Your Aunt Myrtle’s Goldfish Bowl

Hunter’s next chapter is his review of the neo-Anabaptists. As with the previous two chapters, Hunter spends the bulk of his chapter simply summarizing the outook of the position he is discussing. Unlike the previous two chapters, it is much more difficult to tell where that position leaves off and Hunter picks up. Hunter is not identifying himself with the neo-Anabaptists here, but it would be fair to say that his treatment is much more sympathetic and respectful. Some of the names he treats here would include Stanley Hauerwas, John Yoder, and downstream, some in the radical orthodoxy orbit, like John Millbank and William Cavanaugh.

There are a few neo-Anabaptist statements recorded here by Hunter that require some comment. My first comment is one of enthusiastic agreement, although there will no doubt be some differences following hard after.

“As Hauerwas and Willimon put it, ‘The church doesn’t have a social strategy, the church is a social strategy’ The church odes not have a social ethic, it is a social ethic” (p. 161).

This is absolutely correct, but this actually causes a real problem for the neo-Anabaptist project. The church, over its history, has not had a Constantinian social strategy; the church has been a Constantinian social strategy. Before the emperor converts, the church simply is Constantinianism waiting to happen. After he converts, we of course have lots of bugs to work out. More about this shortly.

Another observation would have been funny, had it not been so sad.

“The commitment to nonviolence is paramount; the ethical mandate is always to resist coercion, whether from the state or the market” (p. 159).

Coercion from the market? But the market (rightly understood) is defined in terms of non-coercion. If the assumption is that those markets are state-run or state-manipulated, then that is a real problem, but the problem is the state, not the market. But if the coercive power of the state is not involved in market transactions, and the market is free, then there is no coercion by definition — not unless you want to define Krispy Kreme running out of a man’s very favorite kind ten minutes before he gets there as coercion. It might feel like coercion to him, I grant you, but it isn’t.

Another comment was quite revealing on several levels.

“But Jesus taught that his followers — or even the son of God! — should not attempt to ‘run the world’ (pp. 159-160).

Right. That’s the devil’s job. It is the church’s job to sit off to the side in a lawn chair and nag, hector, fuss, and pick. Call it prophetic, and you can play it in such a way as to take no responsibility whatsoever. But why then do we pray for the kingdom to come, for His will to be done, on earth as it is in Heaven? I dunno. Just something we do.

One of the stretches where it is murky whether or not Hunter is summarizing their views or including his own amens can be found on p. 154. Not surprisingly, the whipping boy is Constantine. Here you go.

“Constantinianism was reinvented in the Reformation of the sixteenth century” (p. 154). “The error of Constantine was reinvented yet again in the age of nationalism” (p. 154). “The archetype of the neo-Constantinianism was the founding of the American republic, where an informal establishment of Christianity became the basis of all the nation’s governing institutions” (p. 154). The error shared by the Christian Right and Left is that they help perpetuate “this ancient heresy” (p. 154). “As  the radical Orthodox theologians have helped to show, the Constantinian error now even extends . . .” (p. 154). [You get the drift. This is all said as though Constantinianism is a bad thing.] “The most egregious harm is done by conservative theologians — Protestant and Catholic — who continue to justify the Constantinian project” (p. 155).

As I have been continuing to work through the galleys of Peter Leithart’s magisterial Defending Constantine, I am struck by the effect that his book is likely to have — it will resemble, I believe, something akin to dropping a hand grenade into your Aunt Myrtle’s goldfish bowl. If you want a bracing experience, take something that absolutely everybody thinks he knows — e.g. that Constantinianism is bad, evil, ick, poo — and then deny that thing. Peter’s book needs a book trailer, with creepy music and everything.



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