Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Defending Constantine - Or, The Scandal of Particularity, Remixed

I'm probably risking the friendship of all my fellow pacifists, as well as the respect of my Duke classmates, by even admitting that I am deeply enjoying reading Peter Leithart's fascinating book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. After all, the central argument of the author's quest to discover the truth about the Roman emperor-turned-Christian is directed squarely in the face of our beloved Stanley and his patron saint, the late John Howard Yoder:

Constantinianism is the name given by Yoder, Hauerwas, and their increasing tribe to what they consider a heretical mindset and set of habits that have distorted Christian faith since (at least) the fourth century. Most of my argument is directed at Yoder...Yoder gets the fourth century wrong in many particulars, and this distorts his entire reading of church history, which is the hinge of his theological project...In Yoder's retelling, the church "fell" in the fourth century and has not yet recovered from this fall (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010, 10-11).

For those not brainwashed by Hauerwas' (convincing to me) mandate to disciples of Jesus to practice non-violence, the basic claim Leithart fingers is this: when Constantine converted, and made Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire, he effectively translated the persecuted church from a non-violent, suffering witness, to one inexorably bound up with the violence, glory, and political machinations of the imperial project. No longer was Christ's peace sufficient for His body; the arms and hands began to desire to grip the throne of earthly power, and the legs have not stopped running in this direction since. Christians today, claim Hauerwas and Yoder, need to recapture the sense of the church as markedly distinct from all political interests - especially those of the neo-Constantinian religious right and America's self-identification as the City on the Hill to all nations - and instead, reject all recourse to violence (as well as the political sphere as a legit theatre of Kingdom agency) in favor of suffering for the sake of the Gospel of the Slaughtered Lamb, who conquered evil by taking its blows upon himself, thus revealing the true grain of the universe.

It's a noble vision, and, as I said, one I fully embrace. Too often, Christians assume that the answer is either to take up arms, or to cower in passivity - alternatives my own Lutheran tradition has never tired of exhausting. Yoder and Hauerwas challenge us to believe that in rejecting the myth of redemptive violence, we align ourselves with the very power of God who makes a way when there is no way left. That being said, I've never felt comfortable with the language of "Constantinianism," or the way that wielding it in polemical battles from the safe heights of ivory towers too easily becomes a proxy for the hard work and actual suffering involved in living out one's belief in the vocation to non-violence. Just as most college Democrats quickly become Republicans when their fortunes begin to increase and their weed supply runs dry, so too, seminary pacifism breeds, in Jeff Stout's parlance, gadflies, quick to take up the nuclear weapons of verbal beratements, while stammering to articulate a clear account of what it means to live one's espoused theology.

That's why Leithart's book is a breath of fresh air. He carefully sifts the evidence, historical and hagiographical, to demonstrate that, in fact, while Constantine might not have been St. Athanasius or Gregory of Nazianzus, nevertheless,

Constantine provides in many respects a model for Christian political practice. At the very least, his reign provides rich material for reflection on a whole series of perennial political-theological questions: about religious toleration and coercion, about the legitimacy of Christian involvement in political life, about a Christian ruler's relationship to the church, about a Christian ruler's relationship to the church, about the propriety of violent coercion, about the legitimacy of empire (ibid 11).

Leithart builds his case, showing how the overly biased historian Eusebius' account of Constantine's dramatic conversion at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge is grounded in a genuine turning to Christ on behalf of the emperor; how much ire contemporary ire towards Constantine is shaped by the blatantly revisionist and anti-Christian rhetoric of Enlightenment historians like Gibbon and later by Burkhart, hardly objective practitioners; how Constantine preached apologetic sermons aimed at persuading, rather than coercing, members of his court to follow his Lactantian (4th century Christian theologian) brand of tolerant faith; how the Edict of Milan, offering religious tolerance to all, did NOT command mandatory conversion or official requirement of Christianity as state religion; how the recent memories of the intense persecution of the church by Diocletian and Galerius had both scarred the collective Christian conscience, as well as deprived it of its best bishops and leaders, rendering them open to political assistance in a way that today's hipster/bohemian Christians have no analogue for. Leithart does not aim at hagiography; but he does seek to level the playing field of historical perception, such that evaluations of Constantine are grounded in examinations of his faith, witness, character and actions - the very standards Hauerwas and Yoder propose - rather than on pacifist metanarratives which, in their reductionism, border on participation in the very ontological violence they so passionately seek to eschew. Constantine was no saint; but he was, undoubtedly, a faithful if flawed Christian.

Admittedly, I am only about a third of the way through this book, so I eagerly await Leithart's amping up his debate with Yoder and friends. However, already, reflecting on Constantine's Christianity has sounded deep questions for my own understanding of history, and the way that God is present within its flow. One of Leithart's own espoused reasons for writing strikes particular resonance:

These political issues are of interest to Christians throughout the world, not only in the U.S. What Philip Jenkins calls the 'Southern Churches' look to be forming the 'next Christendom.' Given the prospect, root-and-branch rejection of 'Constantinianism' or 'Christendom' is doubly wrong-headed. FIrst, insofar as Northern churches still set trends for the Southern churches, our hostility to our own heritage of Christian politics encourages the Global South to ignore history we ignore. If the South is forming into a new Christendom, it is important that it learn from both the successes and failures of the first Christendom...

Secondly, the Northern churches cannot presume to be a 'teaching church' to the Southern 'listening church.' We are, I trust, long past that kind of paternalism. But if the Southern churches think that a new Christendom, Christian nations, Christian legal systems, Christian international alliances are worthy pursuing, it is condescending to dismiss these efforts with a world-weary shrug and a knowing shake of the head (ibid 12).

Leithart displays remarkable sensitivity, uncharacteristic of much Northern "emergent" theology, which tends to imagine that enlightened hipsters in large urban centers represent the rumblings of the Spirit across the globe - when in fact, such enclaves represent a privileged, often woefully ignorant, minority. Northern pacifists often proclaim non-violence out from the couches of luxury, while, like the Roman Christians who saw their bishops flayed alive, Southern Christians are all too aware, and far too shaped, by the realities of persecution, torture, and brutality to simply ignore the political structures arrayed against them. This is not me relinquishing my belief in the power of non-violence; rather, it is recognizing that those of us in comfort cannot deign to know what is best for those in pain. Very few academic accounts of Constantinianism bother to look beyond the anti-Bush, anti-evangelical reactionism of the past decade. Meanwhile, the world has left us behind.

Furthermore, the question of the genuineness of Constantine's conversion is a pressing one. As the story goes, while preparing to besiege Rome in the year 312 AD, Constantine saw a vision of a cross of blinding light in the heavens, accompanied by the Latin phrase "by this sign conquer." The general subsequently commanded that the sign of the cross be painted on all of his troops' shields, and sure enough, not only did the army avoid the cleverly devised booby-trap rigged by the Romans on the Milvian Bridge, but the force managed to reclaim Rome, and the Empire, in the name of Christ. What is overlooked, and what Leithart unearths, is how Constantine was viewed as a kind of Moses to the Romans, who suffered under the oppression of the upstart leader Maxentius, who was no friend to the Christians under his upstart rule. In crossing the Tiber, many saw Constantine recapitulating the drama of the Red Sea, liberating the persecuted believers from the tyranny of a corrupt and godless pagan government.

Politics aside, a simple but often overlooked question presents itself: did Christ really send Constantine a sign in the heavens? Ridiculous as this query might appear at first glance, it actually holds great weight for all of subsequent Christian theology, in the same way that, for example, the genuineness of the apparition of the Lady of Guadalupe to San Juan Diego at Tepayac matters, not just for Mexicans, but for all of Christendom. Hispanic theologian Robert Goizueta, writing against the presumption and paternalism of postmodern theology to subsume diversity without attending to truth claims inherent in localized particularities, writes in his extraordinary Caminemos con Jesus: Toward A Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment:

What is said in Manila ought to be considered relevant for the entire church - because what is said in Manila is what alone presupposes the uniqueness of all particular peoples, since it is being proclaimed by a particular people whose own uniqueness has historically been denied. Because it presupposes the value of particularity, what is said in Manila implies the possibility that what is said in Yale may be true...(Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999, 162)

Goizueta claims that Northerners who fetishize the quaint folksiness of third-world cultures for the sake of cultivating a personal pride in one's magnanimous sense of diversity without attending to the truth claims inherent, or even the possibility of truth claims, in those cultures, participate in the hypocritical dehumanization of the very people they claim to honor. It is not enough for Northerners to say "let's put up a Lady of Guadalupe in our sanctuary to show immigrants we love them and respect their culture" - or, as one friend of mine did, get her tattooed on one's back because she is a hip work of art. Rather, to affirm that the Guadalupe is beautiful and meaningful must also lead one to ask, "if Christ sent his Mother to a poor peasant in colonial Mexico to affirm his humanity and to teach a lesson to the European powers of domination, dehumanization, and enslavement - if Christ and Mary stand with the poor, against the rich - then what does this say about God's preferential love for the poor? How does it challenge those of us who continue to participate in their down-trodden-ness?" To affirm any truth in the apparition of Guadalupe is to affirm, in the particular, a universally binding claim: Mary DOES appear to people; she appears to the poor; and so, Christ and His Father also stand with them." Its no wonder Northerners would rather reduce her to a marketing scheme, further commodifying the profundity of the South, to maintain the illusions of power in the North. Similar challenges could be offered towards Roman Catholics by Luther's "reformation discovery," to readers of Dante's Commedia, by the revelations at Fatima, by the revival at Azuza St., or even by Joseph Smith's visions in Upstate New York, ten miles from where I grew up. We need not agree that these things truly happened; but we cannot assume a comfy Northern cultured relativist stance if we are truly to have integrity, or if we have integrity towards the truth.

The same can be said of the Constantine event. If God saw fit to assist a Roman emperor in the reconquest and subsequent opening of Empire to the possibility of Christian faith, and did so to intervene on behalf of God's beloved people blistering under the blazing flames of persecution, then at the very least, its a possibility to whose potential truth we must carefully and humbly attend. To reduce such experience merely to political expediency or pragmatism or to self-delusion is one interpretation; but if indeed the Living God appeared in the sky to Constantine, in the tradition of Moses and Joshua, then we who subscribe to the Yoderian-Hauerwasian worldview have much to account for. It need not imply that Christians are called to violent action; Constantine would be acting under direct divine authorization, something very few if any of us ever receive. But we would have to acknowledge, with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, who still honor Constantine as a saint and continued to honor emperors as religious leaders up until the present day, that God has been active in history in ways that explode the narrow categories of our present experience and longing, and that God may continue to do so, in the places we least expect, in the form of those we are least prone to recognize.

Constantine's conversion need not provide authorization for American arrogance abroad, or for the adoption of violent means for the sake of the Gospel. Its not entirely clear that the Emperor employed these means himself. But it should give us pause before we reduce his, or the experience of the vast majority of the catholic body throughout the world, to an excuse to find meaning in our otherwise mundane Northern lives. Leithart's account of Constantine invites us to reconsider the lessons that those radically different and diametrically opposed to our own context have to teach us. As my teacher J. Cameron Karter taught me at Duke, sometimes the best stance for the oppressor is simply to sit silently, and let those voices long repressed again command the airwaves. In this case, as Leithart argues, we have much to learn from Constantine - and thus, from those who continue to strive for his goals. We can only become more faithful practitioners of non-violence by practicing what we preach towards these who perhaps threaten us most.


  1. There's this hoard of agrarian rustics who claim to have seen some vision of angels charging them with the divine quest to look for a baby in a cowshed... isn't that cute? Love their folksy ways.

  2. Matthew,

    I stumbled across this post the other day. Very impressed with your reading of Leithart's argument, and I love that you incorporated Goizeuta. Looking forward to your thoughts on the conclusion.