of social change, is never meant to be neutral change, Ruether explains. “[An] ideology of change always implies conversion or redemption: a change from an old, bad, fallen, lost, or inauthentic state to a new, good, restored, and redeemed state of existence.”8 She goes on to describe our deep longing to transcend our own conditions and state of affairs. When possessed by a spirit of change, we want to leap beyond our present moment to something new and better in a future we can’t quite locate.9 Using Ruether’s approach to the same theme in Western Christianity I can see how thoroughly human messianism truly is.
Ultimately, I believe the primary tasks of Anabaptist-Mennonite political theology involve:
- Revisiting the varieties of peace theology that preceded and were contemporaneous with Yoder’s “pacifism of the messianic community” to make critical assessments of them;
- Identifying the current manifestation of persistent social problems and challenges we believe the church is called to move toward, wrestle with, and determine its relationship to in ways that are sociologically honest (i.e., many of the “world’s” problems are also problems for the many particular groups of people who make up the global Anabaptist-Mennonite communion both internally and in relation to broader contexts);
- Adapting “worldly” practices for Christian discipleship by articulating their theological integrity and outlining biblical resonances so practices such as accountability, compassion, forgiveness, hospitality, and reconciliation having meaning and involve hard soul-work;
- Asking questions that keep us tethered in the present with a clear-eyed view of the past and inward eyes dreaming of a future, all so we might discern what is just, what nurtures, and what saves.
Thus, I confess, I believe Yoderian messianism misses the mark and thus isn’t my cup of tea.
Charles March et al., eds., Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 6.↩
March et al., Lived Theology, 7, emphasis mine.↩
Stuart Jeffries, “The Storm Blowing from Paradise,” Verso, August 2, 2016, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2791-the-storm-blowing-from-paradise-walter-benjamin-and-klee-s-angelus-novus.↩
Rosemary Radford Ruether, The Radical Kingdom: The Western Experience of Messianic Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 23.↩
Ruether, Radical Kingdom, 2.↩
Ruether, Radical Kingdom, 4.↩
Mennonites and the Apocalyptic:
Is There an Ecclesiology in the Apocalypse?
Apocalyptic makes Mennonites uncomfortable. I write that not as commentary on any “official” position of Mennonites, nor as the result of some social scientific survey of Mennonite attitudes, but rather as commentary on what I have witnessed to be a perfectly understandable reaction to the increasing security this Anabaptist tradition finds—or hopes to find—in Western societies. Regardless of the disruption that the liberal political traditions seem to find themselves in today—with the rising tide of nationalism and right-leaning political ideologues—there endures a movement on the left that seems welcoming to the peace and justice concerns that have come to characterize Mennonite witness in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Anabaptism and “the Resistance” seem to get along quite well. Admittedly, not all Mennonites are politically left-leaning, but I do think for much of the Mennonite church, especially in what passes as Anabaptist theology and Mennonite social engagement, there is a certain friendly correlation between their respective social concerns. Apocalyptic, on the other hand, is an embarrassment.
How might apocalyptic be an embarrassment for Mennonites? One might recall the way “Mennonite” came to be a descriptor for certain Anabaptists. Followers of Melchior Hoffmann were struggling to find a peaceable way of existence following the radically militant and apocalyptic Münster uprising that ended in utter disaster with the subsequent and sudden scattering of every type of Anabaptist—apocalyptic or otherwise. They found this under the leadership of Menno Simons. But with Menno, the spiritual impetus that had manifested itself in the outward militant attempt to purify the world at Strasbourg and Münster, did not simply go away with the collapse of the millenarian experiment, but rather turned inward in the wake of that tragedy.1 The Anabaptists that found a way to survive as “Mennonites” continued the project of purification but now it was carried out as an attempt to purify the hearts of believers and the church, the effect being the continued splintering of the Anabaptist communities again and again as the ban did its work. To the extent that Münster was an apocalyptic drama unfolding in violent and disruptive ways, the apocalyptic—at least in its outward political manifestations—came to be the opposite of what “Mennonite” described. “Mennonites” were not Münster Anabaptists, they were not apocalypticists, instead they would come to be known as the Stillen im Lande. Given this history—or at least my reading of it—one cannot blame the distrust of apocalyptic by Mennonites.
Of course, the historical difficulty with apocalyptic did not lead to a return to onto-theology or classical orthodoxy; such a move would be, for many, a return to Rome or to Zwingli, not to mention nearly impossible on the run. Anabaptists found a way to survive as radicals within a different sort of theological performance. Such a performance was not necessarily un-apocalyptic, but was apocalyptic in a different way. If it was apocalyptic it was a quiet apocalypse, not unlike the Pauline messianism that P. Travis Kroeker describes in this collection of essays. Nevertheless, apocalyptic remains difficult for Mennonites.
In our own time, a certain distancing from apocalyptic has been seen in the purposeful furtherance of the ecclesiocentric, practice-oriented theology that emerged from post-liberalism, influenced by the appropriation of Alasdair MacIntyre’s work in After Virtue. An ecclesiology of community, tradition, and practice seems in many respects to describe the long history of Mennonite witness in North America and offers a way of framing that witness as a gift to the broader church. John Howard Yoder’s work and the promotion of it by Stanley Hauerwas has made the Mennonite church an example of what it means to be a peculiar people called out by God, in but not of the world. To the extent that apocalyptic would disrupt this communitarian, almost onto-ecclesiological vision, it reenters the scene as an embarrassment. Either that or it is inscribed within a cultural-linguistic framework that gives us a language and grammar, but stops short of genuine apocalyptic irruption.
Nevertheless, the sort of apocalyptic that is emerging today, much of which comes from those of us who have journeyed with Yoder and Hauerwas, attended Ecclesia Project gatherings, and even moved into the Mennonite Church,2 disrupts the MacIntyrian vision of the church by questioning the way in which an emphasis on tradition and practice substantiates the church. When I read Kroeker’s account of Pauline messianism, supported, among others, by Walter Benjamin and Jacob Taubes, I sense the sort of apocalyptic rumblings that would threaten to disrupt the Stillen im Lande, and the ethical vision of the peaceable kingdom. There is emerging, in dialogue with the Hauerwasian appropriation of Yoder, an account of apocalyptic that is peculiarly messianic, peculiarly Pauline, but in many respects, not ecclesiocentric.
In the essay titled “Living as if Not,” Kroeker quotes Taubes, who takes up Nietzsche’s criticism of atonement, specifically the way it is institutionalized within Christendom: “Christianity hypostatizes sacrifice rather than abolishing it, and this perpetuates it” (27). To the extent that the sacramental is the hypostatizing of the sacrificial (whether the eucharist, baptism, or other sacrament) do sacramental, and other liturgical, practice-centered ecclesiologies, promote a church that imposes its presence, as polis or other community, that is, in Taubes’s words, an “entanglement?” To what extent is Paul’s messianism a rejection of this ecclesial presence and to what extent does this call for a significantly revised account of ecclesiology? I think that it is clear in Kroeker’s work that the political theology he is suggesting is just the sort that would unsettle any sort of “onto-ecclesiology.”
For example, in the same essay, summing up Badiou, Kroeker writes, “Badiou is faithful to Paul’s messianic logic when he says it critiques all onto-theologies . . . a messianic identity or movement may not become a discourse of glorification that builds a new economy of power and wisdom on the strength of the ineffable” (29). In the same long paragraph he continues, this time drawing on Stanislaus Breton, “The power of the cross thus confounds every ‘what is’ that may be desired by the weakness of ‘what is not,’ and this ‘meontological mission’ is the focus of Paul’s gospel.” The church, in this account, must be continually moving outside of itself in mission, “in quotidian service to the least,” in a “dispossessive exilic love” (29). But “exile” as an ecclesiological trope can signal several different things, as can the term “diaspora.” Both exile and diaspora can be theological themes that encourage the work of securing, through liturgical and political means, the space required for the Christian community to maintain its worldview, its cultural and linguistic framework against the encroachment of the secular. It is this latter temptation that seems to have influenced much Mennonite theology. Perhaps this is the distinction between the term “exile” being used as either a noun or a verb. To be “exiled” is to be moved out of one’s home into a foreign place. To be in “exile” is to be in a relative state of establishment in a place that is not your home. To the extent that apocalyptic is another theological trope brought alongside exile and diaspora, the result might just be to keep the exilic on the move, so to speak. This is because apocalyptic suggests a mode of being that expects the irruptive and unsettling. The paragraph ends with Kroeker’s analysis that “such a dispossessive, exilic love serves ‘what is not’ not out of resentment or impotence but because God creatively acts ex nihilo in a love that is endlessly kenotic and dispossessive rather than acquisitive and accumulative” (29). I take it that this posture of dispossessiveness is just the sort of ecclesiology that opens up space for the apocalyptic, or God’s act, ex nihilo. But this begs the question that I have been avoiding until now: What, precisely, do we mean by “apocalyptic”?
In the essay on Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan, Yoder’s work on ecclesiology is described to be not focused on authority, institution, or doctrine, but rather on the “sociological . . . and liturgical . . . ‘marks’ of the community that believes Christ embodies the cosmic rule of God and lives out that story” (116). Kroeker rightly asks, at the end of that essay, for “a more ecumenical approach to theological politics, an apocalyptic political discernment and ecclesial practice that restores the connections between various human communities and cultures in a reconciling, life-giving mutuality, over against the violent destructiveness of various forms of empire homogeneity and domination” (129). Again, I sense in these descriptions the tension between the sociological, constructive “onto-ecclesiology” and the apocalyptic, “as if not” that locates the being of the church eccentrically, that is, in the very action of the living God: ex nihilo and pneumatological. Is the church a social project or a dispossessive event which, like the Spirit, exists only for us as we can see its effects?
I think Mennonites live at the crossroads of this tension. The apocalyptic continually challenges the church to remember its diasporic roots but the sociological continually tempts it to find a home within the world, in exile, sure, but a comfortable if politically active exile. If the Mennonite Church were to accept the apocalyptic, and find its existence in the very act of the living God, what sort of ecclesial existence might that look like today?
Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics
Essays in Exile
In some ways, it might be said that this book is too early. In other ways, however, it might be described as being too late. The themes and questions it sets out to address are at once premature and overdue. It is too late in the sense that the wave of apocalyptic political and theological reflection that was at its height about ten years ago appears to have crested and is arguably on the wane. Insofar as apocalyptic thought names an academic movement, then, it might be suggested that this book appears to have missed its moment. It is too early in the sense that it speaks of that which is still yet to come. Apocalyptic theology is a discourse of hope that cannot be said to capture what it strives to name in any sort of settled way. This has everything to do with form and not just content. Interpreted charitably, this also helps to explain another sense in which the book might be described as being too early, namely that it consists of a collection of essays that reflect upon a series of overlapping themes and conversations but fall well short of the elaboration of a fully developed and carefully articulated position. These essays, in other words, read like a collection of loose, maybe even ragged or frayed, threads rather than a tightly woven fabric. In this respect, it is not so much a completed work as it is a work in progress that has not quite reached the moment where its key positions are presented in their fully elaborated form. In each of these respects, the book might be described as a series of meditations that are both untimely with respect to wider academic trends and are also somewhat out of sync with themselves. I mention this, however, not because I take it to be a weakness. On the contrary, I think it is one of the most compelling aspects of the book, especially with respect to how it might be read alongside other work that presents itself as apocalyptic. Let me try to explain by commenting on each of these two forms of untimeliness in turn.
I will begin with the sense in which this book could be described as being too early. To be sure, the overall flow of the book is somewhat uneven and irregular. On the one hand, there is a sense in which the thematic connections that hold these essays together are underdeveloped in such a way that it is not always clear how the discussion carries forward from one conversation to the next. Some of the chapters read as self-contained conversations that could benefit from an account of how they contribute to the stated overall theme of the book. On the other hand, there are moments where the discussion is rather repetitive. There are some chapters that read as if they are different ways of saying much the same thing. But despite these limitations, one of the things I like most about this collection of essays is that they capture the sense in which Travis Kroeker is a conversational and convivial thinker with a rather wide range of interests and interlocutors. There are some common dialogue partners that he returns to time and again in many of these essays. Plato, Paul, Augustine, Dostoyevsky, Benjamin, Taubes, Grant, Illich, Yoder, Berry, and O’Donovan all make fairly regular appearances across a range of different discussions. But there is also a remarkable diversity of figures, themes, and contexts that communicates a sense liveliness. Indeed, it is the range of conversations and some of the unexpected twists and turns they take that represents one of the most interesting aspects of the book. In all this, it might be suggested that the significance of this book is not so much in what Kroeker has to say, but how it is that he works. This is perhaps most evident in the two coauthored essays that are included. But these examples only serve to make explicit a characteristic that runs throughout the book as a whole.
The experience of reading this book, then, might be described as being more like peeking into the studio to see the artist at work rather than being presented with a finished product. Some might wish that the finishing touches were a bit more refined and polished so that the end product would shine more brightly. But there is also a sense in which the very substance of these apocalyptic and messianic theological reflections requires that they remain rather somewhat around the edges. In this respect, it might be argued that such an approach is a better reflection of apocalyptic and messianic impulses than it would be if it were developed more systematically. This is also reflected in the way Kroeker describes his work as one of diaspora and exile. His stance—if that is the right word for it—is not just diasporic because it is displaced from some homeland that is situated elsewhere. Rather, Kroeker’s work might be described as internally diasporic and exilic. It is displaced from itself in a way that enacts a posture of dispossession. There are many examples of such an internally diasporic approach scattered throughout these essays. But one of the more powerful moments is the essay cowritten with the Métis scholar Carole Leclair. Summarizing their conversation, Kroeker and Leclair write, “We each in our own way are calling for a more open and vulnerable way of being in the academy by accepting marginality and a greater range of cultural-linguistic expression and experience through the willing dispossession of security and dominance. This enlivening of both self-criticism and generosity will entail a movement from intellectual control to relinquishment, from dominion to more vulnerable dwelling, from possession to the exchange of (often painful) gifts, from fear to love” (204). It is notable, among other things, that key parts of the essay speak in the voice of a tension-filled “we” rather than a self-possessed “I.” Elsewhere, Kroeker speaks of the messianic mind as one whose witness arises out of the “death of a self-desiring ego” (12). That Kroeker and Leclair do not try to resolve this tension, but let it linger and seek to acknowledge its difficulty, is a good example of the sort of hopeful discourse the book seeks to embody.
With respect to the book’s apparent lateness relative to wider academic trends and conversations, it is important to recognize that Kroeker is not paddling furiously as if trying to hold on to the waning moments of any sort of academic wave. Rather, he is moving with apparent confidence in another direction and at times even swimming against the stream. In this respect, it is important to recognize how his work differs from other forms of apocalyptic theology. One way to see this is to reflect on the sorts of characters and examples Kroeker considers. Although he describes his work as a form of political theology, it is instructive to note that standard political images of militants and enemies are few and far between in these pages. It is equally striking to note the relative absence of metaphors of triumph, of explosive ruptures, of battles won and lost, and of the kingdoms and reigns they represent. These are the sorts of categories that feature prominently in much recent apocalyptic theology, even if they are thoroughly reworked in the process. But these sorts of standard political figures and categories are refreshingly absent in these pages. Instead, I am struck by the way Kroeker seeks to describe ordinary agents as political actors and to mine the political significance of ordinary forms of life. For example, the agrarian stories of Wendell Berry figure prominently in these pages, as do reflections on the ambivalent legacies of Mennonite farming communities. He also offers some beautiful reflections on the rhythms of academic life. While other forms of apocalyptic thought invoke metaphors of danger and are populated by characters who exist in situations that are best described as extreme, Kroeker turns instead to the ordinary. Call it the apocalyptic ordinary. If this is an appropriate description for the diasporic path Kroeker is navigating in these “essays in exile,” then it cuts in a different direction than what often describes itself as “apocalyptic.”
This difference might also be developed by reflecting on the way Kroeker approaches political theology as a kind of dramatic or literary form (see, e.g., 236). In an important discussion at the end of one of his essays on Yoder, Kroeker argues that theology distorted when it takes the form of a “drama of jealousy.” Instead, he suggests that it should look more like a “mysterious drama of love” (169). I think this also offers a helpful way of summarizing how Kroeker’s approach differs from other accounts of apocalyptic theology. At the risk of irresponsible oversimplification, let me simply state that I find much contemporary apocalyptic theology to be preoccupied with elaborating formal conditions that seek to secure a place for theological discourse over against a conception of the secular that is perceived as a threat to the very possibility of theological discourse.1 In this respect, I find apocalyptic theology to be overly anxious and self-conscious. At its worst moments, it comes across as possessive and territorial, driven by a desire for a sort of purity that speaks with inflections of paranoid shrillness. It also tends to be reactive and reflects a sense of impatience with those who fail to appreciate its emphasis on whatever it is that is apocalyptically revealed as “new.” In each of these ways, it might be described as a form of thought that manifests a certain sort of jealousy. This can be seen in the way it places the accent on faith and simply holds it there in a kind of emphatic way. Like a jealous spouse, it is preoccupied with the need to determine whether or not it inhabits a space—a bed?—that is entirely faithful. Kroeker, on the other hand, is more interested in moving on to consider how faith gives way to hope and love. He seeks to enact a love that turns upon a “renunciation of possessive desire” (8). In doing so, he works in a way that is more temporal than spatial. Other forms of apocalyptic theology proceed by stressing stark and hyperbolic accounts of crisis, discontinuity, and rupture. This gives the impression that it is in a frantic rush. It speaks with a sense of urgency that elides time. Kroeker, on the other hand, continually stresses the need for taking time and cultivating a patient discipline of active waiting (see, e.g., 22). He is interested in an approach to the ongoing work of love that avoids the jealous temptation of seeking to secure a love whose faithfulness can somehow be verified. Drawing on Dostoyevsky’s monastic Elder Zosima, he describes this as “active love, unlike love in dreams rooted in isolated fantasies.” At the heart of this work is the penitent acknowledgment of our own failures and limitations rather than a heroic longing for victory. Such a love is exercised in “hard work requiring daily un-glorious, ascetic perseverance in the everyday” (246). If there is any one thing I find most compelling about Kroeker’s work, is precisely this serious attempt to resist jealous thinking and his attempt to elaborate and perform a form of theological reflection that cultivates a rather different range of erotic sensibilities.
It may seem strange that a work of political theology should emphasize so strongly the work of love that we are more accustomed to seeing as domestic and private rather than public and political. But such is the beautiful strangeness of Kroeker’s work. Although he does not himself put it this way, I am tempted to suggest that Kroeker is, perhaps more than anything, a theorist of marriage. If nothing else, I think it would be just as appropriate to describe these essays as elaborating an erotic and nuptial political theology as it is to use Kroeker’s own preferred description of them as apocalyptic and messianic. Of course, it should be pointed out that apocalyptic and messianic themes are traditionally developed in terms of marriage. But Kroeker does not himself put it this way. At least, he does not do so in these essays.2 If I am right, however, in discerning traces of marriage in so many of these essays, then the question is why this is merely hinted at rather than developed more fully and explicitly. Why does the question of marriage remain unacknowledged, perhaps even avoided in this book? In speaking of acknowledgment and avoidance, I am of course invoking the favored terms of another theorist of marriage, namely Stanley Cavell. Like Kroeker, Cavell reflects on dramas of possessive jealousy in order to imagine a conception of love that is capable of acknowledging its own failings.3 And Cavell’s account of marriage as involving an openness to the possibility of re-marriage complements Kroeker’s understanding of the ongoing work of love discussed above. And both of them claim that their work arises out of significant attention to the ordinary and its literary reconstructions. This is not the place to try and stage a significant conversation between Kroeker and Cavell. Let me simply say that in reading Kroeker’s essays, I found myself frequently gravitating towards the work of Cavell, and especially his account of the complex dynamics involved in the acknowledgment and avoidance of love, of separateness, in the plays of Shakespeare. Indeed, I found myself turning to Cavell more than a few times to fill in and flesh out conversations that are merely hinted at by Kroeker and claims that are stated more than they are fully developed. Because Kroeker is such a conversational thinker, I think he would benefit from an extended engagement with Cavell’s work. So I am left wondering why Kroeker does not himself go there. Does Cavell simply fall too far outside of the traditions within which Kroeker works? Or is there something specific about Cavell that he is deliberately avoiding? If so, I’d love to hear how Kroeker would name that avoidance and how he would navigate his way through their respective conceptions of marriage.
I wonder, finally, whether my inclination towards Cavell represents a sense in which my own exilic wandering ultimately moves in a direction that points me away from that of Kroeker. While Kroeker regularly turns to Plato, Augustine, and Kierkegaard, I am more inclined to find inspiration in the work of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Wittgenstein. I find it helpful to think about the Christian life as a sort of athletic enterprise. Kroeker, on the other hand, mentions sports only to reject it in favour of “politics or religion or art” which he presumably takes to be incompatible with or at least far more important the athletic life. I could go on. But that would be to give in to the pull of the “self-desiring ego” that Kroeker rightly warns against. Perhaps this is not so much a parting of the ways as it is veering down a different path. At the end of the day, I do not find myself particularly invested in settling that question. More than anything, I am grateful that Kroeker writes in such a way as to invite others to join him in a sort of collective argument even, perhaps especially, where there might be rubs and rough edges that require us to acknowledge our separateness from one another.
For a somewhat more developed account of this claim, see my essay “The Apocalyptic Body of Christ: Reflections on Yoder and Apocalyptic Theology by Way of David Foster Wallace,” Pro Ecclesia 23.2 (2014) 125–31.↩
The theme of marriage figures more prominently in his book Empire Erotics and Messianic Economies of Desire (Winnipeg: Canadian Mennonite University Press, 2016). But given that so much of that book covers the same ground as these essays, it is all the more surprising that the question of marriage does not figure more prominently in this book.↩
See especially Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), and Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).↩