One of the great things about Chad Pecknold’s Christianity and Politics is that he doesn’t simply offer an introductory survey on, well, Christianity and politics.  In addition to providing an overview, Pecknold also develops a sustained argument throughout the book, all of which culminates in his final chapter, “The Freedom of the Church.”  All of this makes for an incredibly enjoyable read.

So what is the main argument of the final chapter?  It is as follows:

“modern Christians have accepted a settlement that weakens authentic witness to the unity of Christ’s body.  The settlement has been a political settlement brokered by the early modern nation-state, but accepted by people whose intellect, imagination, memory, and conscience had been reformed and sometimes deformed throughout the various reform movements over time.  One of the consequences of this has been that Christians have forgotten the bonds of fraternal love that would normally order their lives, their loves, and their liberties.  Many Christians implicitly believe that there can be no argument about the visible bonds of Christian unity because they have also implicitly accepted the political settlement that guaranteed any visible unity between diverse Christians would now be provided by liberal political orders” (143).

Pecknold asks us to rediscover the “church catholic” as a countervailing force toward liberal political orders, and he’s right to note that “fresh ecumenical winds are blowing” (162) that are helping to get this vision off the ground.  Indeed, Pecknold’s book pulls off the seemingly impossible task of painting a vision of radical Christian politics that both Mennonites and Roman Catholics (and most in between) can agree upon.  It was the early church’s worship practices – namely the celebration of the Eucharist, uniting God and one another – that changed the Western imagination, “not by making powerful claims on politics, but simply by being itself” (22, quoting Sheldon Wolin).  It was a vision that “enabled a view of communal participation that made Aristotle’s vision look too small” (23).

It is therefore time for theology to reclaim the sense of the catholica – a vision for the whole rooted in the particular.  Today we face a division that “is an extension of a people who have been ordered to a unity that is political, but not a politics ordered to Christ’s Body” (144).  And it’s this last point that I can’t shake: “a politics ordered to Christ’s Body.”  There seems to be a general aversion toward referring to the church as the Body of Christ, as if to say as much entails some sense of “identity” over against the other, or as indicative of creating a stable “site” that precludes the possibility of genuine encounter or strangeness.

But I see something else happening.  As William Cavanaugh argued some 12 years ago, the real danger is not with “the identification of the church with the body of Christ.”  Cavanaugh claims that “many contemporary Christians have shied away from the image of the church as the body of Christ, for naming the church as Christ very body rings of the ecclesiastical triumphalism of the past… however, the unfaithfulness of the church in the present age is based to some extent precisely on its failure to take itself seriously as the continuation of Christ’s body in the world and to conform itself, body and soul, not to the world but to Christ” (Torture and Eucharist, 233).

Overall, I think the most challenging aspect of the book is not, as might be expected, Pecknold’s understanding of the papal office (156ff), but his claim that “we have forgotten the social location and conditions for the formation of our conscience…  We have forgetting what truly gathers us.  We have either forgotten or willfully denied that there is a communion that has already been given to us, a communion that we have not simply constructed for ourselves” (154-5).  This flies in the face of all our liberal and individualist assumptions, in effect short-circuiting our sense of autonomy.

Yet Pecknold’s final chapter recalls us to the first few sections of the book and to examine again that strange worship practice of the earliest Christians.  Under the heal of a ruthless empire, they began celebrating the corpus mysticum and in so doing, redefined political allegiance, cosmology and presented a “new configuration of being itself” (23).  Should we recover this vision of “mystical body politics” (139), I think we might stand a chance.

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